NFL Check In: Trades, QBs, and More

We’re around the midpoint of the NFL season, and it hasn’t been too exciting a season. Maybe it’s because I’m a Giants fan and the Giants have been an absolute trainwreck this year. Maybe it’s because after all these years of following and watching, I’m finally getting sick of it. Maybe it’s because the NFL as a whole has just been in decline, which I think there are plenty of reasons for. But that’s another conversation. (And no, players kneeling during the anthem isn’t one of them. Seriously, if that bothers you, you need to get over yourself.) Nonetheless, there have been some things going on around the league that I think are worth going over. Let’s start with some surprising trades we’ve witnessed over the past week, starting with the Pats trading away their backup QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2018 second round pick.

Normally this wouldn’t be that unusual for the Pats. They’ve dealt good backups as well as good starters before without so much as a bat of an eye. It’s only surprising now because Tom Brady is near the end of his career (even if his play on the field doesn’t indicate it), and there were many indications throughout the offseason that Garoppolo would be the guy to succeed Brady. After filling in very admirably for Brady to start the season last year, it would have been a very Patriots-like thing to do to trade him. There were whispers about the Browns, and the Patriots would have likely been able to get decent value for him. The general understanding was that the Pats chose to stick with Garoppolo because they truly did believe that Brady was close to the end and that he could be the guy to succeed Brady. The Pats clearly thought very highly of him, as confirmed by how Belichick reacted to losing him this week. Judging based off that explanation that Belichick gave, which was unusually revealing for him, it seemed like the Pats wanted to keep Garoppolo, but with Brady playing at such a high level, they couldn’t afford to sign a backup to a long term contract, even if they did like him. Which makes sense on their part. It’s just puzzling at first because if that was the logic all along, then you would have figured they would have traded him during the offseason. But I think it was also a question mark as to whether Brady would play as well as he is. As Belichick said, they tried to keep Jimmy as long as they could but just couldn’t make it work, likely because of what they would have had to pay him.

As for the niners, it’s a bit puzzling on their part as well. They’re winless to start the season, but there have been signs of progress. 5 of their 8 losses have been by 3 points or less. At the end of the day, the logic behind giving Shanahan and John Lynch long term contracts seemed to be that this was going to be a long term rebuilding project that was going to take time. No one was really expecting results this year. It’s why Shanahan came into the season with Hoyer as the starter. The understanding was that he just needed someone to hold the ship down and run the offense and then next year, the niners would likely draft a QB. Hoyer hasn’t been that good, which is why he was benched for CJ Beathard, the niners 3rd round pick from this year’s draft. But with Hoyer’s release, it’s clear that Garoppolo will now be the starter.

What I’m wondering is, why now, and what does this mean for the niners long term? Certainly if Garoppolo stinks up the joint this year they have no obligation to keep him. Obviously as a coach your number 1 goal is to win games, but still, if this was going to be a rebuilding year without a QB, why bring in Garoppolo midseason? Are they just seeing if he has the potential to be a franchise guy, and if not they’ll cut and run (like the Bears did with Glennon)? Do they want him to be their starter long term? At this point you’re 0-8, so you’re already on the fast track for the number 1 pick in the draft. It just doesn’t make sense to me to change the course. If Garoppolo plays well enough, they could fall off that path. We already haven’t seen enough of Beathard to know who he is. He’s probably not the guy, but why not let him finish up the season just to see and then draft a guy next year?

And what if Garoppolo isn’t the guy long term? I guess it’s not a huge risk move, but I’m not entirely sold on Garoppolo yet. Obviously he’s played well with New England. And yes, he seems better than backups they’ve had in the past that haven’t gone on to do well. He’s more talented than Cassel and Hoyer, and he’s more disciplined than Mallett, who was never a great fit for the Pats. Still, you have to mention those guys. Cassel especially, but also Hoyer, both played well for New England, and they couldn’t keep it up elsewhere. In fact, the sample size overall for backup QBs that went on to be starters elsewhere because of good play in good systems with limited action isn’t great. Outside of Cassel and Hoyer in New England you have Kevin Kolb from Philly, Matt Flynn from Green Bay, and most recently Brock Osweiler from Denver. Now obviously the Pats thought highly of Garoppolo so that’s worth something, but it’s no given that he’s a starter in this league. The sample size is way too small. He’s had a game and a half of regular season action as a starter. So for the niners, it’s not a very high risk move, but I just don’t see the logic behind it. Why not see what Beathard has, ride out the rest of the season, and draft Darnold No 1 overall next year? Then again, as Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com suggested this morning, maybe the niners just don’t like the incoming college QB crop.

The other two big trades were even more headscratching. Let’s start in Carolina where the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin had a great rookie season and has been inconsistent since, although Cam Newton and the passing game have also been inconsistent and erratic and it’s always hard to separate receiver performance from the guy throwing to him. Benjamin was meant to be a big receiver with a big catch radius, a guy who can give Cam Newton margin for error. It’s the same profile as Devin Funchess, their other WR, which is why some on NFL Network last night suggested that the Panthers felt they could get rid of him. Funchess certainly has come on recent, but I don’t know about that theory either. Because the Panthers knew what they were getting in both Benjamin and Funchess. They purposely picked both those receivers with that profile because they knew it fit Cam Newton’s playing style. The Panthers GM recently said that this move was about making the offense faster. It’s a bit of a headscratcher, but at the end of the day, it’s likely that they felt good about Curtis Samuel (their 2nd round pick from this year) and Christian McCaffrey, and thought that they had other holes they needed to fill that they could with the draft resources they got from this trade. Maybe they also didn’t want to pay Benjamin once his contract was up. At the end of the day, a lot of these moves are about value relative to cost.

And then there’s Jay Ajayi from the Bears to the Eagles, another headscratcher. The Dolphins offense had been one of the worst in the league and their passing game with Jay Cutler is pretty much nonexistent. Ajayi can be somewhat of a week to week proposition, but there’s no doubt that he’s talented and one of the tougher grinders in this league. Their offensive line hadn’t been playing well, but without Ajayi they have basically nothing to hang their hat on on offense. Maybe Gase wants to go full on rebuild? Doesn’t seem like him. Maybe there were just off the field issues or philosophical differences. I’ve heard some whispers about that. Ajayi is somewhat inconsistent, but for an offense that’s been that bad and has had absolutely no passing game, it doesn’t entirely make sense.

