Posts Tagged ‘super bowl’

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It doesn’t seem to matter who the Broncos put in at QB, they keep winning games.

For some reason, I can’t seem to learn. The Denver Broncos have been good, no, great, for over a year now and I continue to deny them the credit they deserve. I picked against them a lot in big games last year, throughout the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl. My most egregious error, however, was previewing the AFC this offseason without even mentioning them.

Why? Why do I keep making this mistake? It’s because they haven’t had a QB I can trust. I’ve strongly believed (and still do, to a lesser extent) that the QB position is by far the most important position in today’s NFL and if you don’t have a great QB, you won’t win a Super Bowl. The Broncos proved me wrong last year and have carried their winning streak into 2016 with two rookie QBs, neither of which we have reason to believe are spectacular talents (yet). At 4-0, the Broncos are proving they can do it again without a great QB. They could very well not win the Super Bowl this year, but their sustained dominance gives us a look into something much more profound: with all the other pieces in place, teams don’t have to “get lucky” with the QB position.

That may sound really obvious, but it should be a comfort to many teams like Cleveland or Los Angeles. The Browns in particular have been searching for “that guy” for two decades now, using top pick after top pick on draft busts. They watch as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have struck gold with franchise QBs, allowing them to build a great cast around them on the way to multiple Super Bowls. They’ve also watched the Seahawks and Ravens find amazing QBs late in the draft, when they weren’t even looking for a franchise guy. Maybe one of these years the Browns will get lucky and find their Russel Wilson. Or maybe they can do it like Denver and pad their defense and offensive cast using the deep pool of talent from college.

This obviously isn’t as easy as it sounds. Realistically, teams like the Browns and Rams are already trying this and have to suffer through 6-win seasons and high coach turnover. It’ll be tough for a lot of teams to get it right, but we’re already seeing signs that a few are on the cusp. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings (combined 8-1) have had amazing success out of the gate without elite QB play. Yes, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz look very good so far, but do they look like instant franchise guys? They could turn out to be, but the point is they don’t have to be. Prescott and Wentz are helping their teams win games through ball protection and sustained drives. Neither rookie has cracked the top 15 in passing yards or TDs, but both lead the league in fewest interceptions thrown (none). More to the point, the Minnesota Vikings look like a top 5 team with Sam Bradford at the helm. We know Bradford. He hasn’t changed, but his team has. He now has an unbelievable defense behind him and a great coach to give him the plays necessary to succeed. Instead of the Rams looking for Bradford to guide them, it’s now the Vikings looking to guide Bradford. In the past, it didn’t appear this has been the “way” to win the Super Bowl. Now the Broncos have done it this way and so far it doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

It’d be great to see a league emerge where QBs can be relied upon less than they are now. It’s not particularly fun to see the Browns search for a QB year after year. With the college system producing so few NFL-ready QBs these days, it’s almost necessary to see teams win a different way. The Broncos may not have a Tom Brady or Big Ben, but they’ve been the best team in the NFL for a while now. It’s up to the rest of the league to catch up.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Do yourself a favor and watch Aaron Rodgers play. Decades from now, you'll want to proudly say that you got to see this guy play in his prime. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Do yourself a favor and watch Aaron Rodgers play. Decades from now, you’ll get to proudly say that you got to see this guy play in his prime. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Six unbeaten teams headed into Week 5 and all six emerged unharmed. Carolina had a bye. Atlanta survived an OT thriller. Cincy climbed out of a 17-point hole in the 4th quarter to stun the Seahawks. Denver once again rode on the back of its top-ranked defense on the way to a road win. These four teams are all winning in different and amazing ways. And yet, there are only two teams in the NFL I can take seriously: the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers.

When we talk about the very best teams in the NFL to this point, the Patriots and Packers should be the only ones mentioned. They’re just on another tier. It’s not because they’re scoring more points than anyone in the league (because they’re not), it’s not because their defenses are unbelievably suffocating (because they’re not), and it’s not because they’ve played the toughest schedules (because they haven’t). It’s because of two guys; two guys who both have a proven track record of success over several years and play their position far better than anybody in the league week after week. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the only players I can trust.

