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.

chiefs-quarterback-alex-smith-cant-shake-the-game-manager-label.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.27.05 PM.png

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.

Advertisements

There’s something worse than being the worst team in the league, and it’s the San Diego Chargers

i.jpg

Will we look back on 2016 as the start of something new? Or as another in a long list of wasted seasons?

Edit: At the time of this post, the Chargers pulled their contract offer from third overall pick Joey Bosa. He has since been signed by San Diego to a 4-year, $28.5m contract (similar contract to what was originally offered).

The San Diego Chargers are in a bad spot.

This isn’t a revelation by any means, but in a year where nearly every NFL team has a reason to be hopeful for 2016 or beyond (yes, even Cleveland), it’s worth acknowledging that San Diego is lost.

Since the great era of LaDainian Tomlinson came to a close in 2010, the Chargers have missed the playoffs in every year but one. As if consistently missing the playoffs isn’t bad enough, it’s how San Diego is failing that is giving them some serious long-term issues. Save for last year’s abysmal 4-12 campaign, the Chargers have won between 7 and 9 games since 2010, preventing them building a team through high-quality drafts. Things were looking a bit better when last year’s 4-win season finally yielded a top-5 draft pick, but they even managed to screw that up, failing to lockdown third overall pick Joey Bosa. Another 6-9 win season looms in 2016. The years following hold many questions and I fear the answers leave the city of San Diego without an NFL team.

The consistent heart, soul, and face of the Chargers has been Philip Rivers, who is in a unique position of being one of the better QBs in the league on a struggling team. He’s been remarkably healthy and successful in his career (individually, that is), playing in every game since 2006 and throwing for over 3000 yards in every season (most years over 4000). If there’s been one bright spot for Chargers fans to look for in the darkness of the past few years, it’s Rivers. But at 34, his retirement looms and the window for building a better team around him is rapidly closing. Soon, Rivers will be gone and the Chargers will be left pondering an even darker future: the search for a new franchise QB, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns.

Another “franchise” player in Eric Weddle was let go this offseason after nine seasons with San Diego. His departure not only leaves the team with a defensive leadership hole to fill, but it revealed a level of dysfunction that is scary to realize. There was a lot of buzz about Weddle being fined by the team in 2015 for watching his daughter perform at halftime instead of joining the team in the locker room. In the following months, Weddle was extremely vocal about how poorly the Chargers front office and coach treated him in subsequent contract negotiations. The three-time Pro Bowler joined the Ravens this offseason.

Who really knows how poorly Weddle was treated, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is perception and draft picks like Bosa and countless free agents have to decide if they want to bet their career on Weddle exaggerating the truth.

As if all that doesn’t paint a bad enough picture for the future, remember the fact that San Diego narrowly evaded relocation for the upcoming season. The franchise agreed to remain in San Diego for at least one more season while they review plans for a possible move to LA (to share a stadium with the Rams) or Las Vegas. Pay close attention to the sights and sounds of the Qualcomm Stadium crowd and you’ll wonder why they cheer for a Philip Rivers interception. It’s because the seats are filled with visiting fans, so much so that you’ll see a sea of orange when they host division rival Denver. With the San Diego faithful getting drowned out in their own stadium, relocation seems inevitable and that’s any fan’s worst nightmare.

As a San Diego Charger fan, what do you realistically root for in 2016? Another 8-10 win season that leads to an encouraging playoff berth, but still leaves them floating in NFL draft purgatory? Or another bottom-dwelling campaign that grants them a chance at a total rebuild, but sends them to Los Angeles to begin that rebuild?

Philip Rivers’ final years are sliding away with nothing to show for it and how they perform in 2016 could finally determine where they go in the future, figuratively and literally.

What ever happened to 2014’s cellar-dwellers?

i.jpg

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.

Did the 0-2 rule hold up?

i.jpg

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 dream! Denver flips the script on Carolina, the entire league

The formula was simple: go 1 for 14 on 3rd down.
i-2.jpg

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.

i-3.jpg

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.

The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Sunday edition)

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it.

Everyone will take a deep breath when the Seahawks are finally knocked out of the playoffs. Problem is, somebody has to be the team to actually do it. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Yesterday, we briefly covered the two AFC wildcard teams playing on Saturday. Kansas City’s fantastic defense propelled them to a rout of Houston while the Steelers’ playmakers came alive just enough to edge the Bengals. Can the two NFC wildcard teams follow suit and win both their games?

Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

at Minnesota Vikings, 1:05pm on NBC

Seahawks are hot and in the playoffs. Sound familiar? We’ve gotten to know Seattle as a top-tier playoff team over the past few years now. Perhaps the only thing unfamiliar about them this year is their role as a wildcard team. They performed slightly below expectations to begin the season (2-4 start), paving the way for other NFC teams like the Cardinals and Panthers to take the spotlight for once. But sure enough, Seattle re-discovered that winning formula and finished the season 8-2. Would you want to face a hot Seahawks team? I’m guessing not because it’s extremely difficult to begin a Super Bowl run when you have to face a QB that’s thrown multiple TDs and no picks in seven of his last eight games (Russell Wilson, in case you didn’t make the connection). Also, good luck lighting it up against a defense that’s allowing just 17.6 points per game, the lowest in the entire league. Seattle’s struggles were real, but make no mistake, they’re back. Behind yet another top defense and a QB that just keeps churning out wins, this Seattle team is poised for their third-straight Super Bowl appearance.

i

Aaron Rodgers blew a chance to win the division. Will that propel him to perform even better in the postseason? (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Green Bay Packers (10-6)

at Washington Redskins, 4:40pm on FOX

Speaking of teams we’re used to seeing in January, we have the Green Bay Packers. Their game in Washington marks their seventh straight postseason appearance. Even with all those chances, however, the Packers have only managed to win one Super Bowl. Can they steal a second from the lowly wildcard position? With Aaron Rodgers, anything is possible. Rodgers has that unique ability of making the Packers contenders no matter where they stand. Defenses can plan all week and perform excellently, but one stunning performance by Rodgers can undo everything an opponent has worked for. And he’s kind of a pro at delivering stunning performances. His numbers may have dipped a little this year, but Rodgers still has a solid team around him that is quietly doing great things. The much-maligned defense is actually 12th in the NFL in points against (20.2 per game). And despite the struggles of Eddie Lacy, the running game is holding up nicely (115 yards/game). They face an uphill battle, but these Packers still have plenty of weapons to take out the NFC elite.

The teams that are supposed to lose: A quick look at the stacked wildcard teams (Saturday edition)

i.jpg

Potential ROTY Marcus Peters makes the Chiefs fun to watch. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

The best part of the NFL season is right on top of us. Wildcard weekend starts tomorrow and it could be the beginning of an unbelievable ride to the Super Bowl. This ride, however, is usually reserved for division winners and top seeds. Only six wildcard teams have ever won the Super Bowl. These teams may have scraped and clawed their way to a postseason birth, but that’s where the fun usually ends. This year, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if all four extended their fun to the second round and beyond. All four teams–Chiefs, Steelers, Seahawks, Packers–have their starting QB and face their opponent’s backup. Save for the Packers, no team has more than one loss in the last five games. And save for the Chiefs, every team has relatively recent playoff success (aka Super Bowl wins). But enough about the similarities, let’s take a brief look at why these four teams have a shot at being that seventh wildcard team to win the big one:

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

at Houston Texans, 4:20pm on ABC/ESPN

What an incredible run this team has had this season. They started off as a boring, struggling 1-5 mess that I absolutely couldn’t stand. Now, they’ve won 10 (!) in a row and are actually watchable. As usual, Alex Smith throws interceptions at a frustratingly low rate (seven all year), which makes scoring 20 points fairly painless. Why 20? That’s the number that will usually win a game for the Chiefs when their incredible defense only allows 17.9 per game (3rd in NFL). In fact, only one team (Bills) have scored over 20 and that was still a win for KC. How can you argue with a team that’s won 10 in a row? Behind defensive talents Justin Houston and Marcus Peters, this once-unwatchable Chiefs team could wreak havoc in a struggling AFC field.

r36889_576x324_16-9.jpg

Pittsburgh’s receiving corp will make defensive backs pay for the smallest of mistakes (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15pm on CBS

Pretty tough to build a strong case for a team that needed another team to lose just to clinch a playoff spot. That is, unless that team is this year’s Steelers. Pittsburgh had some ups and downs this season mainly due to Ben Roethlisberger missing multiple games. With Ben, they’ve gone 8-4 and won six of their last eight. Their receiving corp is my absolute favorite in the league by far. Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton are all different variations of super-fast, ultra-athletic, smart route-running freaks. It’s incredibly difficult to cover all three effectively if you don’t have enough bodies back. They’ve helped Pitt become top-5 in both total passing yards (3rd) and points scored (4th). This offense alone is enough to make Pittsburgh a legitimate AFC championship contender. If the defense can play above expectations, the Super Bowl is a real possibility.

We’ll look at the Sunday wildcard teams tomorrow!