In other news, the Broncos just benched Trevor Siemian for Brock Osweiler. It’s likely not a move they wanted to make, but Siemian just hasn’t been cutting it in recent weeks. It’s unfortunate, as I’ve liked Siemian. He has a decent foundation and wasn’t the main issue last year. I always thought with a good surrounding cast he can play well. He started the year off well but the Broncos are currently in a 3 game losing skid, and the Broncos likely felt that with a defense as good as theirs, they couldn’t have their Quarterback holding them back. It’s true that Siemian simply hasn’t been playing well enough. At his best he’s an Andy Dalton type player, a ball distributor who won’t wow you and won’t carry your offense by himself but can run your offense if you give him a team. But he’s made some very poor decisions in the past few weeks. I’ve also noticed that the ball isn’t coming out of his hands with quite as much zip as I’m used to seeing from him.

It’s unfortunate, because he really is their best option. Brock Osweiler did flash at times when Kubiak was head coach, but he was one of the worst Quarterbacks in the league last year, and he’s not going to do much for you. His flaws are tough to work around. It’s alarming that Paxton Lynch hasn’t been given an opportunity. They wanted him to win the job in the preseason and drafted him high enough to tell you that they thought he could be their guy in the future. That he couldn’t even beat out Siemian, a 7th rounder, and that they aren’t turning to him now, shows that they know something we don’t, and he hasn’t progressed the way they may have hoped.

Still… I’m extremely skeptical that Osweiler will provide them with anything. Maybe we’ll see Lynch in the future. Who knows. This should have been Siemian’s job to run with and I don’t see the switch helping them, but unfortunately he hasn’t been good enough, and when that happens in this league, you’re going to lose your job.

On the other end of the spectrum, how good has Deshaun Watson been in Houston? It’s really crazy to watch. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Of course, he’s far from a finished product. O’Brien is helping him a lot, and defenses will figure out ways to stop him. But still, the aggressiveness and playmaking prowess is refreshing in this age of checkdowns. And he’s passed so many really really hard tests. He was inches from beating New England in New England, Seattle at Seattle, and Kansas City. And he’s started the seasons with 19 touchdowns (breaking Kurt Warner’s record of most for the first 7 games of a career) and 8.3 yards per attempt. He’s escaping, throwing down the field, and making Andrew Luck type tight window throws down the field. But he doesn’t have anywhere near the arm Andrew Luck has. Physically, he’s not that different from where scouts had him. He’s just making the plays. Kudos to him. After years of QB purgatory post Schaub era, it seems like the Texans have their guy. It will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

Lastly, let’s wrap things up by looking at who the marquee teams are around the league right now. This year has been as we’re starting to see a shift in the guard of who’s good in the NFL. The Tom Brady wave of QBs will retire soon. Rodgers is hurt. The patriots defensive losses finally seem to have caught up to them. Brees is still great but on the tail end. The Chargers have been blowing leads and comebacks for 5+ years now. And the Steelers passing game hasn’t matriculated as we would have expected. Overall, it seems like a crappy year for the league. Cardinals, Panthers, Falcons, Giants, a lot of names that have been in it recently are not this year. But we’re also seeing some new teams rise up to take their place. The Eagles are looking very good with Carson Wentz. Obviously his development has been great but its the whole team that looks very complete right now. Then you have to love what the Chiefs are doing with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. And Alex Smith is playing differently than he ever has. It seems like the drafting of Pat Mahomes really lit a fire under him and he was sick of everyone saying he doesn’t throw down the field enough. They are the cream of the crop this year, and I would love to see them take out PIT and/or NE in the playoffs. And I don’t expect them to go too far with their QB and being in the same division in the Patriots, but the Bills have been quite the surprise under Sean McDermott this year. They are now 5-2 which is shocking, to be honest. Even the Jets, who looked about as close to committing to tank as any team could be, are 3-5 and fighting hard every week. I won’t say I’m excited for it, but this week’s Bills Jets matchup on Thursday night might even be worth watching a bit.

The league is always in flux and things have certainly been changing as of recent. But at midseason, the contenders and pretenders are starting to sort out, and it will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

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How does the 2017 Patriots Offense compare to the 2012 team?

The Patriots followed up their Superbowl comeback for the ages with a fantastic offseason, and many are already penciling them in as Superbowl favorites yet again. The offense has found a way to become even more talented, and while this unit will inevitably draw comparisons to the 2007 team, I’m not sure that’s a valid comparison. People try to make that comparison pretty much every year, but that was a special team in a unique set of circumstances. That was the year the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, one of this game’s few truly transcendental players, capable of escalating the play of and changing the identity of an offense regardless of where he plays and who he plays with–not to mention how the defense approaches you. He was a guy who was, at his peak, unstoppable. Even if he was well covered, he would often still find a way to make the play, simply because of his sheer unmatched physical talent. The Patriots had to change a lot of their passing concepts to incorporate Randy Moss into the game plan, and they haven’t really been the same kind of downfield passing offense since. Throw in the fact that that Patriots offense in many ways revolutionized the way the game is played; they were the first offense to use shotgun formation more than 50% of the time (the NFL average in 2006, the year before, was 19%, while the NFL average this previous season was 68%). They were also unique in just how pass heavy they were in certain games, often not even trying to run the football (although I don’t have the numbers for that). They still do that more than a lot of teams, but it truly was unusual and relatively unseen in 2007 when they rolled out that record setting offense. Throw in the fact that Tom Brady, at least in the regular season, had arguably the best season of his career, that the Patriots secondary WR’s of Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were more traditional downfield receivers than they’ve had since, and that the league just wasn’t ready for the way the Patriots planned to use Wes Welker (the small, shifty, dink and dunk slot guy in a primary role), and 2007 was a unique year for the Pats in that they really were ahead of defenses, and that the offense they ran, in virtue of all the factors I just mentioned, was a unique one, even for the Tom Brady/BB era.