Tom Brady has made the most of avoiding his 4-game suspension. In those four games we would have missed, he's thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Tom Brady has made the most of avoiding his 4-game suspension. In those four games we would have missed, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Photo credit: ESPN.com

When Randall Cobb is covered, Aaron Rodgers is throwing to a batch of 3rd round picks–a couple of them rookies and one of them the 9-year veteran James Jones–and making them look like superstars. Brady has Gronk, but targets 5’10”, 7th round pick Julian Edelman more than anyone. We all love Edelman by this point and know he has talent, but he’d be no more than a strong role player on a different team. Instead, he has 399 receiving yards (more than Gronk) and three touchdowns through four games. Brady’s numbers this year are similar to those he put up with Randy Moss in 2007. Rodgers and Brady don’t need talent because they create talent.

Andy Dalton and Matt Ryan may be putting up stats that can be compared with Brady and Rodgers, but to compare their inherent skill baffles me. Year after year, Brady and Rodgers rip through this league. We don’t question them after a string of bad games because they just don’t have them.

Why does all this matter? It really doesn’t. We’re all bound to look at exciting, unexpected teams and find reasons why they could be this year’s “real” contender. That’s fine and sometimes we’re right. But make no mistake, the Patriots with Brady and Packers with Rodgers are the best. The Falcons, Bengals, Panthers, Cardinals, etc. belong in a different conversation.

Other notes from Week 5:

–DeAngelo Williams was told by the NFL that he cannot wear pink on his uniform to honor his late mother (lost her battle to breast cancer), unless the calendar reads “October.” Days later, Cameron Heyward was fined for honoring his late father by wearing the word “Iron Head” on his eyeblack, a violation of NFL uniform policy. As you can guess, everyone was outraged. The NFL was “tone-deaf” and “idiotic” and “heartless.” As tough as it may be to hear, I don’t think the NFL did anything wrong here. Both Williams and Heyward know that those actions are a direct violation of policy. The NFL simply enforced the rules they put in place and everyone freaked out. You can bash the policy itself, but to hate the NFL for not making a rare exception is short-sighted. At what member of the family, for what disease, and for what type of uniform adjustment would the NFL draw the line? Small exceptions just wouldn’t work in this case. There are ways within the rules to honor family members. Luckily, Williams has found one by wearing his hair pink, which does not count as a part of his uniform.

–Let’s take a quick look at my playoff picture thus far. No, not the actual playoff picture, but my playoff picture. In the AFC, the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, and Colts look like locks as division winners. The Steelers and one team from the AFC East–Jets or Bills–are the wildcard teams. The NFC looks like it’s sending the Packers, Panthers, Falcons, Cardinals, and one NFC East team for sure. The sixth team for me would be Seattle because I just can’t imagine them missing out on the postseason, even with some minor early-season struggles. Minnesota and St. Louis are on the outside looking in. We’ll see how this changes after a few weeks because right now, a lot of spots seem to be locked in. But as we know all too well, penning in your playoff teams after five weeks could be a tragic waste of ink.

-Thursday night pick: Falcons over Saints. I truly have no idea how this game will go. I know how close these games have been in the past and with the Saints at home, there’s a lot telling me to “throw the records out.” But I could just as easily picture the Falcons blowing this wide open early and saying to myself, “Of course they are. The abysmal Saints are no match for this Falcons offense.” Either way, I have to go with Atlanta. I’m 5-0 on Thursday night.

We all know how tough it can be to bounce back after an 0-2 start, so which teams have a chance to pull off the improbable?
Although Seattle may be wondering what went wrong, an 0-2 start shouldn't worry the Super Bowl runner-ups.

