Thursday, January 22, 2015

Patriots Games



I feel like I have to write about it. I don't really want to. I'm biased, can't really help it in this case. I've hated this iteration of the New England Patriots, with their smug coach and their Golden Boy QB for far too long. I don't think any team comes close to them. The St. Louis Cardinals did for a time, and I'll always have a nice piece of contempt reserved for the Carolina Hurricanes, but nothing was close to the Patriots. So of course, I should feel happy that their enveloped by a cloud of suspicion once again, that the medical scalpel is revealing sordid layers of deceit. Yet, I'm not that glad, or even mad. I'm truly just nonplussed, in the literal sense of the word.

I loved the Spygate scandal, as it came at a very different time, when they had won Super Bowls more recently, when people still spoke of the 'Patriots Way' in the sense that the Patriots were just underdog kids who outworked everyone. Their nefariousness back then was more direct, more open, and more mockable. That was a true perfect storm, and it became the throughline for one of the more entertaining NFL seasons ever, from the events after Week 1, through the 'Eff-You' Pats run at 16-0, and through a Wild Playoffs ended with them losing a perfect season.

This was more rushed, and it did the one thing that I was hoping to avoid for these two weeks before the Super Bowl: care. I didn't want to care about this games, about two franchises I don't much like playing for a Super Bowl that, regardless of who wins, will be full of some truly hot taeks, like "Russell Wilson is the next Tom Brady', and "The Seahawks are a Dynasty", or "Belichick and Brady are the best Coach and QB of all time." I wanted to avoid that given the events of the last two weeks, with my favorite team possibly ending the career of my favorite player, and then laying the worst of eggs. Then I saw that tweet by Bob Kravitz. Many people cried Colts' homerism, jealousy and revenge at the tweet, but as someone who has followed the Indianapolis media, I know Kravitz would probably rather bash the Colts than prop up fabricated excuses. This rang true, and it has kept on ringing.

Despite the NFL messageboards being filled with physics lessons, calls of NFL sting's, claims by the Ravens, and tons of different reports pointing when this actually started (was it D'Qwell Jackson's innocuous interception, or the Ravens game, or the regular season game?), I held firm to what I believed in. Now, despite both Belichick and Brady today saying they have no idea what happened, I still think I believe strongly in what did happen.

Here's what I feel like I know: the Patriots deliberately under-inflated, or more accurately, deflated, their game balls ahead of the AFC Championship. Given the NFL wouldn't have truly cared, they likely did it in the Divisional Round, likely did it in the Regular Season game against hte Colts. They may have done it for years and years and years, though there's no proof, or even player/coach/team speculation of that.

Here's what I don't believe: I fully disagree with Belichick and Brady's claims that they didn't know this happened. Tom Brady is a QB, a QB so connected, so mindful and so anal about the little things in his game, that he, along with Peyton Manning, essentially forced the league for allow teams to 'rough' up their balls to the QB's liking for each game. Given that, I find it absolutely hard to believe that this happened without him knowing, if not outright directing it. I don't think McDaniels, or the equipment managers who this may get ultimately pinned on, would dare do something, nevertheless something illegal, to the footballs that Brady uses every game.

I'm less certain Belichick knew, but I don't think that changes anything. Belichick is the head coach of that team, he is, essentially the COO of the team, the man running the day-to-day operations of their main product: the players and their performance. If he didn't know this was going on, he should. Roger Goodell has done many things wrong, but I hold that his actions after the Saints bounty scandal was not one of those things. Back then he said, about Sean Payton, that ignorance is not an excuse. That applies here too.

Also, are we really supposed to believe that someone who will turn over every rock to find a small pebble of an advantage, as evidenced as recently as the previous week with his formations against Baltimore, does not know the rule, as he claimed today? Are we really supposed to believe that someone like him, who is the emperor in New England, did not know this was happening? If so, he should be ashamed that some underling could have done this under his watch and under his nose.

That all said, here is what I also know: This isn't that big of an infraction in isolation, but with the Patriots, we aren't dealing in isolation. Deflating the balls certainly gives you an (unfair) advantage. They are easier to control, easier to throw, easier to catch, and easier to grip. Things that help in every game, but certainly a game in adverse weather like the AFC Championship in the rain. Still, on its face, this isn't as big as the Bounty Scandal, or Spygate. But this can't be judged on its own. These are the Patriots, who, and their fans will always so otherwise, are hated as much for their reputation as their success.

The Patriots have few friends in the league. Bob Kraft may be respected, Bill Belichick may be even more respected, and Tom Brady may be the most respected, but I feel like none (other than maybe Brady) are particularly liked. Belichick has made no friends by pushing the boundaries, again as evidenced as recently as last week. That's why we get rumors and swirls that other players, management and even owners around the league want the book thrown at the Patriots. I don't know what the book means, and the book, especially if it involves suspensions, will occur after the Super Bowl, but something is going to happen. You get the sense that if this was just going to be a slap on the wrist, that would have leaked by now.

I also have some thoughts on the reaction. Not the reaction of Patriots fans, because they'll understandably try to defend their Leader at all costs, and not of the reaction of Patriots haters that want to see them suspended for the Super Bowl. I do have some other general thoughts. First, for the people that say "What does it matter, they won 45-7", there are two obvious counters:

1.) Does that implicitly mean it would matter if the game was close? I have a hard time believing those people would be immediately condemn the Patriots if this broke in full form after the Ravens game.

2.) Why does that matter, it is the process not the result.

The result does not matter. They could have cheated and lost, too. They still cheated their opponent and cheated the sport.

 The other area where I have issue with the reaction is those that other teams do it, or other QBs do it. I have never understood why people feel that this is a good, or even rational, defense. Isn't one of the first lessons society teaches kids that just because other people do it doesn't mean it is OK. I feel like many turn into five-year-old's when defending the Patriots, with the 'well... well... they did it too!" So what. If that is the case, either cheat better as this is the second time you got caught doing something 'everyone does', or don't belittle, show up and hate on teams and you won't get ratted out. There are tons of people that speed each day, far worse than you, but if you get caught going 77 in a 65, that doesn't really matter.

I have no idea what penalty the Patriots get, and assuming it isn't something franchise-altering, win or lose in the Super Bowl, people will likely forget about this come five years. When people look back at the Patriots dynasty, I'm still sure that Spygate will be the more infamous event; but it should be asked that here is a team always extolled as the class of the league, that has twice come out of shadows with blood on their hands. The only other institutional issue since Spygate was the Bounty case. 30 teams have, essentially, managed to steer clear of institution-wide controversy on-the-field, but the Patriots just seem to not be able to.

It doesn't matter that it would not have changed the outcome. It doesn't matter that Bill Belichick claims to not have known about this (his dumber lie - and this was definitely a lie - was claiming that he didn't know about anything until Monday, when the Patriots were forced to change balls at halftime). It doesn't matter that Brady pulled the same act and tried to distance himself, even bringing up ISIS for some reason. It doesn't matter that those two have a huge game to play in 10 days, and the Seahawks are sitting back. It doesn't matter if they did this once, twice, or have done it for every game since 2007. The Patriots did it, they attacked, embraced and finally exuded that beautiful shade of gray that they seem to permanently be attached to. I'll never feel bad for them, but I'll also never trust them again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Coping with Sports Mortality

This isn’t the first time I got over a Peyton Manning playoff loss within a day. This happened once before, back in January 2008. That was a time before I had DVR, and I came back home from a Regional Orchestra Concert to check my computer and see that the Chargers had upset the Colts 28-24. I was stunned, left to live with another January failure for Peyton. I didn’t even care enough to read about how he lost; good thing, since I didn’t have to worry about the gory details (picks that were screen passes batted up in the air, drops on 3rd and 4th down on the final drive, top-ranked defense blows lead twice and gives up TD to Billy Volek). Then, within a day I got over it.

The 2007 Colts were the 2nd best team in the AFC by any measure, and getting one-and-done’d by San Diego was most certainly a disappointment. Still, while they were quite clearly the 2nd best team, they were equally clearly not the 1st best. They wouldn’t have come close to the 2007 Patriots in Foxboro without Dwight Freeney and with Robert Mathis nursing his own injury. That team would probably have put up less of a challenge than the frisky Chargers did. It added up to another one-and-done, but it at least spared myself the ignominy of Peyton losing to Brady.

