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

 

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Four very different teams left, but they all have one thing in common

Seattle likes to punish you with the run and swarms to the ball on defense. Green Bay relies on hanging large numbers on the scoreboard, using their top-scoring offense (30.3 points/game). New England will beat you in any way possible using the veteran leadership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. And Indianapolis doesn’t have a whole bunch of playmakers, but they have one guy who leads the top passing offense in the NFL. They are the last four teams left in the NFL Playoffs. Despite their differences, they all have one thing in common and it’s a huge reason why they’re here: they have a great QB.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it's why you see four great ones left.

Quarterbacks run the NFL and it’s why you see four great ones left.

To win meaningful games in the NFL, you need to be great at the QB position. You can fly through the regular season just fine without a great one, just look at Philadelphia or Cincinnati. But if you want to be a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl, a great QB is an absolute must. Or at the very least, a great playoff QB. And it’s been that way for about the past decade. Here is a quick list of the past eleven Super Bowl QBs:

Tom Brady (2)
Ben Roethlisberger (2)
Eli Manning (2)
Peyton Manning
Drew Brees
Aaron Rodgers
Joe Flacco
Russell Wilson

Most of those are unquestionably elite QBs. The only ones who may not amaze at first glance are Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. But if you take a look at those three guys’ playoff performance, you’ll see why they were invaluable to their team. Flacco threw 11 TDs and 0 INTs on the way to winning Super Bowl 47. An absolute tear. Wilson’s numbers won’t jump out at you (524 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs in three games), but his ability to extend a play with his feet and make the smart decision just doesn’t show up on paper. You have to watch him to see just how important he is to Seattle. As for Eli, he’s never been a spectacular regular season QB. But once again, much like Flacco, he lights it up in the postseason. In his two playoff runs, Manning threw 15 TDs and only 2 INTs. That’s quite a feat for a guy considered to be an “interception machine” in the regular season. It’s worth noting that Manning dealt with the worst ranked rushing offense in 2011 and Flacco had an average defense (17th) behind him in 2012. If your QB isn’t one of the best, he better play like it when it counts. And that’s exactly what these three guys did.

No matter what happens, this won't be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

No matter what happens, this won’t be the last time Wilson or Rodgers sees the playoffs.

The other names on the list are just consistently outstanding performers. And what happened to the guys that weren’t good enough? Andy Dalton. Done in round 1. Matt Stafford. Done in round 1. Ryan Lindley. Done in round 1. See a pattern? They all lost to QBs better than them. The only exception would be Flacco over Roethlisberger in the first round, though even in that game Big Ben was outplayed.

So now here we are. Luck vs. Brady, Wilson vs. Rodgers. With great QBs at the helm for all four teams, it’s now the time to see who has the best team. Last year, I don’t think anyone would have taken Wilson over the MVP Peyton Manning, but Seattle was clearly the better team. It’s a team sport. Probably the biggest team sport out of the major four. Yes, you need a great QB to win the Super Bowl, but that’s because you need a great QB to even give you a chance first.

Sunday’s games, which I think will be fantastic, will give us the best indication so far as to who is solid all around. Indianapolis looks to be at a disadvantage at first glance, relying on Andrew Luck nearly all season to carry a below-average rushing attack and average defense this far. A much more rounded New England team should win that one, but does Luck have the magic? Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the league right now by my estimation, but can he handle the noise of Seattle or, more importantly, their vicious defense? I had the Pats and Hawks in the big game before the postseason began and nothing’s really changed for me. Those look like the best teams in the NFL, but we’ll find out the true story Sunday.

May the best team win.

Pumping the brakes on the Dolphins

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

Should we buy what Miami is selling?

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

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

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

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

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

Miami's remaining schedule.

