Buy or Sell: December

December football is all about the playoff race. Which teams will stay afloat and which ones will sink?
Can we trust the Bills and Chiefs to make a run? Photo credit: ESPN.com

Can we trust the Bills and Chiefs to make a run? Photo credit: ESPN.com

A new month means it’s time for a new Buy or Sell. We can all see that some playoff spots are pretty much locked up (Panthers, Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, etc.), so I’m gonna focus on those wildcard teams that absolutely need a good December to have a shot. But first, let’s see how I did last month:

BUY: San Diego Chargers (2-5) → (3-8) = 1-3 in November — Severe Failure

BUY: New York Jets (4-2) → (6-5) = 2-3 in November — Mild Failure

BUY: Seattle Seahawks (3-4) → (6-5) = 3-1 in November — Great Success

BUY: New Orleans Saints (3-4) → (4-7) = 1-3 in November — Severe Failure

SELL: Indianapolis Colts (3-4) → (6-5) = 3-1 in November — Severe Failure

SELL: Washington Redskins (3-4) → (5-6) = 2-2 in November — Mild Failure

Wow, November was rough. It’s actually hard to do as bad as I did on purpose, let alone on accident. But this won’t stop me from uselessly speculating. This month, I’m narrowing my focus to just three teams in the AFC. It seems everyone is getting hot right now in pursuit of that wildcard spot. Can they stay hot in the month that matters most? How they fare will determine if we’re watching them in January. Here are two teams I think will give themselves a shot until the very end, and one I see sinking under the pressure:

Kansas City Chiefs (6-5): BUY

I used to absolutely despise this team earlier in the year. They were losers and even worse, they were boring. They love to establish a run game and play it safe through the air with short passes. They’re one exciting player Jamaal Charles even got knocked out for the year midway through the season. At 1-5, there was no hope for this team. But then somehow–right around Charles’ injury–they just started winning! They have now won five straight and are actually leading the AFC wildcard race. They’re still as boring as before, but to their credit, they’ve stuck to their identity and nearly perfected a winning formula. Their defense is quietly one of the best in the last month, allowing over 13 points in just one of their past five games. Alex Smith’s last interception was in September, making it so hard for opponents to turn the tide if they’re trailing. I have to admit I was wrong about the Chiefs earlier this season and now I’m jumping on this bandwagon with all I’ve got. Usually I’d avoid buying such a hot team, but their December schedule sets them up for success. All four opponents (Raiders, Chargers, Ravens, Browns) have losing records. If they stick to what they’re doing, they should be able to pull at least three of these and have a great shot at one of those two AFC wildcard spots.

Behind JJ Watt, Houston's defense has put them in contention. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Behind JJ Watt, Houston’s defense has put them in contention. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Houston Texans (6-5): SELL

If the Chiefs aren’t the hottest team in the league, then it’s the Texans. They’ve won four in a row after a bad start and like Kansas City, have established themselves as AFC wildcard contenders. They’re defense has been fantastic, allowing just two touchdowns in their last 16 quarters. Brian Hoyer has proved that he was the right choice from the very start, keeping the turnovers low while getting the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, one of the top receivers in the league. Having said all that, I just can’t bring myself to trust this team. I don’t have a lot to back that up besides a gut feeling. Looking at their upcoming schedule doesn’t help that feeling much either. To make a serious playoff push, they have to survive the 5-6 Bills, the 10-1 Patriots, the 6-5 Colts, and the 2-9 Titans. It’s not the most brutal stretch in the world, but the Bills and Colts game will be the make or break games. I can see those going either way and based on my gut, the Texans will revert back to the team they were in the beginning of the season and fall out of the race.

Buffalo Bills (5-6): BUY

Unlike the Chiefs or Texans, the Bills are a step behind some good teams. They’ve lost two close games to the Pats and Chiefs and it seems like people are starting to forget about them. What a perfect time to buy a solid team. Buffalo won’t impress anybody with their wins resume–wins over Colts and Jets are their best–but they’ve got a solid defense and one of the best running games in the NFL. My feeling about this team comes from a similar place as my feeling about Houston. I just have that gut feeling that Buffalo can string together a few wins. Tyrod Taylor has been better than we expected and like Smith, limits the turnovers and keeps his team in the game. Their game today against Houston is huge. A win here will give them a much needed tiebreaker advantage and also set them up to win over their NFC East slate (Washington, Philly, and Dallas). They have the capability to beat Washington, though that will be a tough game. Where they have to pick up wins is against struggling Philly and battered Dallas. If they manage to go 3-1 in these, they have a real shot. When everybody is looking at hot teams, I’m looking at the slow and steady Bills in December.