Although Seattle may be wondering what went wrong, an 0-2 start shouldn’t worry the Super Bowl runner-ups. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Throughout the current week, everyone from ESPN to your fun-fact-tweeting friend will remind you of the sobering correlation between 0-2 teams and the playoffs. On the off-chance that you’ve dodged the oft-repeated stat in all your time watching football, let me be the first to clue you in: historically, around only 12% of teams that start 0-2 make it to the playoffs. The reason this trend is so attractive to repeat on television and in casual conversation is because losing the first two games is so easy. It can happen to any team, really. Whether it’s last year’s Super Bowl runner-ups or a team with an injured QB, letting those two games slip by–no matter how slim the margin–drastically reduces that team’s chances of reaching the postseason. Historically, that is.

Unfortunately for the 0-2 hopefuls, we’ve seen this trend hold true over and over. Last year, only one slow-starter (Colts) out of seven clinched the playoffs. The year prior, again only one (Panthers) out of the eight clinched. In 2012, not one of the six could reach the postseason. If we’re keeping count, that’s two 0-2 teams out of 21 (9.5%) that managed to extend their season. Chances are only one of the nine teams below will do the same, if the trend holds.

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The trend makes sense. Most teams that start 0-2 lost those games because they aren’t good teams. But, as noted before, it can strike great teams as well. The Seahawks are perhaps the most notable of these supposedly “great” teams that have dropped their first two. Seattle is considered one of the NFC elite, having won the last two NFC championships and having been a yard away from winning a second straight Super Bowl. Hopes were high again this season for Seattle (I predicted a third-straight NFCN appearance), but the first two weeks have brought two losses.

My gut says they’ll be fine, as most of their wins will come at home. They’ve lost to some pretty tough competition, having to deal with a vicious Rams defense and then Aaron Rodgers, both on the road. Although there are definitely some areas to improve (offensive line, running game), I haven’t seen much that tells me this Seattle team is significantly worse than last year’s. In all likelihood, the Seahawks are the one team–or one of–out of the nine that will make the playoffs.

If there is only one team to make it, that should worry Ravens fans. Baltimore had sky-high expectations coming into this year, hoping an elite defense and great offensive line would propel them to the Super Bowl. The offense had major difficulty moving the ball against Denver in their opening loss, scoring only 13 points on 173 total yards. And yes, I know how good Denver’s defense is but I’m sorry, those are the type of defenses they’ll have to face in a playoff run. They did not look prepared to handle that task at all. The offense looked much better against the Raiders, nearly eclipsing 500 total yards. This time it was the defense that let them down, allowing Derek Carr to pass for over 350 yards and 3 TDs in a 37-33 loss. The bright side in all this is that, like Seattle, both these games were on the road and hopefully not indicative of how this team can perform overall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Baltimore still clinched a playoff spot, but they will have to do so in what looks to be a very competitive AFC North.

The Giants have put themselves in positions to win in two straight games. One of these days they might actually close the deal. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The Giants have put themselves in positions to win in two straight games. One of these days they might actually close the deal. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The polar opposite of a division like that would be the NFC East, where all four teams look to have dire issues of all kinds. This is good news for the Giants and Eagles who’ve both caught the 0-2 bug in their own special ways. If you follow the Giants this week, you’re bound to hear the phrase, “they should be 2-0.” No, they shouldn’t. They’re not 0-2 because of some freak misfortune that caused the ball to bounce one way and not the other. They’re 0-2 because of poor clock management decisions and porous 4th quarter defense. In other words, they lost because they were the New York Giants. Did they have a chance to win both games? Definitely. But to say they should be 2-0 is just plain inaccurate.

What New York can hope for is that they manage these flaws well enough to win some games. Luckily, they’re in a division where every team has problems. If they can just find a way to be the least problematic of those four, their 0-2 start doesn’t have to be a death sentence. They face the Redskins on Thursday night in a game that just became a lot more important after Week 2.

The Eagles are in the same boat division-wise, but they look to be much worse off than the Giants. In two games, they’ve managed to gather a whopping 70 rushing yards. That is disgraceful. I can’t even come up with a comparison that will do justice to how pitiful that number is. And this is the team that nabbed last year’s top running back in the offseason in DeMarco Murray. Their total of 34 points over two games actually seems high after having watched them. Like the Giants, they are blessed to be in a division that may forgive these shortcomings if remedied soon.