Miami’s remaining schedule.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Divisional Playoff Quick Picks (2013-2014)

San%20Francisco%2049ersPanthers_Logo_Football_054e0

NFC Divisional: San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)

January 12, 2013 FOX 1:05pm

Pick: 49ers

You won’t have to wait long on Sunday to see the best matchup of the weekend. At home, with the 2-seed, and a victory over San Francisco already under their belt, Carolina is the underdog by 1 point. Two of the best defenses in football are putting the over/under at 41.5, the lowest of the four divisional games. As the home dog, you better believe Carolina will play with a chip on their shoulder. They boast quality wins over New Orleans, San Francisco, and New England, not to mention the countless other teams they have crushed. So why do I like the Niners? Jim Harbaugh has his troops locked in. The defense has only allowed an average of 16.2 points a game in their past seven games (all wins) and Colin Kaepernick has only thrown two picks (one of them against Seattle’s defense). In Kap’s first nine games this season, he had four 0 passing TD games. He’s thrown a TD pass, and often more than one, in every game since. In five of the seven games he finished with a passer rating over 100. Get the picture? Kaepernick is on a roll and even when he doesn’t have a great game, like last week at Green Bay, the Niners can win. It’ll be a battle for the ages, but watch Kaepernick have a solid game against a defense that harassed him earlier in the season.

chargers logoDenver-Broncos-Logo

AFC Divisional: San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

January 12, 2013 CBS 4:40pm

Pick: Broncos

San Diego is the biggest underdog of all four games this weekend, but don’t count them out. They’ve already proved they can handle the Broncos at home after a 27-20 victory in Week 15. Just five weeks before, however, Denver topped San Diego on the road 28-20. In both games, San Diego held the ball for over 38 minutes, forced one turnover, and passed for under 200 yards. So what gave San Diego the edge in Week 15? It may have had something to do with the Chargers’ success in the running game on both sides of the ball. In their victory, San Diego held Denver to just 18 rushing yards the entire game, compared to 84 in their defeat. Likewise, San Diego torched Denver on the ground for 177 yards in Week 15 and 131 in Week 10. While Peyton Manning will grab the headlines before and after the game, it will likely be the success of these two ground attacks that determines our winner. As you can see, Denver doesn’t have to out-run San Diego to win, but they do have to put the ball on the ground enough to take some of the pressure off Manning. If San Diego can keep Denver’s running backs at bay while applying pressure to Manning, they can pull off a shocker. I still have to go with the Broncos. Denver has so many offensive weapons that it will be too hard for San Diego to keep up. In one game Eric Decker caught four TD passes, in another Demaryius Thomas caught three, and both Wes Welker and Julius Thomas have had multiple 1+ TD games. Beating Denver once is something, but beating them twice in a row is something else entirely. Peyton Manning won’t let it happen.

Saturday Divisional Playoff Quick Picks (2013-2014)

New-Orleans-Saints-Logoseahawks

NFC Divisional: New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

January 11, 2013 FOX 4:35pm

Pick: Seahawks

It’s tough not to think back to Week 13 when Seattle rolled New Orleans 34-7. Seattle looked like the much better team then and they are still the better team now. If the Saints want to advance, it will have to come from the arm of Drew Brees (as always). Brees was held to a season-low 147 yards in that Week 13 matchup, though he managed to avoid throwing any picks. Even if Brees plays a great game, he’ll need an average run defense to contain the best running game in the NFL (allowed 127 rushing yards against Seattle). Even then, they still need to contain the mobile QB Russell Wilson, who threw for 310 yards against the Saints. Can the Saints win? Of course they can, Seattle is vulnerable like everybody else. Having said that, I have to go with the team that owns the best defense (leads NFL in takeaways), the best running game, and the best home field advantage in the league. It may not be the blowout we saw in Week 13, but Seattle has more than enough talent to advance to the NFC Championship.

Colts-NFL-Logo-psd35492new-england-patriots-logo

AFC Divisional: Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

January 11, 2013 CBS 8:15pm

Pick: Patriots

Picking against the Colts makes me feel uneasy, especially after watching them storm back against KC. Indianapolis is on a mission. Luckily for New England, they own the best coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick, and one of the best QBs, Tom Brady. These two guys are the main reason why I’m picking New England. They’ve been here before and they know how to handle the big time. Crippled by injuries from the very start, namely the WR corp, New England still found a way to win 12 games and only needs one more to advance to the conference championship. Even when New England lost, it was only by an average of 4.5 points. The bottomline is that New England is really tough to beat. Even without Gronk, Brady will do what he does best to win, spreading the ball around to keep the defense on their toes. I’m taking New England in a late 4th-quarter victory.