This year was different. I entered the weekend hoping the Ravens could knock off New England, and while they didn’t in their own crushing way, they exposed some flaws that I thought the Broncos could expose. Then I saw Peyton play, I saw him struggle to move, misfiring throws because he couldn’t step in to them. I was sure he was hurt, that something was wrong. That team, even if they eeked out a 17-14 win (you know, if that #4 ranked defense decided to show up), would have lost to New England. Word came out a day later that Manning’s thigh injury was worse than initially reported or thought, that he was really struggling all over the place since the San Diego game. Coupled with Manning’s diminished arm strength post-neck surgery, and the fact that he relies on his legs to generate power, it made sense that he was spotty. I was relieved to not have to deal with Broncos – Patriots (and, honestly, I can’t even talk myself enough into the Colts winning to care), but also saddened by the thought that seeing an injured Manning was my last sight of him.

Given the dramatic events that have transpired over the past 40 hours since the game ended, including the injury reports, to the millions of columns and tweets written his way calling for him to step aside (which I’m sure will burn him even more), to the firing of Fox and the uncertainty in the coaching staff, I was like a pendulum swinging between the idea that he was gone to he is coming back. I’ve know stuck on the ‘Manning is coming back for 2015’ side of the dial, but the fleeting moments where I thought he might have played his last game really got me thinking about my relationship with sports.

You always hear the phrase that you root for laundry, that the team is, and should, be more important than the players. That is a noble and serene frame of mind, held up rightfully as how to go about sports fandom, but it is a lie. It is a lie at least for someone my age. I’ve come to the point in my Sports fan life that I am seeing a full cycle of great athletes, but more importantly, a full cycle of favorite athletes, come and go. It started with Roy Oswalt, then it became Marty Brodeur leaving New Jersey, now it could be Peyton Manning. Rafael Nadal has seemingly been one bad slip away from the same roster for a few years now. I don’t remember watching football without Peyton Manning in the league, or watching the Devils without Marty. If I really am a sports fan, if I really will root for laundry, I can move on. As weird as it sounds coming from someone who has written primarily a sports blog for five –plus years now, maybe I am not.

When Peyton Manning left for Denver, I decided that while I will still follow and care for the Colts, my main goal as a fan will be rooting Peyton on to a 2nd Super Bowl, the one thing he deserves. I told myself that Peyton will play 3-5 years, after which I get prime-Luck for 10+ years. Now that I may be facing that scenario within a month, I’ve realized that I’m not ready for that world. I’m not ready for Peyton Manning to not line up on Sunday’s. I’m not ready for having a Manning-Brady debate that uses retrospective, instead of perspective and prospective. I’m not ready to root fully for Andrew Luck. I’m not ready to move on.

No athlete is as meaningful for me as Peyton Manning, mainly because no one combined so many interesting qualities. Manning was a perfectionist, a savant, a genius, but also deeply troubled in terms of his team’s inability to win in the playoffs. He was lauded and stoned by the media, by fans, by critics and appraisers. I always loved and will love him; I will put him up as the best QB in the history of football, and in my heart I know that is true, but I’ve never wanted other people to accept that fact more with any other athlete. Peyton was the life-force that drove my involvement. I do love football beyond Peyton. Certainly, if I have to rewatch a game, there are many I’ll choose ahead of games he was involved with; but Peyton drove me to know, watch, love and live the game. He may not be gone yet, but he will be within 24 months, I’m sure of it. Am I ready for that brave new world?
I was in hockey. I still love the game, if not the Devils less. I was ready in baseball, as I still love the game, and still love the Astros, that weird concoction of a Master Plan set to work by 2018. I don’t know if I’m ready for football. I’ve spent so much time and effort defending Peyton Manning, gathering evidence and counter-evidence, I feel like a lawyer who spent years working on one major case, or a writer doing the same for a book.

I knew this day would come with Peyton Manning, and I know it will for all athletes, but it actually happening is one of those interesting fork-in-the-road moments for a sports fan. Coming to face-to-face with your favorites star’s career mortality makes you investigate your own fanhood’s as well. I’ve already past the first test with no issue: having and starting to root for players who are my own age, if not younger. I can do that without any problem. But can I replace the first wave of favorites, of stars, of idols? Can I do that and continue to love this game, or any game?

He may return. He probably will return. He may return and, with a new aggressive coach, and some new pieces, and a full healthy thigh and a knock-on-wood healthy year ahead, go 14-2 and ride off into the sunset with that 2nd trophy. That could happen, but even then I’ll have to face this problem, I’ll have to move forward knowing that the most important piece of my life as a sports fan, the man that has lorded over my fandom and that league with equal importance for 15 years, is no longer there.
I once envied that day. Assuming he could win another ring, I couldn’t wait for both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to retire. Then I could enjoy games against major rivals, I could stand to listen to sports talk radio toss up silly ‘who’s the best QB?’ questions. I can go back to doing what a sports fan should do: watch the game without alternating between gnawing off every fingernail in anxiety and gnashing your teeth to every inane argument. That day seemed so bright, but faced with the reality (or half reality, assuming Brady stays longer), it loom’s like a dark cloud.

This isn’t only about Peyton Manning. As stated, I faced a similar reality with Marty Brodeur, and I don’t know if I’ll ever care about hockey as much. It happened with Oswalt, the first of my sports heroes to exit the limelight; he was an even more tortured soul, someone who never got even 1% as many glowing career obituaries that Marty did and Peyton will. I’ll face it with Rafael Nadal, who will likely be forced into retirement. I root for laundry, sure, but I also openly, unabashedly, root for people. I got invested in Peyton Manning more than I got invested in the Colts. I got invested in Roy Oswalt more than the Astros. I got invested in them as people, to get the recognition they deserve, the get the success and joy they deserve even more. Through that, I lost some touch with the laundry, and with my own joy that I deserve as a fan.

I’ve cited a concept introduced to me by a Colts blogger (and somewhat e-friend through the years on various sites) Nate Dunlevy, that a team should be judged by how many ‘Happy Sunday’s’ they give you, not if they ultimately win a title. This was in backlash to the Manning era, on his release, that they only went to 2 Super Bowls, and only won one. He said that we didn’t appreciate the Manning era, as year after year, the Manning-led Colts gave us 12 Happy Sunday’s out of 16. It was a great point, and so true with those teams. They went 12-4 or better for seven straight years. They also lost a playoff game in all but one of those seasons. Did that make them failures? Even if the answer is yes, the better question is should that make them failures? And that answer is most certainly no.

Peyton Manning gave me more happy Sunday’s than any athlete ever will. Even this year he gave me a bunch, including him beating a TD record few thought he could three years ago when he was throwing so badly Todd Helton was embarrassed. The Colts gave me a bunch, and now the Broncos did as well. I have to embody that spirit of the ‘Happy Sunday’ as I move forward into the inevitable Manning-less NFL. Remember those days, bank those memories. Not the memories of promising seasons lost, but how those promising seasons were created in the first place – the games, and joys, laughs, cries, and heartburn that combined to make them something special.


The goal for a sports fan is to root for laundry, and I’ll have to do that to keep going. Everyone’s career will be shorter than your life as a fan. Laundry is the only thing that won’t. But I won’t feel bad for not doing so in the past, or continuing to attach myself to great athletes that intersect with teams I am passionate about. That is going against what gave me so many Happy Sundays in the first place. Sports life without Peyton Manning will be a hard place, but it will still be sports, it will still be there. To capture my future as a sports fan, I do have to enjoy the past more. Those memories are banked, from Manning, to Brodeur, to Oswalt, to Nadal, to even Duncan and Zidane and Ed Reed. I have to appreciate all that they gave me, but also all I learned from them about the games they mastered. Their lasting gift to their fans were the memories, but also the knowledge and excitement they gave us for the games they played, gifts that will carry on long after they’re gone.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2014 NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Picks

The best weekend of the year, guys. It is here, Divisional Weekend. Four good games, three networks, 5 Super Bowl winning QBs, and the guy who will win at least one. They're all here on Saturday and Sunday Night!!


(A6)  Baltimore Ravens  (10-6)  @  (A1)  New England Patriots  (12-4)

Sat. 4:35  -  NBC    |    Patriots -7


State of the Teams: The Ravens have had some good success against the Patriots in recent years, don't you know? They have done some good work in this matchup, winning two of the three playoff games and close in every regular season game, apart form last year's 41-7 disaster. The Ravens also enter healthier than they've been in a while. They should get Eugene Monroe back, which should shore up their one large weakness on offense (LT). Their secondary is still injury riddled, but those riddles happened a while ago now, and they've settled on Rashaan Melvin on one side and Lardarius Webb, who's looking better each week, on the other. They've found a formula that somewhat works behind that great front. The Patriots have absolutely no injury concerns at all, though. Barely anyone's even 'questionable', and they usually put up half their lineup on the injury report. Edelman returns after missing his last two games with a concussion (and then rest). The defense is fully healthy. We are all healthy, living in Bill Belichick's world. Quietly, their offense struggled at times down the stretch, having 6 bad halves of their last 7 that they tried. The one expection was a scary 15-minute stretch against Miami to turn a 14-13 halftime score into a 41-13 laugher, but they struggled against San Diego, the Jets and the one half that the 1st-team was in there against Buffalo. They're not exactly entering the playoffs stronger than the team up in Denver everyone is picking apart.