I thought a better / more interesting comparison would be to compare the 2016 Patriots Offense with that of 2012. 2012 isn’t really looked at as that special a year for the Patriots, but looking back on that roster on offense, they were pretty stacked at just about every position, and pretty balanced in terms of run/pass as well. I thought it would be useful to compare this year’s Patriots with that unit, and maybe in doing so, we can decide if all the Patriots offseason hype is justified.

Quarterback: Tom Brady (2017) vs Tom Brady (2012)

 

Brady is a better QB now than he was in 2012. I was not super impressed with Brady’s 2012 and viewed it as a step down from his spectacular 2011 season (and spectacular 2010 season, for that matter). The numbers were still good, and it was still a good season overall, but I thought his pocket presence was lacking and had taken a step back, and I viewed most of the good numbers as a result of the system as well as a relatively weak schedule. And although the overall numbers were good, there were signs of decline: his yards per attempt and completion percentage were the lowest they’d been since 2006. This decline spilled into the 2013 season–where he struggled significantly, especially for the first half of the season, and his numbers were notably worse–after he lost essentially all of his receivers in the offseason.

What I did not predict was the degree to which Brady would bounce back. He’s won two Superbowls in the past three years. This past year, 2016, was especially impressive. Not only did he fix his pocket presence, but he’s actually become a much better functional mover than he was before. It’s evident watching him that he’s a LOT more comfortable making plays late in the down and moving when he has to get off his base. It’s pretty impressive. He’s still improving his game even at this age, and he’s no longer just a quick rhythm passer. He’ll move around and make improvisational plays if you need him to. Even more impressive is that last year, he made a notable improvement to his deep ball and throwing to the outside–general areas of weakness for him throughout his career with the exception of the 2007 season, and especially after his ACL injury in 2008. These were notable areas of weakness I saw for Brady in 2012 (playing late in the down, pocket presence, and throwing deep and to the outside), and that he’s essentially corrected them is a testament to how great he is.

At Tom Brady’s age, the decline could essentially come at any time. History has not been kind to 40+ year old Quarterbacks. But assuming he keeps up the level of play he showed last year, the Patriots are in very good shape.

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Julian Edelman (2017) vs Wes Welker (2012)

 

Stats:
Julian Edelman 2016: 98 Rec, 1106 Yards, 11.3 Y/R, 3 TD
Wes Welker 2012: 118 Rec, 1354 Yards, 11.5 Y/R, 6 TD

You’re more or less talking about the same guy here. I was a big Welker fan, did not like how the Pats treated him after the 2012 season, and was skeptical that Edelman could replicate his production. But he has, and he’s arguably a more versatile player, with the ability to play on the outside, get deep, and return kicks. Welker could do all those things too, but Edelman probably does them better. As a pure slot WR, Welker is still the gold standard: Very few have his lateral agility, football IQ, change of direction, twitch, toughness, motor, and start/stop ability. Still, we’re essentially splitting hairs.

Welker was on the back end in 2012 (he started to have some issues with drops), but his production didn’t show it. Edelman is probably more in the prime of his career now than Welker was in 2012, but at some point, all the hits he’s taking are going to pay a toll. Again, Edelman is probably the more versatile player, and that along with what he likely has left in the tank, should merit me ranking him above Welker. Still, considering the respect I have for Welker, as well as how reliable was and well he played his role in 2012, I’m not sure I can put him below Edelman.

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

 

Stats:
2016: 25 Rec, 540 Yards, 21.6 Y/R, 3 TD
2012: 55 Rec, 790 Yards, 14.4 Y/R, 11 TD

No one does a better job of filling the “just as you’re ready to call him the greatest tight end ever, he gets hurt again” role better than Gronkowski. I was actually surprised at how low his 2016 numbers were, but again, that has more to do with availability than anything else. It’s also shocking that the Patriots completed that comeback in the Superbowl without him, as his loss is usually what sinks them in the playoffs.

Still, when Gronk’s healthy, it’s pretty clear what he offers and what a dominant and unstoppable force he is. It’s pretty self-evident, everyone knows it, and there’s not much else to be said. His play speaks for itself. It’s even more a testament to his greatness that he’s been able to be this productive after Aaron Hernandez left, showing that he and he alone truly is the difference maker.

It is fair to wonder how much Gronk has left in the tank after yet another injury. But when you have a player as good as he has been, I’ll have to see it with my own eyes before I write him off.

Advantage: Gronk

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

 

Hernandez gets the easy edge here. He was a pretty special player before his poor choices (putting it lightly) off the field caught up to him. He wasn’t a great blocker, but he was a really good receiver. He was in many ways a movable chess piece. He could line up as an inline tight end, could run routes from the slot (where he was arguably most valuable), and even would line up in the backfield on occasion. He was a very smooth athlete, more of a hybrid player than a true tight end.

Dwayne Allen is a nice player and a talented player, but he never really lived up to expectations in Indy. They gave him that gronk-like megadeal around 2014, essentially betting on his potential to become a big tight end. That never really happened, and he was released this past offseason after being outplayed by Jack Doyle. He’s more of an inline tight end than a guy that’s going to split out or line up in the slot like Hernandez did. Expectations should be fairly low for NE, although you never know with them.

Advantage: Hernandez

Runningback: Mike Gillislee (2017) vs Stevan Ridley
(2012)

 

Stats:
Gillislee (2016, Buffalo): 101 carries, 577 yards, 5.7 y/c, 8 TD
Ridley: 290 carries, 1263 yards, 4.4 y/c, 12 TD

Ridley had a really nice year in 2012 and revitalized the running game for the Patriots. I always viewed him as a solid back, but his fumbling issues in New England, along with the second coming of Blount, made him expendable, and he never really rebounded after leaving NE.

Gillislee is a nice pickup, another nobody from Buffalo who is likely to have a big year in New England (last year it was Chris Hogan). He was backing up LeSean McCoy in Buffalo last year, so his yards per carry numbers likely won’t be as high if he’s the primary this year.

Ridley gets the edge only because Gillislee is somewhat of an unknown, but there’s no reason he can’t be just as valuable, even if the volume numbers aren’t quite as high.