Speaking of underperforming offenses, how about the Indianapolis Colts? A popular Super Bowl pick that boasted the 6th-highest scoring offense last season, the Colts rank dead last in scoring after two weeks. How does that happen? Indy added veteran receiver Andre Johnson to complement T.Y. Hilton and also nabbed Frank Gore to improve the running game. Somehow, they only muster up 21 points in their first two games. Although Indy still sits in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, I feel a lot more confident about the Seahawks’ or Ravens’ chances to rebound in the coming weeks. I have to believe the Colts will figure it out eventually, but they’ve looked downright dysfunctional to start the season.

New Orleans is another team that could benefit from a poor division, but I am honestly just about done with them. I keep holding out hope that a great QB-coach combo can carry the half-decent remains, but I’m let down every time. Last year I took a major chance and penciled them into the Super Bowl only to see them stumble to a 7-9 record. This year I tabbed them as the NFC South division winners, thinking this had to be the year they got back. Even this week I picked them to snap their despicable 5-game home losing streak against a Bucs team that looked abysmal in Week 1. Every time, let down. When will I stop falling for it?

With more than a few surprising 0-2 teams out there this season, our playoff outlook may need some adjusting. Only time will tell which of these teams can buck the trend and which ones drown in the pressure of a bad start.

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Other notes from Week 2:

–What’s going on with the top running backs from last year? I already mentioned the woes of Murray and he’s hardly the only one. LeSean McCoy is averaging around 65 yards per game, 17 less than last year. Marshawn Lynch’s average is down 24 yards and Jeremy Hill’s is down 19 yards. Lamar Miller, a back who gained over 1000 yards last year, is barely getting the ball (23 attempts) and has gained a measly 67 yards in two games. Eddie Lacy, even before getting injured on Sunday night, has been struggling as well. Justin Forsett, along with McCoy, Lynch, and Miller, has yet to reach the end zone. I realize it’s only been two weeks and I expect things to balance out, but it sure is a weird start for the NFL’s elite rushers.

–The Patriots and Packers look to be easily the two best teams in the NFL so far. New England’s offense is getting everything it can out of Gronk and Brady looks to be aging backwards. Rodgers continues to amaze without key players like Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy. And I’m definitely not just saying this because I picked these teams to meet in the Super Bowl………..definitely not.

–A cool catch from this week:

–My pick for this Thursday: Giants over Redskins. Despite the 4th quarter issues, New York has been playing decently well and will hopefully not need late-game smarts to win this one.

Time for the Super Bowl matchup we’ve all been waiting for? Or will somebody new finally make it click?

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The Super Bowl XLIX Champion New England Patriots kickoff the season tonight at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With that game quickly approaching, I figured now would be as good a time as any to finally release my predictions for the 2015-16 season.

I believe accountability is important, so we’ll take a quick look at how I did last year. I correctly tabbed five division winners, two of the final four playoff teams, and one of the two Super Bowl contenders. My big risk of predicting the 2-win Texans to rebound and make the playoffs fell just short (needed just one more win). Not terrible considering how difficult the NFL is to figure out. Having said that, the below predictions are 100% correct. Calling them predictions is actually inaccurate and borderline offensive. This is prophecy.

-First, by division (*playoff team):

NFC East: 1. Eagles* (10-6) 2. Cowboys* (10-6) 3. Giants (7-9) 4. Redskins (5-11)

NFC North: 1. Packers* (13-3) 2. Lions (8-8) 3. Vikings (6-10) 4. Bears (4-12)

NFC South: 1. Saints* (10-6) 2. Bucs* (9-7) 3. Falcons (8-8) 4. Panthers (6-10)

NFC West: 1. Seahawks* (12-4) 2. 49ers (7-9) 3. Cardinals (6-10) 4. Rams (6-10)

AFC East: 1. Patriots* (13-3) 2. Dolphins* (10-6) 3. Jets (6-10) 4. Bills (5-11)