Friday Picks: Week 14 (2013-14)

Two division matchups headlines Week 14’s slate as the Seahawks take on the Niners and the Saints host the Panthers. If you were planning on watching any two games, watch these. If you have more time than that, watch as many as you can because the Eagles and Lions could put on a show and Andrew Luck will try to take down Cincy on the road.

Last Week: 12-4 Overall: 102-76

Cold Hard Lock: 9-3 Upset Pick: 2-10

(Home teams are in CAPS)

Texans over JAGUARS (TNF)

BENGALS over Colts

PACKERS over Falcons

PATRIOTS over Browns

Raiders over JETS

EAGLES over Lions

Dolphins over STEELERS

BUCS over Bills

Chiefs over REDSKINS

RAVENS over Vikings

BRONCOS over Titans

Giants over CHARGERS

CARDINALS over Rams

Seahawks over NINERS

SAINTS over Panthers (SNF)

Cowboys over Bears (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: BRONCOS over Titans; Denver has met their match recently. Their last four games, one of them a loss, have been decided by 10 points or less. After facing the Chiefs (twice) and Patriots, the Broncos will be able to breath a little easier at home against the 5-7 Titans. Watch Denver return back to form.

Upset Pick: Dolphins over STEELERS; Pittsburgh has been on a roll lately, winning three of their past four. At home, they are understandably the favorites, but I like Miami to surprise a hot Steelers team. At 6-6, the Dolphins still have a real shot at stealing the 6th AFC playoff spot. A road upset against Pitt, who’s also competing for that spot at 5-7, will go a long way in making that hope a reality.

Game of the week: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints; When looking at the late division matchups of the NFL schedule, Carolina-New Orleans probably wouldn’t have warranted a second look before the season started. Many, including myself, figured New Orleans would be competing with Atlanta for the division lead. Well, half of that is right but the other half could not be further off. Instead of Atlanta, it’s Carolina at 9-3 looking to go into the Superdome and steal the NFC South lead right before the Saints fans’ eyes. In one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, expect fireworks to go off with these two high-scoring offenses.

Friday Picks: Week 12 (2013-14)

Brady vs. Manning has already stolen most of the spotlight going into this week but when it is all said and done, we could be talking about a couple other games. Carolina looks to extend their win streak to seven, the Bucs hope to upset the Lions after two-straight, and the Giants and Cowboys will try to gain ground in the NFC East while Philly is on a bye.

Last Week: 7-8 Overall: 90-72

Cold Hard Lock: 8-3 Upset Pick: 2-9

(Home teams are in CAPS)

Saints over FALCONS (TNF)

Steelers over BROWNS

LIONS over Bucs

PACKERS over Vikings

CHIEFS over Chargers

RAMS over Bears

Panthers over DOLPHINS

RAVENS over Jets

TEXANS over Jaguars

RAIDERS over Titans

Colts over CARDINALS

GIANTS over Cowboys

Broncos over PATRIOTS (SNF)

Niners over REDSKINS (MNF)

Cold Hard Lock: CHIEFS over Chargers; I would have loved to pick the Saints over Falcons as my lock this week but the Thursday game forces me to make a tough decision. I don’t feel good about it, but Kansas City is the team I have the most faith in of any other to pull out a win in Week 12. San Diego is in a major slump and the Chiefs would love nothing more than to pounce on the opportunity to rebound after a loss.

Upset Pick: Colts over CARDINALS; The red-hot Cardinals host the Colts as favorites on Sunday in what I think will be one of the best games of the week. It may not be getting much attention with the Brady-Manning matchup on Sunday night, but Arizona (6-4) is still looking for the respect they deserve and a big win over Andrew Luck’s Colts would give them just that. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Indy, despite suffering an embarrassing 30-point loss to the Rams in Week 10, is still one of the best teams in the NFL. Arizona’s last three wins have come against teams with two wins or less so the game against seven-win Indy will snap them back to reality. I still expect a great game, but watch Indy pull away in the 4th.

manning-brady

Brady and Manning will bring their best in primetime.

Game of the week: Denver Broncos at New England Patriots; There’s not much to say here that you don’t already know. It’s Brady vs. Manning in their 14th meeting and while the stakes could be higher, a win in the NFL is something neither QB will give up easily. Don’t miss the chance to see two of the all time great QBs on the same field on Sunday night.