The Matchup: We have evidence the Ravens match up well against the Patriots, or at least did from 2009-2012. They have a d-line that has won individual matchups against all members of the Patriots o-line, and a linebacker/safety grouping that can flood the middle and do a great job of anticipating the Patriots bread-and-butter routes. They also have an offense that can, when they play well, run and pass with equal efficiency and attack the Patriots deep. The difference this time is the Patriots of 2014 are not the Patriots of 2009-2012. They have a defense that matches up well with the Ravens. I don't think the Patriots are an inherently better team than the 2011-12 teams (DVOA would say they are not), but they are a different team. Their offense still does not mesh well with the Ravens. The Patriots can't really pass deep, and the Ravens are the #3 by DVOA defense on passes shorter than 15 yards (basically 90% of the Patriots passing offense), and the Patriots interior line struggles, and the Ravens can throw 8 different guys that are all good to very good (including Ngata, Suggs, who are noted Patriots beaters). The edges for the Patriots are on the other side. The Patriots struggle against other WRs and TEs. While Owen Daniels has played well in that scheme, he's not going to win many individual matchups, and the Ravens have no 3rd option. Torrey Smith and Steve Smith are not going to be nearly as good against that corner duo. I would like this matchup so much so even one year ago, but bringing in Browner and Revis can win them this game.

The Pick: I would love to pick the Ravens here. I'm not for a few reasons. First, they're a really public underdog, and the Patriots can get up for these types of games. The Ravens are seemingly being tabbed to win this game far more than they were in teh 2012 AFC Championship Game, and the Patriots already showed them up once last year in the 41-7 win (honestly, it was 27-7 before two NE defensive TDs against Tyrod Taylor at QB). The Patriots are better, healthier and have matchup edges. Sadly, I think they'll go to yet another AFC Championship Game.


Ravens 16  Patriots 24  (NE -7)



(N4)  Carolina Panthers  (7-8-1)  @   (N1)  Seattle Seahawks  (12-4)

Sat. 8:15  -  FOX    |    Seahawks -10.5


State of the Teams: The big injury actually happened in the week between games. It was the practice foot injury to Star Loutulelei, the massive, active and vitally important DT for the Panthers. His up and down play really mirrored the Panthers defense. He's not the best (or 2nd, or 3rd) best player on that defense, but against a historically good running team like Seattle, he may be the most important. He was really coming on lately, including a giant game against Atlanta in the division clincher, and it may be easy to state that any hopes the Panthers had just went out the window. They may actually have Philly Brown, and the Cam injury watch quieted as the week went on, but this team will miss Loutulelei dearly. The Seahwks are essentially really health and well set for this game. They enter the playoffs #1 in DVOA for the 3rd straight season, and even #1 in wDVOA (which counts more recent games more) for the 3rd year in a row. They are really good, really hungry, and gave up just 39 points in the last six games. Yes, those are against some pretty bad teams (49ersx2, Cardsx2, Rams, Eagles w/ Sanchez), but 39 points is kind of scary.

The Matchup: The last three times these teams played, the Seahawks won all three, but they won 16-12, 12-7 and 13-9 in the past three years. They trailed all three of those games in the 2nd half, and needed either a DeAngelo Williams fumble in the red zone (2013) and a Russell Wilson scramble-led drive (2014) to win. There are two caveats for all those games. First is they were all in Carolina, which is a large difference. The second, though, is more important: the Seahawks won all three! The Panthers played them tough each time in their own building, but they lost all of them. Now, the 2014 game was definitely a draw, but they were outplayed for a while in the 2013 game. The other issue is the Seahawks are just a better version of the Ravens. Their pass rush is about as good, especially without Loutulelei, and their LBs are about as good, but their secondary is far better. The Seahawks also have a good rushing QB, but they have a far better rushing QB right now (some of that is injuries), and they have more weapons and an overall better offense. The Panthers don't have a clear matchup other than I don't expect the Seahawks to run away mainly because I don't think they can score enough. The Seahawks are better everywhere, but there is something to those close games. It really means we have to quantify how much those games were close because they were in Carolina, or how much the loss of Loutulelei will impact the Seahawks easiest path to win (running).

The Pick: The game that screams out as similar to me is the last game the Seahawks just played, their Week 17 win against the Rams. That Rams team controlled the line of scrimmage (possible that Carolina does that), they had a 6-0 lead at the half, but their overall inability to move the ball and turnovers ruined the game for them. The Seahawks won comfortably, but it wasn't a blowout. I can see the same happening here, but I think the Panthers the way they are currently playing, are better than that Rams team, better enough to cover one of the higher lines we've seen in the playoffs in a while.


Panthers 13  Seahawks 20  (CAR +10.5)



(N3)  Dallas Cowboys  (12-4)   @   (N2)  Green Bay Packers  (12-4)

Sun. 1:05  -  FOX    |    Packers -6.5


The State of the Teams: The big question coming into this one is how much Aaron Rodgers' calf injury will impact him. We haven't really dealt with a clear and readily apparent QB injury before a playoff game in a while. Rodgers looked severely limited when he came back in the game against the Lions. He was still effective throwing, but he basically only stayed in the pocket. Against a team that doesn't rush all that well in Dallas that may not be a huge issue, but it changes the dynamism of the Packers offense. The Packers otherwise are healthy, but when their best player is in question, that changes everything. The Packers defense has really stabilized, and while it looked awful in the first 20 minutes against the Lions, in general they've done well in their Tampa-2 scheme. They are coached well, and while there are seemingly no great players, they did quietly rank #2 in the NFL in takeaways, and are consistent in getting them. The Cowboys o-line was awful, but that will most likely be an outlier rather than the new status quo. The only real injury to worry about is Rolando McClain, who left with an 'illness' (concussion). Nothing really defines the astounding nature of the Cowboys defense than Rolando McClain being a key cog.

The Matchup: To me, the key to this matchup is can the Cowboys offense absolutely win their matchup against the Packers to the point that it neutralizes Green Bay's offense. There is a recipe for them to do it. They have a great running game matching up against a not-so-good Packers rush defense. They are certainly in a more advantageous spot here than against the Lions and their historically good rush defense. Their o-line is bad against blitzes, but they'll likely be more prepared for that against a team that likes to blitz. Dez Bryant can win his matchup against anyone, and the Packers really struggle against TEs. The Cowboys offense can win that matchup; they really should win that matchup. The key is can they win in terms of scoring 7 instead of 3, and putting up 35 minutes. The key to hiding that Cowboys defense is literally hiding them, in terms of keeping them on the sidelines. Obviously, the other matchup comes down to Rodgers effectiveness. If he's close to 100%, the Packers will likely roll. If he's not, and he's likely not, they might struggle at times. That red zone offense hasn't been great this year and may be worse with a gimpy Rodgers removing his running threat.

The Pick: I have to pick an upset, and while I'm not confident of how easy this looks, given Rodgers' injury situation, this is my pick. The Cowboys offense is their defense, and their offense is good enough to win that individual matchup and dominate TOP. They are definitely better suited to do it here than against the Lions. They match up better here, where their running game can win the matchups, where Romo can get protection, and their offense can hide a defense that, in a limited time on field, can play well against a potentially injured Romo.


Cowboys 27  Packers 24  (DAL +6.5)




(A4)  Indianapolis Colts  (11-5)  @  (A2)  Denver Broncos  (12-4)

Sun. 4:45  -  CBS    |    Broncos -7


The State of the Teams: The Broncos last had a week off in Week 4, the week after their 'This is the Super Bowl Preview!' OT loss against the Seahawks. They had to live through Sanders having a concussion, Welker doing nothing, Julius Thomas getting hurt, and the O-Line shuffling around, but are now healthy. No real contributor is hurt in any way, other than for the people that think Manning is hurt (which I do not think is true). The Broncos are as healthy as they can be, and I'm hoping that week off gave Manning time to rest tat thigh. The Colts, on the other hand, have slowly back-sled into the team they were in 2012-13. The once decent o-line has become injury-riddled and bad. Their WRs are hurting with Hilton still nursing an injury and Wayne being marginalized. The defense is better than it has been in the past few years, but the offense can't really be counted on. Their running game is awful, as the only guy that can run also fumbles and is bad in pass protection. The Colts were a good team for a lot of this season, but injuries, for the umpteenth year in Indianapolis, have ruined this team.