AFC North: 1. Ravens* (11-5) 2. Steelers* (10-6) 3. Bengals (7-9) 4. Browns (6-10)

AFC South: 1. Colts* (11-5) 2. Texans (8-8) 3. Jaguars (3-13) 4. Titans (3-13)

AFC West: 1. Broncos* (12-4) 2. Chargers (8-8) 3. Chiefs (6-10) 4. Raiders (3-13)

Playoffs:

NFC Wildcard: (5) Cowboys over (4) Saints, (3) Eagles over (6) Bucs

AFC Wildcard: (4) Colts over (5) Dolphins, (3) Ravens over (6) Steelers

NFC Divisional: (1) Packers over (5) Cowboys, (2) Seahawks over (3) Eagles

AFC Divisional: (1) Patriots over (4) Colts, (2) Broncos over (3) Ravens

NFC Conference: (1) Packers over (2) Patriots

AFC Conference: (1) Patriots over (2) Broncos

Super Bowl 50: (1) Packers over (1) Patriots

Packers

 

 

 

 

An easier guide:

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 3.58.56 PM

Notes:

-It’s finally time for the Packers-Patriots matchup we’ve all been looking for for the past five or so years. They both have consistently been on top, appeared in and won Super Bowls, and have the tools to get back there for Super Bowl 50. New England lost some key defensive talent in Vince Wilfork and Darrelle Revis, but they should still be able to beat the AFC playoff teams that have bigger issues. Green Bay suffered a devastating loss with Jordy Nelson going down for the year with an ACL tear, but still have a strong enough WR corp that 2014 MVP Aaron Rodgers will do plenty with. He’ll still have Eddie Lacy behind him, who’s expected to be one of the best backs of the year. The defense Green Bay had last year was decent enough to bring them inches away from the Super Bowl. So close. So close they were basically in  the Super Bowl. Even without Nelson, Green Bay can snag the best record in the NFC, grab home field advantage throughout the postseason, and avoid playing in godforsaken Seattle. It will be enough to down the Seahawks (who still look fantastic) and deny the Patriots a chance at repeating. Doesn’t it feel like Rodgers will win one again anyways?

-I try to take a big risk every year (usually involving a major turnaround of some sort) and this year that risk is Tampa Bay. I covered the uncanny ability of a cellar-dweller to be able to turn it around and make to the playoffs the next season, and the Bucs have the makings of a team that can do it. Don’t get me wrong, a lot has to go right. Ultimately determining their success will be rookie Jameis Winston. I believe Winston is a QB who feeds off confidence. If the Bucs can string some wins together–even against bad teams–his ceiling will grow exponentially. He can take this team to the playoffs, but the success needs to come early. Tampa has Tennessee, New Orleans, Houston, Carolina, and Jacksonville as its first five games. They can realistically win three or four of those. If they do happen get off to a 4-1 start, watch out. They’ve got fantastic young talent in Gerald McCoy and Mike Evans that could really help Winston ride that confidence train. If they struggle early, however, I could just as easily see this team crash and burn to a 4-12 record.

-There’s a few teams that could really break out, but I just have a hard time buying in. Minnesota has been slowly developing a quality team for a while now and hope Teddy Bridgewater can shake off rookie struggles and find sophomore success. The Rams traded QBs to get Nick Foles and could have one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Texans, Bills, and Jets are all expected to have fantastic defenses as well, but I just can’t shake their QB issues. One of these teams will very likely make me look like a fool by season’s end, but I just don’t feel confident pulling the trigger on any of them right now.

-I believe this will be Tom Coughlin’s final year as the Giants’ head coach. While New York’s offense should be solid (“should” has been a trouble spot for them recently), the defense just looks pitiful. Another losing record might be in the cards for the Giants and if it is, expect Coughlin to “resign” and allow New York to move in a new direction. Prove me wrong, Giants (please).

History tells us one of six very bad teams from last year will make it to the 2015-16 NFL Playoffs. But can we trust it?