 

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The Bills and Texans Experiment: How far can a great defense take you with a below-average QB?

The Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans boast a couple of the best defenses in the NFL this year. Their weakness lies on the other side of the ball at QB. We’ve seen great QBs carry poor defenses to the playoffs, but can either of these elite defenses pull off the reverse for their QB?
No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo's defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

No offense will look forward to facing Buffalo’s defense this season. Photo credit: WGRZ.com

You might best remember the Bills for their fantastic defensive performances late in the 2014 season against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Although the game resulted in a loss, the Bills intercepted Manning twice, kept him under 180 passing yards, and most importantly, kept him touchdown-free. This was easily Peyton’s worst game of the year. The main issue for Buffalo was stopping running back CJ Anderson, who found the endzone three times. That trifecta of scores aside, Buffalo actually made life difficult for Anderson, who finished with only 58 yards on 21 carries (2.8 yards/carry).

As impressive as this was, the pinnacle of Buffalo’s defensive success came against Rodgers, the eventual MVP of the league. Rodgers experienced the same struggles as Manning, throwing two picks and no TDs. This was his only game all season without a touchdown. But perhaps the most stunning stat of all from that game was Rodgers’ pass attempts, which reached 42 by game’s end. Unlike Manning, who only threw the ball 20 times, Rodgers was slinging all game. Time after time, Buffalo answered the bell, stifling the MVP like we’ve never seen before. This time the Bills prevailed in 21-13 victory.

Buffalo ended the season with arguably the best defense in the league, allowing just over 18 points per game (4th in NFL), just under 5000 yards total (4th), and 30 takeaways (3rd). Despite trading talented linebacker Kiko Alonso, they show no signs of slowing down this year. Defensive savant Rex Ryan has taken over the head coaching duties and finds himself in charge of yet another team with questions at QB, much like his former New York Jets.

After winning an offseason QB competition, Tyrod Taylor was tabbed the starting QB for Buffalo. The Virginia Tech alum has only appeared in 14 games since being drafted by the Ravens in 2011. In reality, he’s only truly played in one NFL game. This was in 2012, when the playoff-bound Ravens rested their starters in a meaningless season finale. Taylor went 15/25 passing, 149 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. It’s safe to say that Taylor’s ability to play in the NFL has yet to be tested with real action. Being named the starter for Buffalo is by far the biggest feat of his career and we’ll finally get to see what Taylor can do.

JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney look to make life difficult for opposing QBs.

Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt look to make life difficult for opposing QBs. Photo credit: ESPN.com

The predicted success of Houston’s defense largely lies in its talent. Many believe defensive end JJ Watt is the best player in the NFL, MVP or not. He forces offensive coordinators to form plays around him or–to be realistic–avoid him. Fans are thrilled at the return of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick from the 2014 NFL draft who suffered a season-ending injury last season. Houston will also welcome former New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, hoping he can make a similar impact in their system. From Brian Cushing to Johnothan Joseph, Houston has talent and depth all over this defense and it’s why they are expected to be one of the NFL’s best.

Much like Taylor, QB Brian Hoyer had to survive a QB competition before being awarded the starting role. Hoyer has a bit more NFL action we can look at, but still a limited sample size. The last we saw of Hoyer was last year in Cleveland, where he was the starter as well. Hoyer found success early, helping the team reach 7-4 before struggling hard in the next two games. At 7-6, Cleveland decided to give Manziel a shot at salvaging the season. This effort fell flat as Johnny Manziel was roughed up in his first NFL start, handing the starting role back to Hoyer after an injury. The painful last weeks of the season finally came to a close as the Browns finished 7-9, missing the playoffs.

So Hoyer has found some scattered success in the NFL, but not anything to raise our eyebrows over. He’s average at best and like Taylor, will be tasked with winning games with an elite defense behind him. Can these guys do enough to take their teams to the playoffs? Both teams will likely be competing for the AFC wildcard spots, as their rivals in the Colts and Patriots have strongholds on their respective divisions. They’ll be looking at competent and successful QBs like Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger vying for the very same spots. These QBs are used to moving the ball effectively and putting large numbers on the scoreboard. More importantly, they are QBs used to making the playoffs (except for Tannehill, yet).

In a time where there are so few great QBs coming out of college, a playoff birth for either the Bills or Texans will mean hope for those teams without a decent QB. It will mean that being stuck with a below-average passer isn’t a death sentence as long as you can grow a strong defense behind them through the draft and free agency. For now though, it remains a tough task as teams without a good QB continue to miss the playoffs year after year.