Advantage: Ridley

Receiving Backs: Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead (2017) vs Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen (2012)

 

The pats have never been a team to be lacking in backs, and they will likely run a committee this year, as they usually do.

James White really came on last year, especially in the Superbowl with 14 receptions (Vereen had 11 receptions in their 2014 sb win), and I expect the Patriots to continue utilizing the backs in the passing game. They really showed how valuable the mismatches a receiving back creates can be, especially when you split them out wide and get them on a linebacker. This continued utilization of backs in the passing game is likely where the NFL is headed; we saw a similar dominance with Atlanta, the other team in the SB, often using Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the field at the same time, and having Coleman run routes out wide against linebackers, as can be seen with Coleman’s receiving TD in the Denver game.

The Patriots added another great fit for their system in Rex Burkhead, who, if it works out, would likely play a Danny Woodhead type role. There’s no doubt the Pats are loaded at this position.

I did go back and forth on this one. If Burkhead works out this is a pretty scary trio. But he’s still an unknown. I think Woodhead and Vereen are a slightly more talented pairing. Keep in mind Dion Lewis has had injury issues, and Woodhead and Vereen could both run the ball, while White isn’t much of a runner. This is a close one. Similar to what I said about Gillislee and Ridley, I think these three could absolutely prove equal or greater worth to the 2012 group, but for now I’m going to put the 2012 group ahead as I see them as a slightly more talented group with greater production.

Advantage: Woodhead and Vereen

Outside Receivers: Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell (2017) vs Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch (2012)

 

Stats:
Chris Hogan: 38 Rec, 680 Yards, 17.9 Y/R, 4 TD
Malcolm Mitchell: 32 Rec, 401 Yards, 12.5 Y/R, 4 TD

Brandon Lloyd: 74 Rec, 911 Yards, 12.3 Y/R, 4 TD
Deion Branch: 16 Rec, 145 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 0 TD

The Patriots have gotten themselves a talented pair of receivers here, and Tom Brady’s newly emerged outside/deep passing abilities certainly don’t hurt the situation. Chris Hogan is the Patriots latest rags to riches project, as who would have guessed he would have become such an effective deep threat? Malcolm Mitchell is an intriguing young athlete as well, and it seems like BB finally may have broken his curse of not being able to draft WRs.

Branch was a reliable possession guy and savvy route runner for Tom Brady (he was a deep threat earlier in his career, but that was all but gone after his Seattle days), but as you can see by these numbers, he was pretty much done in 2012. Brandon Lloyd is an underrated receiver and had respectable numbers with Brady, but that connection never really blossomed with Brady as he was never really a great fit for their offense. He was more of a deep threat/spectacular catch guy than a timing and rhythm quick-strike guy.

Hogan and Mitchell both exceeded expectations and they both had big games in the Superbowl. If Brady can maintain his success throwing outside the numbers, expect them to continue to contribute.

Advantage: Hogan and Mitchell

Second Slot WR: Brandin Cooks (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

 

Stats:
Brandin Cooks (2016 Saints): 78 Rec, 1173 Yards, 15 Y/R, 8 TD
Aaron Hernandez: 51 Rec, 483 Yards, 9.5 Y/R, 5 TD

This is the offseason acquisition everyone is talking about. Cooks was a playmaker in New Orleans. He was also mostly a deep threat in New Orleans, and he’s likely to be more of a quick option route typical slot WR in NE. However, smart football minds / film gurus like Andy Benoit and Greg Cosell are confident that he’s capable of doing that, even though that’s not how they used him in New Orleans. I’m also assuming he’ll play in the slot, but who really knows. The Pats always seem to have almost entirely slot guys on their WR core and just end up putting some on the outside (Amendola, Edelman, Welker). Don’t expect Cooks’s numbers to look like they did in New Orleans after moving away from Drew Brees, but he’s still likely to be an asset. Although WR in New England has historically been a question mark, especially when it comes to free agents coming in and learning the system, Cooks is too good a player to not contribute.

I doubled up on Hernandez here because as I mentioned, they essentially did treat him as a WR, often splitting him out wide. I was going to put Edelman here too, but if I remember correctly they mostly used him on the outside rather than the slot in 2012 since they already had Welker, and he didn’t get much playing time on offense anyway.

Advantage: Cooks

WR4: Danny Amendola (2016) vs Julian Edelman (2012)

 

Stats:
Danny Amendola (2016): 23 Rec, 243 Yards, 10.6 Y/R, 4 TD
Julian Edelman (2012): 21 Rec, 235 Yards, 11.2 Y/R, 3 TD

This just shows you how deep the 2017 Patriots depth chart is. Amendola is a guy that is perfectly capable of playing a primary role (he was essentially Welker in the slot in St. Louis), but they just have so many bodies that he doesn’t get the chance. Yet he always ends up making some crucial plays in the postseason after you forget about him in the regular season. And he keeps coming back for less and less money each year.

It’s not that Amendola is a better player than Edelman (he’s not), but that the 2012 Patriots just didn’t go this deep. Edelman was mainly a special teamer for them, while Amendola contributed greatly to the 2014 and 2016 postseason runs.

Advantage: Amendola

Summary:

 

QB: Brady (2017) vs Brady (2012)

Advantage: Brady (2017)

WR1: Edelman (2017) vs Welker (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE1: Rob Gronkowski (2017) vs Rob Gronkowski (2012)

Advantage: Push

TE2: Dwayne Allen (2017) vs Aaron Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Hernandez (2012)

Runningback: Gillisslee (2017) vs Ridley (2012)

Advantage: Ridley (2012)

Receiving Backs: Lewis, White, Burkhead (2017) vs Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Advantage: Woodhead, Vereen (2012)

Outside WR: Hogan/Mitchell (2017) vs Lloyd/Branch (2012)

Advantage: Hogan/Mitchell (2017)

Second Slot WR: Cooks (2017) vs Hernandez (2012)

Advantage: Cooks (2017)

WR4: Amendola (2017) vs Edelman (2012)

Advantage: Amendola (2017)

Point Summary:

2017 Team: 4 Points
2012 Team: 3 Points

_

Conclusion

 

As you can see, these are both very talented offenses that matchup very well to each other. The 2017 team has to get the advantage because of their ridiculous depth (especially at WR), an improved Brady, and a better defense. I also feel very good about how they will use their backs in the passing game, especially if Gronk gets hurt again.