The Mathcup: The Colts one kryptonite on offense is a good pass rush. Luck struggles against pass rush when he can't escape, and the Broncos are good at that. They generally do a great job of rushing while keeping their integrity and not letting mobile QBs get off. The Broncos defense on paper is great, by conventional stats and advanced. They give up bad 3rd downs, and that can definitely be an issue against a team that likes to throw deep, but the Broncos are one of the best defenses against deep balls. The Broncos defense will also shut down any hope of a running game. The more interesting question is the other side. Despite giving up 33 points, they did a great job against Denver last year, and did an average job this year (gave up 31), but it is hard to think they'll do it again. Over the year, the Colts have shown no ability to rush the passer against a good offense. Hell, they haven't shown any ability to do anything against a good offense. The Colts will likely put Vontae on Demaryius. The key here will be if Julius Thomas is finally healthy. If he is, then he can have a huge game against the bad team against TEs. The Colts do have one real advantage, though. They are quite good on Special Teams, while the Broncos, like every Manning team ever, is awful.

The Pick: This is the least competitive on paper. The Colts in Week 5 had a decent shot, but the Colts in Week 19 have a far less shot unless one of two things happen. First, if Manning is truly hurt, which I don't think he is and I'm not factoring in here, and second, if Andrew Luck has just a inhuman game, but I don't see either as likely. The Broncos are a better team, and what is odd is I haven't even mentioned the biggest name in Denver: CJ Anderson. The running game should work well against the Colts, and do well to perpetuate the 'Manning is hurt' myth.




Colts 20  Broncos 34  (DEN -7)

Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Weekend Review

I've picked playoff games in the 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons. I've only gone 4-0 once, the divisional round in 2009. That was probably as tough as this past week, but I won my great upset pick, putting up the Jets to beat the 13-3 Chargers as 9.5-point underdogs.


Wild Card Picks:

Cardinals 10  @  Panthers 23  (CAR -6)  (CORRECT)
Ravens 23  @  Steelers 20  (BAL +3)  (CORRECT)
Bengals 16  @  Colts 27  (IND -3.5)  (CORRECT)
Lions 20  @  Cowboys 24  (DET +7.5)  (CORRECT)

Week: 4-0

Not only did I get all the picks right, I got the exact score right with Lions @ Cowboys. I got the score for the Arizona @ Carolina game in the Cincy @ Indy game, and nearly did the reverse (10-26 instead of 10-23 what I picked).


Player of the Week - Luke Kuechly (MLB - CAR)

This wasn't the best set of Wild Card Games, but there were some standout performances, none better than Luke Kuechly's to me. He was a deserving Defensive Player of the Year last year, and while he wasn't quite as good, he's been as good the last few games. I realize the Cardinals offense stinks, but he still played out of his mind, ruining screens and deep passes, brilliantly reading Lindley on that huge interception to hold the 27-14 lead, and generally being a monster. If the Panthers have any chance, he will have to do the same in Seattle, if not more.

Runner-Up: Andrew Luck (QB - IND)

Luck was my choice last year, and by all accounts he was better this year. Now, the Bengals lack of pass rush and injuries did not provide much resistance, but Andrew Luck somehow managed to be better than his stats of 31-44 for 376 yards. He had multiple drops on deep throws, and a TD taken away by a holding penalty. Those things do happen, I guess. Luck continues to get better, and showed amazing restraint by checking down to Boom Herron far more than even the Luck from three weeks ago would have.


Goat of the Week - Drew Butler (P - ARZ)

The two teams that lost badly were just not as good, and both the Steelers and Lions had no obvious worst player, so I'm going to give it to the player that was probably obejctively the worst player last week. When you have a performance like Drew Butler did, it goes beyond reason. He was bad during the season, but didn't approach that. Butler was lucky to get 35 yards on a punt, hitting three less than 30. Only one of those was altered by an unlucky negative bounce, too. The Panthers were better, but getting to start on the 40 each drive really helped. Butler didn't lose that game, but considering what field position would have done, he definitely helped.

Runner-Up: Pete Morelli's Crew

Doing a quick look down, this is the only award I am giving to anyone in this game, which is sad given it was by far the best game from the weekend, and due to the picked-up flag it becomes more memorable than it should be. Pete Morelli probably cost himself a shot at the Super Bowl (which many had intimated he was in line for) by being way too hasty to announce the penalty. His own crew botched the call, missing two obvious penalties and debating the third obvious one, adn then not flagging Dez Bryant. The Cowboys may win anyway, but that was a trainwreck.


Surprise of the Week - The Ravens Secondary

It was odd that the loss of Rashaan Melvin meant anything, but when he got banged up, Ravens' backers got nervous. That alone indicates how banged up, nameless, and pedestrian the Ravens secondary was this year. That said, they played reasonably well, and for them, reasonably well is about their limit. None were great, but they were able to hang with one of the best passing attacks in the NFL. Antonio Brown had a few big plays, but was held in relative check. Markus Wheaton was invisible, and Martavis Bryant had limited impact. The best player to me was Darian Stewart, who played quite nicely as the deep safety. I was expecting the Ravens front to dominate, but for the back end to relatively hold up was a great bonus.

Runner-Up: The Panthers Other Receivers

We all know about Kelvin Benjamin, the talented youngster who makes some highlight catches and makes some awful drops, but on the whole is just a nice player. what we didn't know about was the others. Philly Brown had a really nice game before leaving for injury. Jerrico Cotchery was not targeted much, but did well when he was. Finally, Fozzy Whittaker had the play of the game. Without natural talent aside from Benjamin and Olsen, the Panthers have to turn to these types of players on offense to really move the ball, and it worked once again.


Disappointment of the Week - The Steelers Creativity

I'm not a huge Todd Haley fan and I think he neutered Roethlisberger's best qualities in 2012 and 2013. I can't say his offense didn't work this year, it was amazing it times. However, without Leveon Bell, Haley gave up on the run and decided to rotate three running backs that he was never planning on using anyway. The Steelers tried to use screens, but they could have used Brown as a runner, or tried more intermediate throws. The Steelers just didn't have much creativity to their offense after having a year where that really didn't happen.

Runner-Up: Us for expecting anything different from Arizona and Cincinnati

It's confusing, but I was disappointed at myself at being disappointed at Arizona and Cincinnati. Let's pity the Cardinals, a team that manufactured a 9-1 start behind two competent QBs (and one good QB in Palmer) and a defense that made plays. They were a deep bomb offense that played balls to the wall, and won some close games. That team is gone and let's give them a moment of silence. For the Bengals, let's not get upset and ask questions on why this team can't win a playoff game. This wasn't losing to TJ Yates like they did in 2011, or losing to the 9-7 Chargers last year after going 8-0 at home, and losing 10-27. This Bengals team was flawed, injured and had a terrible matchup. It's sad, but not angry, and not worth thinking too much about.


Team Performance of the Week - The Panthers Defense

Once again, it is easy to dismiss what Carolina did because it was Arizona, and it was Ryan Lindley, but they held a team in the playoffs to under 100 yards. They gave up 50 yards net passing for the entire game. Their pass rush dominated, their linebackers dominated. Their secondary played well again. They never gave the Cardinals a real chance, despite Arizona lucking into 14 points. The Panthers defense resembled the unit that was so dominant in 2013, a team that was so good in the front seven there was literally no room to throw. Awesome job by one of my favorite pet units.

Runner-Up: The Ravens Offense

The Baltimore Ravens were one of the only teams to rank in the Top-8 in Points for and against. They are a good offense. In a tough environment, with their two normal starting OTs down, the Ravens were great. From that first long TD drive built on the run, to Flacco seamlessly playing the Kubiak offense, to Steve Smith continuing to be the ballsiest, toughest dude in the NFL, the Ravens played an A game on the road in a Wild Card game. Considering the Steelers were probably the best home team, the performance of the Ravens was just great.


Team Laydown of the Week - The Bengals Pass Defense

The Bengals have a bad rush defense. They had a bad offense due to personnel injuries. Yet, through that, they had a good, deep secondary. They could cover. They were still a Top-10 pass defense. That pass defense was just bad. Now, there were injuries to Rey Maualuga (their top cover linebacker), and Dre Kirkpatrick, but they even let Hakeem Nicks beat them. If there is one area of the Bengals to really criticize, it isn't Marvin or Andy Dalton, it is that pass defense.

Runner-Up: The Lions 2nd Half

I wanted to touch on that game one more time, so I'm putting the whole Lions here. I'm still not totally sure how the Lions went from 17-7 up, with just one bad play, to losing. I actually put it up mostly to coaching conservatism that took over that team in the 2nd half. They ran the ball to no real success. They didn't throw deep at all. They punted on 4th and 1 when another first down takes two minutes off and likely puts them in field goal range, and, maybe most crucially, they stopped blitzing on defense. Their blitz packages were working brilliantly in the 1st half and it mostly disappeared, and now the Lions have.