When thinking about the playoffs, some teams just seem like a lock even before the season starts. Betting on the Patriots, Packers, Colts, or Seahawks won’t lose you any money this year. But I’ll be keeping a close eye on a small handful of teams that seem like a lock to miss the playoffs, because a recent trend suggests one (maybe even two) of them will shock the NFL.

The teams we’re talking about here are the Jets, Redskins, Jaguars, Raiders, Titans, and Buccaneers. Six teams with one thing in common: they’re bad. Or at least, they were bad in 2014-15. They all won four games or less. And if you watched them play, you don’t need me to tell how bad they actually looked.

Going back to the 2005-06 season, at least one very bad team (4-12 record or worse) made it to the playoffs the next year. Except for one time, which we’ll get to later. That leaves eight of the last nine seasons where a team or two made an incredible turnaround. In five of those eight seasons, two teams made it back, including 2010 through 2012.

In 2010-11, the Broncos and Bengals each won four games but clinched the playoffs in 2011-12 with records of 8-8 and 9-7, respectively. In 11-12, it was the Vikings (3-13) and Colts (2-14) who turned it around to finish with records of 10-6 and 11-5. And in 2012-13, the Eagles (4-12) and Chiefs (2-14) did the same, going 10-6 and 11-5 the very next season. The Eagles even won the NFC East.

So is this trend reliable? Eight out of nine years seems like a strong indicator. If we look back beyond the 2005-06 season, we see this turnaround only occur twice in six years (2003 and 1999). So are those eight years an interesting coincidence or indicative of a new “era” in the NFL, where the draft and free agency helps struggling teams right the ship? What makes this question even more intriguing this year than any other is when we consider that one time (remember from earlier?) out of the last nine where the trend didn’t occur. That was last year.

Will "Gang Green" be the next 4-12 team to make the following year's playoffs?

Will “Gang Green” be the next 4-12 team to make the following year’s playoffs? Photo credit: ESPN.com

The 2013-14 season saw a staggering seven teams go 4-12 or worse (most since 2005), and yet not one of them made it to the playoffs in 2014-15. The Texans (9-7) and Falcons (6-10) came closest. Even at 6-10, Atlanta was just one tiebreaker win away from actually clinching the abysmal NFC South, which Carolina won at 7-8-1. So again we have to ask, was last year a return to the difficulties that “bad” teams had from 1999-2004, or a blip in a new trend of eight straight years of miraculous turnarounds? On the surface, I’m inclined to believe last year was an anomaly in the last decade of the NFL where one-year turnarounds are becoming less and less surprising. Either way, let’s take a quick look at the four most recent teams to be a part of that trend to see if their turnaround came out of nowhere or was a result of some major personnel or system change.

2012-13 Philadelphia Eagles
2012-13 record: 4-12
2013-14 record: 10-6
Result: +6 wins, won division, lost in wildcard playoffs

If you’re having trouble remembering the Eagles around this time, “dream team” may help jog your memory. The hopeful “dream team” was formed in 2011 but instead lived a nightmare on their way to an 8-8 season, then 4-12 the next year. This 4-12 season was the first year we saw Nick Foles play as a rookie after Michael Vick got taken out mid-season due to a concussion. Andy Reid was fired after the season and replaced with now-former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Vick remained the starting QB, but led Philly to a 1-3 start. In what was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Eagles, Vick was injured again and replaced with Foles. In 11 games he started*, Foles went 9-2 and led the Eagles to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title. Philadelphia’s return to the top exceeded expectations, but wasn’t completely unprecedented given the offensive overhaul under new coach Chip Kelly. What we couldn’t have seen coming was the early switch to Foles, who thrived under Kelly’s fast-paced passing offense.