Back to the Superbowl for the Patriots?

 

Now that we’ve looked at the offense from top to bottom, and compared it to one of their more talented and balanced squads from the past (the 2012 Patriots lost in the AFC Championship to Baltimore, 28-13), let’s revisit our initial driving question: Is this Patriots team good enough to get back to the Superbowl, just as all the pundits are predicting?

Perhaps I didn’t phrase that well enough. The answer is yes, of course they are talented enough to get back and win it again. A better question is, will they?

The Patriots absolutely deserve the benefit of the doubt after last year’s Superbowl. The 25 point Superbowl comeback was unprecedented (the previous largest comeback in the Superbowl was 10 points, also set by the Patriots), and essentially forced ESPN and all the stats guys to rewrite their win probability models (many of which had the Falcons at close to 100% probability of winning at many points in the game). As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders wrote after the win, the Patriots have become the NFL’s toughest kill. And with that comeback granting Belichick and Brady a fifth ring in this decade, you have to give them credit, even if they were assisted by what I believe was an epic chokejob from the Falcons.

Furthermore, what was alarming about the SB win is that it’s allowing the Patriots to game the system even more. Belichick is an excellent businessman, and they’ve always been great at working the draft as well as picking up players that may not be the most talented but are smart and fit their system, players that are often overlooked and because of that come really cheap. And if one of their guys is up for a new contract and there’s any doubt about the future, they won’t overpay him. Coaching absolutely plays a role in their success too, and these factors combined, in addition to having a HOF QB (and playing in a weak division), have allowed the Patriots to remain consistently competitive in a salary cap era that is supposed to lead to parity.

But to me, what this offseason showed is that, the Patriots have gotten so good that players are willing to come to the Patriots and not be paid that much, if only to get a shot at winning a ring. That should be very alarming for the rest of the league, as it allows the Patriots to get good players for a fraction of their worth.

I also think the AFC Landscape is ripe right now for more rings for the Patriots simply because of the competition level. Let’s take a look at who the Patriots have lost to since 2005 in years that they haven’t been winning rings:

2006: Colts (Peyton Manning)
2007: Giants (Superbowl)
2008: No Brady
2009: Ravens
2010: Jets
2011: Giants (Superbowl)
2012: Ravens
2013: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2014: Ring (Beat Ravens, Colts, Seahawks)
2015: Broncos (Peyton Manning)
2016: Ring (Beat Texans, Steelers, Falcons)

See a theme here? When the Patriots haven’t been getting to the Superbowl, outside of the Jets loss (back when they had that dominant 2 year stretch under Rex), it’s been either the Ravens (twice), or a Peyton Manning led team (3 times) stopping Brady. When they do get to the Superbowl, only the Giants have been able to stop them, although the Seahawks and Falcons came painfully close (as did the Rams and Panthers, really…).

But Peyton Manning is retired. Brady struggles against that Broncos D, but they’re unlikely to make it back to the Playoffs anytime soon without Peyton Manning. The Ravens era of dominance has been seemingly over too, ever since they paid Flacco. They’ve only made the playoffs once since then, and that was when Gary Kubiak (who won the SB with Denver in 2015) was their OC. To be fair, they did lose to the Patriots that year that they did make the playoffs, but they still played them really well, as the Pats had to come back from down 14 twice in that game. It’s also worth mentioning that the Patriots beat the Ravens in the 2011 postseason, but the Ravens really had that game in their grasp and some very good luck helped the Patriots (who had struggled on offense that day) secure the win: Lee Evans dropped what would have been Flacco’s game winning touchdown pass to put the Ravens up 4 with 27 seconds left, and then Billy Cundiff, rushing onto the field thanks to some scoreboard shenanigans (coincidence???), rushed his kick, and missed the 32 yard chip shot. (Not to worry though, in addition to getting their Superbowl the following year, the Ravens would sign Justin Tucker, who is not only on his way to being the greatest kicker of all time, but also the most swag kicker of all the time). So not only did the Ravens end 2 of the Patriots postseason runs, but they also almost beat them two more times.

So who does that leave in the AFC Landscape to challenge the Patriots? The two main contendors, in my view, are the Steelers and the Chiefs, and I don’t see either of them beating the Patriots because of lackluster coaching. Andy Reid is a good coach, but he always seems to screw up clock management in the playoffs. We saw it with the Eagles lack of urgency down 24-14 in Superbowl 39, with Alex Smith’s intentional grounding on a screen pass against the Colts in 2013 during the Chiefs’ final drive, and with, again, a drive that was way too slow against the Patriots in 2014, down 2 scores late in the 4th. The chiefs continued to huddle up (just like they did in Superbowl 39), failed to score before the 2 minute warming, and had to try an onside kick. It’s really amazing how these issues keep coming up for Reid.

Then you have the Steelers, who no matter who’s on the team, continue to play like crap against the Patriots. This has been the case for over a decade. You continue to see blown coverages, zones that are way too soft, falling for play action fakes and trick plays, and just a general lack of preparedness to play the Patriots high speed offense. Last years AFC Championship game was embarrassing. The number of receivers New England had running free, in a game of that magnitude, is inexcusable. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders once said on Twitter, Tom Brady could come out of retirement at 45 (assuming he’s not still playing then) and still put up 300+ on the PIT defense. I blame coaching for this. PIT is too good a team to consistently underwhelm like this. (Side Note: Let’s not forget they also lost to Tim Tebow in the 2011 playoffs, who had 31.6 yards per completion in that game…)

If New England were to go to Kansas or Pittsburgh in the playoffs, I think we could have  the potential for a really good game. But with home field advantage, they’re basically a lock for the Superbowl. And we know PIT is going to blow some game to a team that ends up going 1-15, as Mike Tomlin for years has been playing down to the competition. Those games make a difference in playoff seeding. Many people have been hyping up the Raiders this offseason, but a general rule for teams that are perennial losers is that, until you see them stop losing, continue to expect them to lose.