Storyline that will be Beat into the Ground - It's the Ice Bowl!, and did you know Peyton played for the Colts?

This may be the most easily hype-able Divisional Round ever, especially on Sunday. Packers @ Cowboys is probably one of the most hype-able Divisional Round games since Romo and the Cowboys last played in this round, travelling to Minnesota to play Brett Favre. Then again, the Colts and Broncos is about as easy as it gets as well. Manning against the Colts is one of the easiest sells ever. Why I think this is overrated is that I don't think these are two games close on paper. The Cowboys don't match up well with Green Bay, given their defensive deficiencies against a higher-powered offense. Also, unless Manning is truly hurt, or Andrew Luck decides to play like Aaron Rodgers circa 2011, Indy really doesn't match up well.

Storyline that Should be Beat Into the Ground - This Should be a Fun Two Days, not just One

That said, those are nice games and good storylines, but so are the two games on Saturday, and those are nice as well. Ravens @ Patriots is an easy sell, given the recent history between those two teams. Some of the punch is gone with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis gone, but there are some good additions, like Steve Smith. The Ravens do match up reasonably well, just because the they are good at everything. Along with their historical edges, the Ravens are just a good team. In the night, Carolina is not a good team, but has played like one over the last few weeks. The last time they've played the Seahawks, they've lost 12-16, 7-12 and 9-13. Yes, they lost all three and yes, those were all in Carolina, but I think the Panthers can keep this close.


More to Come This Week.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Round Picks

(N5)  Arizona Cardinals  (11-5)  @  (N4)  Carolina Panthers  (7-8-1)

Sat. 4:35 - ESPN   |    Carolina -6


The State of the Teams: It's odd that the team that is 7-8-1 has not really faced many questions over their losing record. Last time around, the 2010 Seahawks were hammered over and over about being under .500, to the point where it was insanely motivating. Here, the 11-5 team is getting questioned on their viability with Ryan Lindley. Beyond just having Lindley, the Cardinals are in a rough spot. They're just 2-4 after their 9-1 start, with their once great defense showing cracks, which is not surprising when they know if the opponent scores 20 the game is likely over. The once great run defense has struggled mightily, and their offensive has no running game to take any pressure off of Ryan Lindley. For the Panthers, they are indeed under .500, but 7-8-1 doesn't look too bad when they were once 3-8-1. They bookended the wining streak with 31-point beatdowns of their top two division rivals. The Panthers have gotten healthier, and more importantly, steadier all over their team, with some stability now on their o-line, and lineup changes having the same effect in their secondary. The Panthers are definitely a better team than that 2010 Seahawks group.

The Matchup: The Cardinals main strength that they still have as they are among the most effective teams blitzing with their enviable secondary depth, and they are still the best team in the NFL at stuffing runs for losses or no gain. The problem is that they have to blitz because their pass rush was decimated by injury, and they have started giving up way too many big runs when the opponent breaks that initial push. The Panthers, on the other hand, are a perfect opposite; they have no secondary depth and against many teams could be picked apart. That said, they match up really well with the Cardinals offense (most people do right now), as their front has gotten back to Top-10 level, and can push Lindley, and can swallow up whatever run game they try. The Cardinals like to push it deep, but the Panthers zone coverage is far better on deep throws than intermediate routes. The intermediate game is just not in the Cardinals arsenal right now. 

The Pick: It was basically implied with what I wrote, but this is a good spot for the Panthers. They're at home, getting an awful QB and a team missing a bunch of players. Then there are all those matchup edges that they have. The Panthers defense is not their 2013 unit, but it is close enough that I would be shocked if Arizona can get to 20 without a Defense or Special Teams TD added. That is one matchup edge for the Cardinals, but their Special Teams are not good enough to cover up disadvantages on both sides of the ball. Bruce Arians is a terrific coach, and the Cardinals had a wonderful season, but I don't think they have the horses to win this one.



Cardinals 10  Panthers 23  (CAR -6)



(A6)  Baltimore Ravens  (10-6)  @  (A3)  Pittsburgh Steelers  (11-5)

Sat. 8:05 - NBC    |    Steelers -3


The State of the Teams: The big injury news is Leveon Bell out for the Steelers. That should be a sizable loss, as he was the most dynamic dual threat RB in the NFL, and a brilliant outlet option for Roethlisberger. Bell was Top-10 in DVOA and DYAR both rushing and receiver for a RB. He was somewhat of a non-factor in the Steelers win, but just losing the threat of a run really hurts the Steelers offense. The Ravens enter with no major new injuries, key word being new as their secondary was ravaged by injuries through the season to almost comedic proportions. They will get Haloti Ngata back off of a 4-game suspension, which should go further to strengthen their front seven. The issues with the Ravens mainly is their offensive sluggishness over the past few weeks, scoring 20, 13 and 20 over their past three games. Of course, the Ravens were sluggish in a similar fashion heading into the 2012 playoffs. The Steelers defense has improved in recent weeks as their young linebackers continue to make strides. They'll need that level of defensive performance at least going forward.
The Matchup: This rivalry remains intense, but some of the major players have been replaced over the years. Reed and Lewis are gone for the Ravens, while Hines Ward is gone for Pittsburgh. What remains are two fairly evenly matched teams that have somewhat heated intensity between each other. The Steelers are basically unlike any Steelers team from years past. The closest comp was in 2009, but even then they had a Top-5 defense. This year, by DVOA, the Steelers had the #30 defense. It was better in recent weeks, but that is a very recent trend, and that underscores just how bad they were for most of the season. The Steelers, on the other hand, have the #2 offensive DVOA, placing highly against the pass and run. A key edge for them is their deep passing game, which should work given their improved o-line protection and the injuries in the Ravens secondary. The Ravens do match up well with that Pittsburgh defense, a defenisve unit that struggles to stop runs consistently. It is just one of those games were no team really seems to have much of a matchup edge, with both teams matching strength on weakness to a similar degree.

The Pick: I really have no idea in this game, and the line reflects that. With Leveon Bell out these teams are about as close to even as you can get, though in different ways. The Ravens were among the most consistent teams in the NFL, mostly playing good football each week of the year. The Steelers are somewhat the opposite, with some notable struggles and more notable successes. The Ravens haven't beaten the Steelers in the playoffs in recent years, but this is probably the best chance they'll have. Even the weather is helping as a driving rainstorm should help the defense heavy Ravens. I'll go with them, but I'm not confident about that pick at all.



Ravens 23  Steelers 20  (BAL +3)


 
(A5)  Cincinnati Bengals  (10-5-1)  @  (A4)  Indianapolis Colts  (11-5)

Sun. 1:05 - CBS    |     Colts -3.5


The State of the Teams: The Bengals haven't won a playoff game with Andy Dalton and/or Marvin Lewis, haven't you heard? After getting one of those at home last year, they go back on the road to play an AFC South team, just like they did in 2011 and 2012. The Bengals defense is not close to as good as it has been the past three years, and the offense hasn't come close to reaching the heights it did at times last year. That all said, this team has won 9, 10, 11 and 10 games over the past four seasons and skinned some pretty big cats, beating the Broncos, Patriots, Packers and Saints over the past two years. The Colts on the other side put up their third straight 11-win season, but while that may indicate stagnation, their peripherals (DVOA, scoring differential) improved each year. The defense has hit a nice level where they can ruin mediocre to bad offenses, and they come in healthy apart from a late injury to Gosder Cherilus. I guess I can stop burying the lede here, the Bengals will likely be without AJ Green, which is a huge loss. They've already lost Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones. I feel bad for Andy Dalton, as he'll face a giant mountain of criticism if they fall to 0-4 in the playoffs.

The Matchup: The Colts struggle against good offenses. Really struggle, to the tune of 40 points and 450 yards per game. What's nice is the Bengals, without AJ Green, is not a great offense right now. They absolutely shut down the Bengals the first time around, forcing 8-straight three and outs. That won't happen again, but what made the Colts successful on defense the first time should as well. The Bengals pass protection improved as the season went on, but blitz teams like the Colts will give them issues. The Colts have an awful run game, but the Bengals can match them with a bad run defense, and if the Colts continue to bite the bullet and utilize Herron more than Trent Richardson, that run game goes from awful to mediocre. The Colts passing game should have a nice matchup with their TEs against the soft Bengals linebackers. They'll need too to combat the depth of the Bengals secondary. These teams are almost comically similar in DVOA, but the Colts are notably better at home, going 7-1 in Lucas Oil Stadium for a 3rd straight year. 