*Foles would have started 12, but was replaced by Matt Barkley due to an injury suffered the week prior

2012-13 Kansas City Chiefs
2012-13 record: 2-14
2013-14 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second place in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The Chiefs were the worst team in 2012, earning the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft (drafted OT Eric Fisher). Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn shared duties at QB, but neither could find success, each earning one win in their eight games. Kansas City fired head coach Todd Haley with three games remaining and was replaced with interim coach Romeo Crennel who finished out the season. Two major offseason additions are generally attributed with the sudden success KC found the very next season. Remember Andy Reid? After being fired from the Eagles (see above), Reid was hired by KC and given a brand new QB to work with in Alex Smith from the 49ers. The Reid-Smith duo clicked immediately, as the Chiefs jumped out to nine straight wins. With a much-improved defense to go with it*, the Chiefs finished with a solid 11-5 record. Much like Philly that year, KC found a solid new head coach and a QB that thrived in his system. The difference is we knew Smith was the guy in KC, so many predicted an improvement. Far less could have predicted they would win nine more games and compete in the playoffs. Nevertheless, there were some distinct changes (including defensive coordinator) from year to year that helped KC turn it around.

*The Kansas City defense shaved off 7.5 points allowed per game from 2012 to 2013 with new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton

2011-12 Minnesota Vikings
2011-12 record: 3-13
2012-13 record: 10-6
Result: +7 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard playoffs

The 2011 Vikings had QB and defensive issues in 2011. Despite Jared Allen setting a franchise record for sacks in a season (22), the Minnesota defense allowed the second most points of any team. The Vikings benched Donovan McNabb after an abysmal 1-5 start and handed the reigns over to rookie Christian Ponder. Ponder didn’t fare much better, winning only one game in eight starts. It didn’t help that 10 games in, Ponder’s 4th start, Adrian Peterson got injured and was virtually unavailable for the rest of the season. It was head coach Leslie Frazier’s first year as coach of the Vikings and kept the job in 2012. In that second try for Frazier, Ponder had a solid season (2935 yards/18 TDs on 62.1% passing) and the defense improved, finishing around the middle of the pack for both points and yardage allowed. But what explains the seven win improvement more than anything was Adrian Peterson’s astounding MVP season, picking up 2,097 yards on the ground, just nine yards away from the NFL record. To say Peterson carried this team would discredit solid contributions from the rest of the team, but it is fair to say he propelled the team to an incredible turnaround season as the heart and soul of the Vikings. Who could have seen such an incredible performance coming? And even if they did, who could have predicted it would launch the 3-win Vikings to seven more wins the following year? A running back can seemingly only do so much for a team, but Adrian Peterson raised the ceiling on just how much a team can improve with an MVP performance. If you were high on Peterson to start the season, you may have expected to see a jump for Minnesota as long as Peterson stayed healthy. But for the most part, this kind of turnaround came out of nowhere.

2011-12 Indianapolis Colts
2011-12 record: 2-14
2012-13 record: 11-5
Result: +9 wins, second in division, lost in wildcard round

I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on this one because we know the story: Andrew Luck. The 2011-12 season for the Colts was a “transition” year, with Peyton Manning sitting out after neck surgery. Pretty much everything fell apart in his absence and after their 2-14 record assured them the first pick in the NFL draft, Indianapolis released Manning and started a new era of Colts football with Andrew Luck. Head coach Jim Caldwell was also let go and replaced with Chuck Pagano. Luck turned out to be as good as advertised and led the Colts to a 11-5 record in his rookie season. With all the hype surrounding Luck around draft time, it wasn’t exactly surprising the Colts improved in a big way. But like many of these turnarounds, a nine-win improvement likely surpassed even the most hopeful of fans’ predictions.

Although this is a small sample, we can see that the turnarounds of these four teams were largely the result of major changes, or in the Vikings’ case a major breakthrough from an elite player. If we went back further, we’d see similar changes in some teams (ex. rookie Andy Dalton leading Bengals to playoffs in 2011, Crennel as DC of Chiefs in 2010, Chad Pennington as new QB for Dolphins in 2008, etc.).

That brings us back to today. Will we see the ninth year in a decade where a “4-wins-or-less” team make it to the playoffs? Seems hard to believe when you just look at the names. Raiders in the playoffs? Titans? Jaguars? My mind has trouble even processing that information.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds.