Bottom line is, on paper, it all looks good for the Patriots this coming year. They deserve the benefit of the doubt to get back to the Superbowl after their historic comeback against the Falcons, and they’ve capped it off with a tremendous offseason. They have the best coach in the league, one of the most talented rosters in the league, are in a weak division and conference, and their QB is seemingly timeless.

Having said all that, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s really hard to win two Superbowls in a row in this league. The Patriots only did it once under Belichick and Brady, and that was back in 03-04. With the single elimination format the NFL uses in the playoffs, all it takes is one off day from Brady and the offense. Even if you have all the talent in the world, it’s still tough to show up and score points each and every week. Can the Patriots do it again? Only time will tell.

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Will anyone ever challenge the Patriots?

Victories by Atlanta and New England today wrapped up one of the most noncompetitive postseasons we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s only hope the ATL-NE Superbowl will be better. I think it definitely has the potential to be, but let’s save that discussion for another day. Right now I want to focus on the team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots.

Brady and Belichick will now head to their seventh (!!) Superbowl after clinching their what has to be a record fourteenth division title. I just want to ask a simple question: Why is it that nobody can ever beat, or even compete with, this team? It honestly feels like they can get to the Superbowl without even trying.

No, I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots. But I’m also not hating on them just for the pure sake of hating. As a fan, I want to see good football. Yes, I know the Patriots are good. They’re clearly one of the best coached teams and their players are some of the best at executing in the NFL. But still, it’s the NFL. Someone should be able to figure out how to beat them. They may be the Patriots, but they’re not impossible to beat. You just have to, obviously not make mistakes, but also, know how to play them.

But for the Patriots it’s not just that they win, but it’s that they win without barely any resistance. Lose Tom Brady for four games? It doesn’t matter. Lose your second stringer also? Doesn’t matter. Trade away your best defensive player? Doesn’t matter. I thought losing Gronkowski would be what would do them in as that’s what usually does, but it hasn’t stopped them yet.

In the divisional round, the Patriots played a sloppy game offensively… and still won by 18 points. And then we get to the Steelers today. It was a pretty sad showing; what was a 17-9 game at the half got out of hand pretty quickly and ended at 36-17, with the Steelers final score coming when the game was already out of reach. A couple years ago, when the Colts got crushed at New England, I chastised them for doing a generally terrible job defending the Pats offense, not just in that game, but throughout the decade. For the Steelers, it’s the same story. Teams just can’t get out of their own way vs New England.

I was pessimistic about this matchup for the Steelers from the start, not just the start of this game, but for most of the season as well–that is, if the Steelers were going to end up going to New England, I did not think they would succeed. That’s because the Steelers rarely ever play the Patriots well, and especially not at New England. This has been the case since about 2004, and regardless of what players are on the team, it rarely ever changes. You see Pittsburgh looking just as lousy, making the same mistakes, and not giving the kind of challenge to New England that they should for a team of their caliber.

Today we saw more of the same from Pittsburgh. More of the same ineffective tactics for defending the New England offense. Pittsburgh seemed largely overwhelmed with and unprepared for New England’s hurry up offense. They were often shuffling to line up and there were blown assignments and wide open receivers–not the first time that’s happened with these two. As usual, they played way too soft, gave receivers on the outside huge cushions, which allowed easy pitch and catches on quick outs and hitches, and allowed receivers to sit down in between zones (Edelman especially–we often saw sticks routes on 3rd and long) as well as run across the field on over routes through zones (no tackling by PIT) and run over the top of man. As usual, NE had little success running but had great success with play action and the spread game. Pittsburgh offensively wasn’t much better. Ben started off throwing the ball well, but they were overly stubborn with the run, showed no tempo late in the game, had a lot of drops, ran draws at the goal line, failed to get their playmakers involved, weren’t aggressive on 4th down, and had balls contested at the catch point in man-to-man coverage. The 4th and goal stop was a horrendous play call– a low percentage fade throw over the top from a tight formation that PIT had shown a couple times and NE had covered well.

Overall the main recurring problems for PIT against NE are the defense is way too passive with their zones and large cushions and often looks overwhelmed with NE’s spread tempo and ends up busting coverages. Some might say I’m being unfair because PIT was without Leveon Bell, but you can’t put the whole game on that, since these are issues for PIT that go back years before Bell was around, and more importantly, they’ve played well offensively without Bell plenty of times in the past. In fact, it almost seems like half their team gets suspended for drug use every year and they still find a way to put it together usually.

For Pittsburgh, I wonder if people are ever going to start questioning if coaching is a problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but even though this is a good team, it just seems like a team that underwhelms to me so often. As I’ve mentioned, they always falter against NE. They also always have a few games a year where they play down to the competition (like their loss on the road to Miami this year). These few games either keep them out of the playoffs entirely or keep them out of homefield advantage. PIT isn’t going anywhere, but for a team with a hall of fame QB and an otherwise solid foundation, they should be making the playoffs every year and making deep playoff runs every few years, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

For New England, it’s another trip to the Superbowl, and it’s just annoying to sit and watch teams make the same mistakes against them over and over again. They have such a good home field advantage (check out some of these stats at the middle of the page) that with HFA throughout the playoffs they’re basically a lock to at least the AFC Championship if not the Superbowl, and in that division they’re basically a lock for the playoffs. You look at the AFC at the beginning of the year and ask, who can challenge them? PIT is never up to the task. With KC, Andy Reid always seems to choke in the playoffs and struggle with some clock management issue. The Jets had some success against them in the Ryan era, and they play NE well about half the time (and get blown out the other half), but they’re not going to be anywhere near the playoffs for a while. Peyton Manning’s retired, so he’s not stopping anymore Brady runs like he did in 06, 13, and 15. The Ravens and Giants both play NE very well, but half of the time they’re not even making the playoffs. Andrew Luck could be the guy eventually, but his team’s not even good enough to get him to the playoffs, and his coaching staff certainly isn’t good enough to match up with Bill Belichick. Brady will probably be retired by the time his Colts are ready to challenge for the AFC Title. (Although once Brady does retire, he could have multiple rings in his sight. They have to get the team together first though.)