The Pick: The Colts are better at home, dominated them the first time around, and the other side hasn't won a playoff game since 1990 and are missing their best player. Why is this line so low? You can make the case that without AJ Green, the Colts are better even if this game was in Cincinnati. I'm not sure what the deal is here. It seems to obvious. The Colts have the matchup edges against the Bengals offense, and can score in that building against all teams not named the Baltimore Ravens. I don't really see how the Bengals win, but that number is driving me nuts right now.



Bengals 16  Colts 27  (IND -3.5)



(N6)  Detroit Lions  (11-5)  @  (N3)  Dallas Cowboys  (12-4)

Sun. 4:45 - FOX    |    Cowboys -7.5


 The State of the Teams: I guess the sharps are thinking the Cowboys are entering this game far better, as this line has only gone up since it opened. The Lions are fully healthy, with Calvin over his midseason injury woes, and Ndamukong Suh un-suspended. The Lions defense has been consistent all year long, never giving up more than 350 yards passing and only allowing one 100-yard rusher. The Lions have a historically good rush defense, keyed by that boy Suh. The Cowboys are fully healthy as well, and playing so, so well right now. They finished December scoring 40 points per game. The did finish just 4-4 at home (meaning they went 8-0 on the road), but their last home game was a 42-7 woodshed-ing of the Colts. The Cowboys defense has stayed reasonably consistent in that 15-20th best defense in the NFL way. The largest outlier really is the Lions offense, which has the same personnel that was among the most voluminous from 2011-2013, but has really struggled in 2014. Stafford's general inaccuracy has hurt them, but so have drops and the lack of a run game. That run game should get worse with Larry Wofford out, though Riaola's return may alleviate some of that.
The Matchup: The Cowboys run more than any team in the NFL other than Seattle. They ran it better than any team in the NFL other than Seattle. Giving Demarco Murray 392 carries may have some troubling long-term effects, but for now he ended the year about as good as he started it. The Cowboys do have a mightily effective passing game, but they've rarely had to rely on it. They might have to given how good that Lions front is. The Lions will throw their main strength, their interior d-line, against the Cowboys relative strength. That matchup may decide this game. On the other side, what happens when two mediocre units match? The Cowboys basically throw 11 average guys out there with good coaching and fundamentals, which works. The Lions do have the ability to explode for 30 points or 400 yards, but that just has not been happening in 2014. The Cowboys will likely go zone, which is a great way to go against an erratic QB that depends on hitting a few deep throws. 

The Pick: This line is really high, there's no real other way to say it. I'm shocked the Cowboys are getting so much love. They are at home, and are holistically the better team, but the Lions aren't a great matchup for them. The Lions can play the Cowboys running game to a draw, and Tony Romo and that passing attack just haven't had to do this year. The Cowboys defense is not great, but the Lions aren't really the team to expose that. I do think the Cowboys are better and I would pick them to win but going against a TD number is not a smart decision when you have a defense first team that can keep the Lions within 2 possessions for most of the game.



Lions 20  Cowboys 24  (DET +7.5)

Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 NFL Playoffs: NFC Playoff Primer

It's that great time of year... NFL PLAYOFF TIME. And to get us started, here's my yearly Playoff Primer, the one 40,000 word document guaranteed to be fully wrong within 14 days. As a preview each team capsule has the following information:

Stat Breakdown giving their points and yards for and against, and then their Football Outsiders DVOA numbers overall, and for offense, defense and Special Teams.

The capsule also includes write-ups on their offense and defense, QB and coaching staffs, with a concluding ranking of 1-6, compared to their NFC (and AFC, for the next post) playoff comrades.

Finally, for teams seeded 6-3, I'll give a brief look a which of the Top-2 seeds I think they can beat over the other.

As a note, I utilize Football Outsiders' stats a lot, including their overall DVOA figures, DVOA and DYAR figures for players, O-Line and D-Line stats, and their drive stats. All of these are readily available at FootballOutsiders.com, a site that should be a must-visit for any real NFL fan in the 21st Century. I have not used any stats that are for their paid Premium members (of which I am), but they reveal almost too much great information.

Here We Go...

6.) Detroit Lions  (11-5  =  321-282)



Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 321 ptf (22nd), 282 pta (3rd), +39 ptd (13th), 5,452 ydf (19th), 4815 yda (2nd)
= Outsiders: +4.4% team (14th), -3.7% off (19th), -13.8% def (3rd), -5.7% st (31st)

Offense: This was so much harder to rank in the AFC, where all the offenses are between league average to Top-5 in the NFL. The NFC is far more dichotic. The Lions start off as a team that is basically the exact opposite of the last Lions team to make the playoffs. That team scored 474 points, averaged nearly 400 yards per game, and Matthew Stafford had a 97.2 passer rating with 41 TDs. This year's team scored 150 fewer points, gained 900 fewer yards, and Stafford's rating fell to 85.7. Now, Calvin Johnson was injured for part of the year, and the TEs of the Lions offense cratered, but there is no good reason why the Lions offense is this bad. But it is. We have 16 games of evidence to show that the Lions are at best an average offense. There is nothing the Lions are really bad in, but they are just average at seemingly everything apart from not turning the ball over. They are between 15-20 in DVOA in the following: passing, rushing, pass protection, run blocking, yards/drive, points/drive, and red zone offense. If Calvin is healthy they can potentially be dangerous as they've been able to integrate Golden Tate into the offense well, but it is hard to really count on any of that happening. If only they could have combined the 2011 Lions Offense with this year's team. Rank: 5th

Defense: The Lions were the #1 defense by DVOA for the first 10-12 weeks or so. They were never historically good by DVOA, but were consistently excellent. Then, the Bills overtook them for a few weeks, bouyed by Buffalo beating down the Packers. Finally, the Seahawks took over the top spot, but the Lions still do something better than any team, and something historically good: stop the run. Now, that was much more useful when the Ravens did it in 2000 (that's the only rush defense with a higher DVOA), but the Lions being able to essentially rule out the run game with their front is important. The Lions secondary is a lot better this year with the improvements from their corners, and Deandre Levy has been arguably a Top-5 coverage linebacker. The Lions defense is solid at all levels. They have fits where they don't get enough pressure, which can allow teams to throw underneath to reasonable success, but they tackle well. The Lions are surprisingly average in the red zone, but are top-10 in all the other drive stats, including forcing takeaways, something not true of even the better Jim Schwartz-led defenses With Suh un-suspended, and Nick Fairley potentially returning, this is a great defense that would rank #1 in the AFC. Unortunately, they are in the NFC, but Suh and Co., are still good enough to allow for a middling offense to be good enough to win games.. Rank: 2nd

Quarterback: Matthew Stafford is between the 15th and 10th best QB in the NFL. He was closer to Top-5 in 2011, but that seems to have been his peak season unless something changes. Stafford is still just 27, but he seems to really plateaued mentally as a QB. Stafford himself ranked 15th in DYAR, but just 20th in DVOA. Some of that can be explained away by injuries to the o-line and a gimpy/injured Megatron, but that is not what you expect given the bevy of the rest of the weapons at Stafford's disposal. His one playoff performance was a decent game, but his team was overmatched. He should have the confidence this time that the Lions won't allow the most yards ever in a playoff game. Rank: 5th

Coaching: Jim Caldwell flew under the radar as a 1st-year coach to lead his team to success. He inherited a talented-but-flawed team that went 11-21 in the past two seasons. His team played sharper, more determined and less reckless. If he were anyone other than the man last seen failing in Indianapolis and calling random timeouts in playoff games, people would care. I don't think Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi has done anything to make me trust him, though. Defensive Coordinator Terryl Austin is the opposite though. I would love to rank them higher, but the NFC is loaded with good coaching staffs. Rank: 6th.

Top-2 Seed That They Can Beat = Packers: I don't think the Lions can beat either, but I think they have a better shot to beat the Packers. That would require winning in Lambeau, a place where that franchise hasn't won since the pre-Favre days. Still, their defense knows the rhythms of that Packers passing offense reasonably well right now, generally holding them under 30. Their offense has struggled all year, but if you need them to break out and score 27 points, it is far more likely they do that against the Packers than Seahawks.