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will try to lead their respective squads to improbable turnarounds. Photo credit: TBO.com

Let’s break it down here. Four of these teams have relatively new QBs, either in their rookie or sophomore season. Can rookies Jameis Winston (Bucs) and Marcus Mariota (Titans) have an Andrew Luck-esque breakthrough? They may turn out to be solid players at some point in their career, but I’d personally be shocked if either one could manage to bring their 2-win squads to the playoffs. Many expected the Bucs to be fairly good last season with improved personnel, so perhaps some of those improvements will come to fruition this year. Even so, Winston’s potential success as a rookie is one of the bigger question marks this year.

Sophomores Derek Carr (Raiders) and Blake Bortles (Jaguars) showed flashes of greatness throughout their rookie seasons, but weren’t nearly the caliber QB to carry their talent-deficient teams to a decent record. Jack Del Rio will be the new coach for Oakland, but based on his lackluster history (68-71, 3 playoff appearances), I doubt he can have an Andy Reid-type debut and put the Raiders in the postseason.

That leaves us with the Jets and Redskins, who each went 4-12 last year. Washington is sticking with new coach Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III at QB, though Griffin’s leash seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Griffin hasn’t looked close to as good as he did in his rookie season–largely due to his ACL tear–and more injury issues have seem to set him back further. At the risk of sounding like an overly hopeful (delusional?) Redskins fan, I’ll say that if RGIII can play at a somewhat similar level as his rookie season, I could conceivably see the Redskins having a decent year. They have some good talent in Alfred Morris at running back and an improving defense with LOLB Ryan Kerrigan and sophomore ROLB Trent Murphy. But playoffs? They’d have to beat out a competitive NFC wildcard field that saw the 10-6 Eagles left out of the playoffs last year.

The Jets went through a major overhaul in the front office this offseason, firing GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, and hiring a new DC and OC. Will new management in GM Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles usher in a successful era of Jets football? And if so, will it start this year with a playoff berth? Again, hard to imagine based on classic Jets luck (or lack thereof), but they did pick up fantastic WR Brandon Marshall from the Bears and reclaimed CB Darrelle Revis from the Pats.

Perhaps an egregious locker room scuffle, sending Geno Smith to the bench with a broken jaw for 6-10 weeks, was the last piece of a bizarre puzzle for the New York Jets. A blessing in disguise, much like when Vick went out to be replaced by Foles? Ryan Fitzpatrick will handle the QB duties for New York for likely the first three weeks of the season. Fitzpatrick is a seasoned veteran, with varying success on five different teams. His best run came in 2011-13, throwing for 3,000+ yards and 23+ TDs for the Bills. In 11 games for Tennessee and 12 for Houston, Fitzpatrick kept his completion percentage above a respectable 62% and his QBR above 50, the best of his career when playing more than four games. He’s not spectacular and he may not win you a Super Bowl ever, but he can play. And after 11 seasons, his football IQ is higher than most. The job is expected to be handed back to Geno when he’s able to return, but I could realistically see a scenario where Fitzpatrick is kept in after a 3-0 start, or even 2-1 if that loss comes in a close game at Indianapolis.

Geno Smith hasn't impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance.

Geno Smith hasn’t impressed in two seasons and will look to improve in his third, if given the chance. Photo credit: ESPN.com

It sounds crazy, but if I was forced to choose one of these six teams to make the playoffs this year, it may very well be the Jets. They’ve completely overhauled their coaching staff and management and will see a different QB start the first three weeks, not to mention a new star wide receiver and the return of an elite cornerback. It sounds like they would fit in perfectly with those turnaround teams from above. Big changes, surprising success.

If you are looking to win big money, you may want to place a risky wager on one of these teams you feel confident in. But I wouldn’t advise placing any Super Bowl bets on these teams. Of all 15 teams since 1999 that have completed this particular turnaround season, none have went on to appear in a Super Bowl.

Perhaps you may want to bet against recent history and say none of these six teams will make the playoffs. Let me know if you do, I may just join you.