So off New England goes to Houston to play Atlanta for Superbowl LI. For the sake of all of us NFL fans, I ask you, Atlanta, please give us a game that’s worth watching, and don’t hand this thing over to NE.

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Monday Football Primer: Your Guide to Week 2 NFL Action

The NFL is back and in full swing! Here are some of my thoughts and observations after two weeks of action.

Packers-Vikings: Bradford Shines, Rodgers Struggles

Sam Bradford has always been a bit of an enigma. He’s always had the skillset, and he looks like a prototypical strong-armed, rhythm, dropback, pocket passer. He’s just never really lived up to expectations. He’s played in a ton of different offenses, has struggled with injuries, and has often been surrounded by subpar supporting casts. Nonetheless, he just always leaves you wanting a little more. He’s never proven that he can really elevate his supporting cast, or that he can produce wins consistently (or that he can stay healthy).

History would tell you to be skeptical that Sam Bradford can be anything more than average. Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to be optimistic about Sam Bradford. That’s because, when you watch him, you see why he was a No 1 overall pick. He’s a really natural and easy thrower of the ball. His arm strength is significantly above average, and he has a quick, effortless release.

On the one hand, a Bradford skeptic could argue that last night’s win over the Packers really wasn’t anything too significant. It was only one game, and it was a 17-14 win that was mostly defensive driven. Still, two throws in particular stand out to me: The play action deep shot to Diggs, and the TD pass to Diggs running up the seam while Bradford was being hit. Those are two throws that Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t make.

I think Sam Bradford has the potential to be an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, at least as Bridgewater is at this point in this career. (That’s not to say that he will be, or that the Vikings should abandon Bridgewater.) I know a lot of people like Bridgewater. The folks at Football Outsiders are really high on him. But one reason why I thought the Bradford trade sort of made sense, and why I didn’t think the Vikings were necessarily doomed when Bridgewater went down, is because I don’t think Bridgewater played particularly well last year. That Vikings team went to the playoffs because of Peterson and the defense, for the most part. Bridgewater threw for 3231 yards, 14 TD, and 9 INT for a passer rating of 88.7. His 65.3% completion and 7.2 y/a are okay, but for the most part, those numbers aren’t very good.

One thing that concerns me about Bridgewater, which Greg Cosell of NFL Films brought up during the pre-draft process and which hasn’t really changed, is his arm strength and throwing process. Bridgewater throws a very slow ball, and he’s not a natural thrower of the football. He pushes it way more than he flicks it. It looks like he’s trying really hard to throw it, like I often do when I play in the backyard. One reason for this, I believe, is his small hands, which prevent him from spinning the football and really getting torque on it. People talk about his struggles with the deep ball and lack of aggressiveness, but this is all tied into arm strength. You’re not going to make throws into tight windows if you don’t think that you are physically capable of getting the ball there.

This isn’t to say that Bridgewater can’t become a serviceable quarterback. But it’s just one more thing he has to compensate for, and it limits how high his ceiling can be. Bradford, as I mentioned, has no such issue. Not only is he a better natural thrower of the ball, but he’s taller and he plays taller, with a more over the top delivery and less bend in his knees.

The Vikings are a good team built on a strong defensive foundation by head coach Mike Zimmer. Bradford in many ways has become an easy target for criticism because of some of his history– the multiple huge contracts he’s signed and inability to produce that kind of return, the demanding of a trade in Philadelphia, the fact that he’s incredibly injury prone… but as a player, there’s no doubt that he’s talented. And there’s no doubt that Minnesota can make the playoffs with him at the helm. Whether or not they will? That, only time will tell.

Now onto the Pack. Over the past few days, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders has tweeted some interesting stats about Rodgers. He is now going on a 14 game streak without a 100+ passer rating. His yards per attempt was 6.7 in 2015 (career is 8.0) and through two games in 2016 is 5.9. He is 6-8 as a starter in his last 14 games, including the Playoffs. As Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com pointed out within the last few weeks, Brady and Manning never had streaks of futility like this in their primes.

Now, Rodgers is certainly not all to blame, and he certainly has not been horrible. But the TD/INT ratio (31/8 in 2015) does not tell the story of what a poor offense this has been recently and how poorly Rodgers has been playing.

Again, Rodgers hasn’t been awful, and he still has had a spectacular career, but you wonder how long this can go before he starts being criticized. There have been a lot of times where I’ve felt that Rodgers has been overrated and that he often gets a pass for poor play. Yes, I had him at No 1 for my QB Rankings coming into the 2015 season. Yes, he’s still probably the most talented Quarterback in the league in terms of arm strength, although that’s always a tough call to make. But people for years have taken it for granted that he’s been the best QB in the league, and many have gone on to claim that he’s on his way to being the greatest that’s ever played this game. That’s ridiculous. He’s only been playing since 2008, and he has one Superbowl ring and has been average in the playoffs since. In terms of the all time argument, he’s still in the shadows of Brady, Peyton, and arguably even Ben Roethlisberger, as well as several guys that are now retired.

But that’s beside the point. On a more micro level, what’s always bothered me most about Rodgers is the degree to which he just isn’t a rhythm player. He holds onto the ball way longer than he should at times, and he takes a lot of sacks, WAY more than the Brady/Mannings. That should play into the picture when talking about his phenomenal TD/INT ratio.

We’ve seen this lack of rhythm come to haunt Rodgers at times during losses and against high level defenses, but for the most part he’s had an effective career and done a fantastic jab of walking a fine line between structure and improvisation.

But that’s not how he’s been playing recently. Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders was talking about how the Green Bay Offense just looks broken. How it used to run so smoothly and efficiently, like a tightly oiled machine, like we used to see with those perfectly timed back shoulder fades. But recently, it’s just been so out of sync. It essentially relies entirely on broken plays. Last year, I bet if you took out of Rodgers’ numbers screens and plays where he got the defense to jump offsides to get a free play, they would be a lot worse.

This is how Rodgers is playing recently. There is no timing or play-to-play execution involved in the GB offense. He’s arguably the best in the league at making improvisational plays, but that can’t be your whole game. Every play can’t be backyard football. That’s not high level quarterbacking and that doesn’t lead to consistent execution. That’s why the GB offense has been inconsistent and struggling. It seems like almost every time Rodgers drops back, he’s running around or moving around in the pocket to try to buy time and “make a play”, or wait for something to happen.