5.) Arizona Cardinals  (11-5  =  310-299)



Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 310 ptf (24th), 299 pta (5th), +11 ptd (16th), 5,116 ydf (24th), 5,891 yda (24th)
= Outsiders: -6.0% team (22nd), -9.3% off (23rd), -5.5% def (7th), -2.2% st (21st)

Offense: Despite giving no plaudits to the Lions offense, they aren't close to the worst offense in the NFC Playoffs. That is the Lindley, or at best Stanton-led, Cardinals. In some ways, they are like the Lions but worse in everything. They too don't really turn the ball over, but that's because while Carson Palmer was safe with the ball, Ryan Lindley is almost too inaccurate to be intercepted. They are 20th or worse in all those categories the Lions were between 15-20, apart from a slight ability to pass protect. With Ellington hurt even the run game is completely ineffective. With Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and a relatively re-born Michael Floyd, they have some interesting weapons, but unless Stanton comes back they are basically completely hopeless. Let's just move on, I'm so depressed. Rank: 6th.

Defense: The general trend through the season was the Cardinals defense was playing really well despite their injuries and the pressure put on a team to never allow an opponent to score 20 points. That is mostly true even today, but the injuries that appeared early in the season are rueing themselves today with the depth pressed more than previously. The Cardinals still do a few things really well. They are the best team in the NFL at forcing runs of zero or negative yards, allowing them to get ahead of the downs a ton. Their rush defense overall has fallen off (100+ yards in 5 of last 6, 200+ in last two) but that is more teams getting huge chunks when breaking the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals also cover well. They are incredible against slot and 3rd WRs, showing their depth, and are great against RBs. They limit the opponents production to only #1 and #2 receivers. The issue with the Cardinals is that they aren't great at getting pressure without blitzing. Their big-safety look (3 or 4 safeties) allows them to blitz and cover well, but when you basically have to blitz to get pass rush, that is not a great place to be in. They are still good enough in the run game to rate where they do, but the current iteration of the Cardinals defense is nowhere near the teams #3-1, especially the #1 and #2 teams. That wasn't the case through October. Rank: 4th.

Quarterback: The NFC is a bit boring, where I'm probably going to rank the QBs the same way as the offenses, but that is the case more often than not in the modern NFL. This is an easy pick, however. Ryan Lindley or Drew Stanton is the worst QB in the playoffs this year. Stanton actually had a modest year in the advanced metrics, with a positive DVOA and DYAR, but Lindley was below in both. He's just not a good QB. I'm happy for him that Lindley threw a TD pass finally, but he is the biggest liability any one team in the playoffs. Rank: 6th

Coaching: Bruce Arians is a God, going 21-11 in is first two seasons in Arizona, the best two-year run the franchise has ever had since the Sid Gillman days. Still, the bloom came off the rose a bit with his inability to adjust the offense to something even competent with Lindley at QB. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles is starting to get a little too aggressive in his defensive calling, which can hurt as well. The coaching staff is still good, but cracks have appeared against conditions no one should face. Rank: 4th.

Top-2 Seed That They Can Beat = Packers: The Cardinals really can't beat anyone. They might be the most obvious team to lose a Wild Card game since the Vikings with Joe Webb from two years ago (or the Matt Cassel Chiefs in 2010). If they are going to put up a miracle upset, it would be over the Packers, against a defense that would more likely allow a few long bombs to the receivers. The blitz package won't likely work against either, but I think their defense would fare better against a less explosive running game.


4.) Carolina Panthers  (7-8-1  =  339-374)






Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 339 ptf (19th), 374 pta (21st), -35 ptd (23rd), 5,547 ydf (16th), 5,437 yda (10th)
= Outsiders: -8.9% team (25th), -5.0% off (20th), -1.6% def (15th), -5.5% st (30th)

Offense: For the Panthers, we really have to separate their post-bye performance (4-1, with the loss in a game where they basically played the Vikings even but lost due to two blocked punts for TDs) from the pre-bye. Pre-bye was among the worst offenses in the NFL. Cam Newton had no time, was hobbling around when he did have time, and his receivers alternated amazing catches and ten drops. The Panthers offense was terrible. Post-bye, the offense is still not good, but it resembles the unit that finished 2013 as a Top-10 offense. The Panthers all year were reasonably good at sustaning drives and avoiding 3-and-outs, and holding onto the ball. That helps supplement their defense. Cam Newton has grown more comfortable oddly after his car crash, as he's back to running 5-10 times a game, even on designed runs. An active Cam Newton is a dangerous one. With Jonathan Stewart looking healthy they have a full run game now. Kelvin Benjamin drops way too many passes, but he remains a good downfield target for Cam. The Panthers offense is also back to its cool scheming ways that work to score ~20 points a game. That's good enough in the NFC for at least one round. Rank: 4th.

Defense: Over 16 games, the Panthers defense looks average, ranking 15th in DVOA. They are, however, 7th in weighted DVOA, an adjustment that weighs recent games more. Of course, over the most recent set of games, they're even better. The Panthers haven't allowed 20 points on defense since their embarrassing loss on Monday Night to Philadelphia. They haven't allowed 400 yards since their tie. Some of those were due to starters resting late, but the Panthers defense has been trending upwards for a while now. Their rushing defense has become strong once again, and their pass rush improved from one of the worst in the league to a Top-10 unit in the 2nd half as everyone gets used to their Greg Hardy-less roles. Due to employing Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, they are great against TEs and RBs, but struggle at times outside. That has gotten better when the coaching staff replaced aging, useless vets with Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere. Those guys aren't great, but they're doing what the Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn types did last year. The Panthers were surprisingly below average in the red zone, but that is another area where they've improved. The 2013 Panthers were basically 90% as good as last year's Seahawks team. This year's Panthers are probably 80% as good as last year's Panthers team, but trends say they're close to their best right now.. Rank: 3rd

Quarterback: Cam Newton is far better than those numbers. He had nothing to work with most of the year. The Panthers o-line was awful, his main targets kept switching and his receivers dropped basically all the passes. Newton stayed engaged and stayed as good. One of the keys of their turnaround was stability in the o-line, which stabilized Cam Newton. The Cam Newton of the past four weeks was the same guy that led a 12-4 team last year. Rank: 4th.

Coaching: It's weird to lob some praise for a team that went 7-8-1, but let's look at the team that went 4-1 and the coaching staff that took them there. Ron Rivera basically controls that defense, and his personnel changes keyed the defensive resurgence, like removing Thomas Decoud in favor of Tre Boston and inserting Bene Benwikere. The offense itself schemes well and gets their limited players into space and allows them to make plays. I like this staff more than most, and I like Ron Rivera's go-for-it mentality. Rank: 2nd.

Top-2 Seed That They Could Beat = Seahawks: The Seahawks and Panthers have played two extremely close games in the last two seasons. The Seahawks won 12-7 and 13-9, both times scoring late TD drives to win the game. The Panthers defense can do well against that running game, and stop the TEs and RBs that Wilson uses a lot, and have the defensive speed to track Russell Wilson. On offense, I'm not sure how they would score, but I like their chances against a team they've barely lost to than the team they trailed 35-3 against (Green Bay).


3.) Dallas Cowboys  (12-4  =  467-352)



Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 467 ptf (5th), 352 pta (15th), +115 ptd (5th), 6,122 ydf (7th), 5,681 yda (19th)
= Outsiders: +13.8% team (6th), +17.0% off (4th), +4.1% def (22nd), +0.9% st (12th)

Offense: I don't know if they're better on offense than they were in 2007, but they are definitely more efficient. They turn the ball over less, move the ball more, and are basically an ultra-efficient 1990's offense playing in the 2010s. It is horrifying that Demarco Murray was given nearly 400 carries, especially when primary backup Lance Dunbarr averaged nearly 7 yards per carry. The offense stayed healthy and their top players played well. Tony Romo was #2 in DVOA this season, and #5 in DYAR despite missing two games. Jason Witten had his best season in years. Dez Bryant stayed healthy and focused and scored 16 TDs on just 85 catches. Finally, that o-line is sturdy, is the best run-blocking line in the NFL and keeps Romo upright. They've built a throw-back offense that works so well. They are great in most of the per-drive stats, ranking Top-5 in Yards/drive, points/drive (2nd), and red zone efficiency (3rd). They do everything well, and even though they are doing it in a way that is feels more a home in 1994 than 2014, doesn't mean the Cowboys are bad. In fact, if they go deep, or continue this efficiency in 2015, it may be an interesting case study and example that running and building a great o-line is the new market inefficiency in the NFL. Rank: 2nd.

Defense: The Cowboys defense was a laughing stock coming into 2014. They followed up a franchise-worst defense in 2012 (Hello, Rob Ryan!) with an ever more absurd 2013 group. Well, despite losing Sean Lee and letting Demarcus Ware walk, they improved to below average, which is nice. They rank 22nd in total defensive DVOA, 22nd against the pass and 23rd against the run. They are top half against #3+ WRs, RBs and TEs, but their main corners struggle a lot against top weapons. Their pass rush sorely misses Demarcus Ware, ranking poorly in hits and sacks. There are a couple areas where the Cowboys (relatively) excel in, and they both align with what a good Tampa-2 defense should do. They are the top team in the NFL in forcing turnovers per drive. They also force more field goals than all but two teams. Giving up scores of yards is mititaged when you force a ton of fumbles and force teams to kick field goals. That won't save them overall, as turnovers dry up in the playoffs, but that is a pretty noticeable area to rank really well in. Better that than the alternative of being average to worse in everything. Rank: 6th

Quarterback: I'm not a proponent of 'QB Playoff Winzz' so I do believe that Tony Romo is better than Russell Wilson. You can make some argument he was better than Rodgers this year. I won't personally, but the argument is there. Romo was amazingly accurate this season, with a completion percentage close to 70%, and above 72% over the past 8 games. Romo was the most efficient QB in the NFL this season, and the one knock is he didn't have to throw as much as others. He still did more in fewer throws than most. Rank: 2nd.

Coaching: I had a hard time placing the Cowboys coaching staff. Jason Garrett owns that offense that suceeded all year long as arguably the most ruthlessly efficient and consistent offense in the league at both running and passing. There is some blame to go around for the decision to give Demarco 400 carries, but that is a bigger problem for 2015. The defense improved and played above its talent level with Rod Marinelli involved, which is nice. Overall, their time management and game management issues hurt them in my eyes, but that is a good staff overall. Rank: 5th.

Top-2 Seed That They Can Beat = Seahawks: Because, well, we've seen it. The Cowboys haven't beaten the Packers since that Favre TNF game in 2007. They even lost to a Matt Flynn led team last year after leading by a bunch. As for Seattle, they went into Seattle and smacked them. The game was close because the Seahawks scored 17 points on drives that went less than 30 yards. The Cowboys physically mauled them up front and outgained Seattle 2-1. That won't happen again, but the same matchup edges exist.


2.) Green Bay Packers  (12-4  =  484-348)



Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 486 ptf (1st), 348 pta (13th), +138 ptd (3rd), 6,178 ydf (6th), 5,542 (15th)
= Outsiders: +23.3% team (3rd), +24.6% off (1st), -1.0% def (16th), -2.3% st (22nd)

Offense: It starts and ends with Aaron Rodgers, the best QB in the NFL. Rodgers finished 1st in DVOA, and slightly behind Roethlisberger, who threw the ball ~50 more times. Rodgers' 38-5 TD/INT is just sickeningly good. You have to adjust for era a lot, but statistically he's the modern day Steve Young, someone who has mastered the things that make you good by QB rating. He may be somewhat limited in the playoffs if that calf injury reaggravates, but the Packers looked decent using Rodgers exclusively as a pocket passer on Sunday. Cobb and Nelson were both Top-7 in both DYAR/DVOA for WRs, being the best and most perfectly meshed, WR duo in the NFL. Rodgers is even more comfortable using Richard Rodgers as a TE this year. They score more points than anyone per drive, score more TDs than anyone, and go three-and-out less than all but two teams. They are the best offense in the NFL, and with Eddie Lacy healthy and good for the past 10 games they can beat you running the ball as well (they ended up #6 in rushing DVOA; that is bumped up by Rodgers himself). The Packers had some notable struggles on the road against good defenses (Seattle, Detroit, Buffalo), but it isn't like many teams dominated those defenses on the road. What sets this Packers offense apart from their other recent teams aside from 2011 (when they were unhuman) is their o-line gives Rodgers plenty of time this season; scary, scary stuff. Rank: 1st.

Defense: The Packers defense is probably better than you think but also worse than you think at the same time. They have mitigated some of the problems that faced their defenses from 2011-2013, but they do also excel in the areas those teams excel in. They rarely give up big gains on the ground. They are Top-5 in creating takeaways, something the Packers have seemingly done well throughout the Rodgers era. The Packers defense is better against the pass, but their corners are tasked with playing a lot of man coverage which doesn't always work. The Packers are perfectly slightly above average across the board in pass defense, ranking between 9-16 against #1/#2/#3+/TEs/RBs in DVOA. It's not great to not have any area where you excel, but its also good to have no true weakness to attack. The Packers won't win because of this defense, but they have enough athletes, and a scheme that can create enough mismatches, to make the 3-4 stops necessary to win games. Rank: 5th

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers is great. He's the best QB in the NFL right now. He's the best quantitatively (highest passer rating, best DVOA, best DYAR if you include rushing, etc., etc.), or qualitatively (he can do things no one else can dream of). Rodgers may be effected by that calf injury, but with a full two weeks off (Packers play the Sunday early window in the Divisional Round), I'm more worried about a re-aggravation than the current one hampering him. Rodgers is incredibly quick with his delivery, can fire them on the run (when perfectly healthy) to his right or to his left, and with a better o-line, his sack issue is even lessened. Rank: 1st.

Coaching: We tend to focus too much on what a coach does on Game Day. We criticize the 4th down calls, the punts, the use of timeouts. However, what happens the other 165 hours that are not game day is far more important. That is where McCarthy excels, building game plans that utilize each member of the Packers offensive skill players. Dom Capers defense played well this year and showed more flexibility than in years past. Rank: 3rd.


1.) Seattle Seahawks  (12-4  =  394-254)



Stat Breakdown
= Conv.: 394 ptf (10th), 254 pta (1st), +140 23ptd (2nd), 6,012 (9th), 4,274 yda ((1st)
= Outsiders: +31.3% team (1st), +16.7% off (5th), -16.3% def (1st), -1.7% st (19th) 

Offense:  The Seahawks offense generally looks better by advanced metrics since they never turn it over and throw deep more often than most teams. That said, I still think the numbers from Outsiders overrates the Seahawks offense. They are the best rushing attack in the NFL, mainly because Russell Wilson had probably the best rushing season by a QB since Michael Vick's Atlanta days, or at least Cam Newton in his rookie season. The Seahawks are a middling red zone offense, and very average in passing the ball. Quietly, Russell Wilson got worse as a passer in 2014. Some of that could be injuries to o-line and weapons, but he was less accurate. Wilson ended up 16th in DYAR and DVOA. Not great. The passing attack has no one great weapon, but Paul Richardson played well as the season went along. Still, this is all about the running game. Marshawn Lynch had another fantastic season, placing 3rd in rushing DVOA and DYAR. Even backups Christian Michel and Michael Turbin played. I don't know if it is really an improvement in run blocking, or Lynch and Russell Wilson turning disaster into 20 yard gains, but the Seahawks can grind clock as good as any team. They just better hope they don't fall behind by more than 7 late, because I don't know if the 2014 Seahawks passing offense can bring them back. Rank: 3rd.

Rank: The 2013 Seahawks definitely cratered in teh middle of the season, when Bobby Wagner got hurt, and Red Bryant went on IR. Bryant is obviously not coming back, but Wagner did and the Seahawks went on a 2000 Ravens type run of stopping teams. Against average opponents (Cardsx2, 49ersx2, Eagles, Rams), the Seahawks gave up just 33 points, not giving up a TD on four occasions, and giving up no more than 245 yards. Speaking of yards, they gave up ~550 fewer yards than any other team, and ever since following their loss to Dallas, gave up over 300 yards just once (their win over the Giants). All in all, they gave up fewer yards than the 2013 Seahawks did. Still, before people think this team is that team, there are some areas of concern. Their pass rush improved from awful to league average, but it is still league average. They finished #3 in passing defense DVOA, and had a weakness against TEs that last year's team did not. Overall they were the 2nd worse #1 defensive DVOA in Football Outsiders history. They are awful in the red zone, ranking 3rd worst in giving up points per red zone trip. They are just league average at forcing takeaways. There are some negatives there. Of course, they're still the best defense in the NFL, suffocating opponents all year since Dallas overpowered them.. Rank: 1st

Quarterback: I thought about putting Cam Newton ahead of Russell, but then I came to my senses and left that haterade behind. Still, Wilson definitely regressed at a QBs main job, which is passing effectively. He finished 14th in DYAR and 15th in DVOA, which is probably around right. There were fewer weapons for him this year, but not too far worse than last year or the year before. Wilson got worse as a passer. Luckily for him and Seattle, he's the best running QB in the NFL since Michael Vick's prime. Rank: 3rd.

Coaching: Pete Carroll's defense took the challenge of increased scrutiny on contact and holding and responded by playing basically the same anyway. Carroll gets that team motivated like few others and his scheme has turned the Seahawks into a monster once again on defense. Bevell's offense has adjusted to more run heavy than in year's past, which showed good ability to respond to personnel and strength changes. This Seahawks coaching staff is on a roll right now. Rank: 1st.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.