Rodgers is consistently looked at as having great pocket movement, but it’s different than that of guys like Brady and Brees. When they move in the pocket, it is measured and methodical. And it’s fairly consistent. It’s drop back, step up, deliver. Slide left or slide right occasionally if needed. Rodgers is by no means frenetic in the pocket, and he certainly has a great feel for finding the empty space… but his movement seems more random than that of those guys. It’s a little more all over the place. It seems like he’s buying time/extending the play just for the sake of extending the play. When he moves in the pocket, it looks like he’s trying to complete a madden challenge where you’re asked to stay in the pocket without getting sacked as long as you can. It’s not very calculated movement.

In Week 1 against the Jaguars, Rodgers made an absolutely ridiculous touchdown pass. He threw it with precision down the field with a defender practically tackling him. But the talking heads were so caught up with talking about that play, that they ignored the bigger picture of how out of sync the GB offense has been. And that’s been the story for the past year it seems like with Rodgers. People just talk about the crazy broken plays, and ignore how inconsistent Rodgers has been when he’s not making those plays. Sometimes, you just have to drop back and get rid of it for a short gain. Those plays aren’t exciting and they don’t make the highlight reels. But the great ones are going to make those every time. Rodgers tries to improvise so much, that he leaves a lot of plays on the field.

And then there are the comeback woes, which reared their ugly head again on Sunday. As Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders (who keeps track of QB 4th Quarter Comeback records) has written about time and time again, Aaron Rodgers is essentially a frontrunner. This means if it’s the 4th Quarter and the Packers are behind, they aren’t likely to comeback with Rodgers at the helm. No one in the media talks about this, but if you look at his track record, it’s surprisingly accurate. Rodgers’ last pick in the Minnesota game was bad (although the receiver might share the blame), and so was the fumble before that, another example of Rodgers holding onto the ball too long (also poor RT play). 4th Quarter Comebacks have been a problem for Rodgers every year since his rookie year, so this aspect of his game is unlikely to change even if he does get back to MVP form. Some QBs just aren’t comeback QBs. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a great QB–Kurt Warner, one of my favorite QBs, is an all time great, and he too was a notorious frontrunner–but when guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and even guys like Eli Manning, are spectacular in this department, it’s worth at least mentioning

Now, the poor GB offense certainly isn’t all on Rodgers. The O-line has struggled at times. The run game has been hit and miss. And most importantly, the receivers have been below average and have often been unable to separate. The GB receiving core has lost pieces throughout the years (Jones got old, Driver retired, Jennings left/got old, Finley got hurt), and it just isn’t what it used to be. Cobb really struggled without Jordy Nelson in the lineup. And Davante Adams is not a good No. 3. Everyone thought he’d be so good in 2015, but people were fixated on what were essentially only two good games for him (DAL and NE) out of the whole 2014 season. Greg Cosell of NFL Films was talking about, a while back, how it seems Rodgers doesn’t trust Davante Adams when he’s running the slant (the slant-flat is a staple route combination in the GB offense), because often he didn’t pull the trigger on those throws. And I’ve seen a few times where a slant to Adams almost ended up getting picked from the defender cutting in front of him. That kind of stuff messes with a QB’s head. The QB needs to trust that the receiver is going to be where he needs him to be. Otherwise, he either doesn’t throw it at all, or throws it a clutch too late, which is the difference between a completion and an incompletion/INT in this league.

I think 2015 was a perfect storm of factors for Rodgers. Somewhat similar to 2013 for Eli Manning. That year on the Giants there was no run game, the o-line was awful, the receivers were inconsistent, and the pass game concepts weren’t helping the issue. When Rodgers is uncomfortable, he plays fast at times (goes through his reads too fast/moves around too soon), holds onto the ball too long, and leaves plays on the field. When Eli gets uncomfortable, he chucks up absurdly dumb interceptions. Yes, it’s good that Rodgers has managed to avoid throwing picks throughout this slump, but that doesn’t mean he’s been playing well. There’s more to good quarterbacking than not throwing picks. Now, Eli did not at all have a good supporting cast in 2013, but he was part of the problem. A big part. By no means has Rodgers been as bad as Eli was then, but the GB offense has been bad, and that includes him. He too has been part of the problem. The bottom line is, it can’t all be about Jordy.

And it may seem like I’m overstating the issue (and perhaps I am), but this is the part of it that gets me. If I had a penny every time I heard someone talk about Jordy Nelson coming back and him being gone last year and the impact of that on the offense, I’d be rich. I know it matters. I know he’s a great WR, and I know the comfort level with Rodgers is huge. But there has to be more to it than that. Rodgers is supposed to be one of the best in the game. Does the production of the best QB in the game entirely depend on the presence of one WR? Does that also mean that when Rodgers has been so good in the past, it’s just been because of his receivers? Of course not. When Rodgers has been great, it’s been because of him. Why can’t we acknowledge that when he’s been not so great, it’s also because of him? Again, that’s not saying there aren’t other factors. It’s simply saying that he is one of the factors.

A guy like Peyton Manning, no matter who he was throwing to, would always get rid of the football quickly. That’s simply the type of player he is. Rodgers doesn’t have to run around for ten minutes every time he drops back. He needs to be more disciplined in the pocket, and he needs to be mentally sharper. That’s on him, and not anyone else.

Rodgers is one of the best in the game and one of the best to ever do it. And there’s a very good chance he bounces back. I was thinking similar things about him at the beginning of the 2014 season, and he responded by deservedly winning his second MVP award after telling everybody to R-E-L-A-X. But right now, he’s in a slump, and he’s struggling a bit. Let’s not be afraid to admit that, instead of just talking about Jordy Nelson and fawning over every time a broken play just happens to work out positively for him.

The Giants are 2-0 Thanks to Improved Defense and the Return of Victor Cruz

As a passionate Giants fan, it’s hard not to get over-excited about this. Yes, it’s just two games. Both were close games that included some mistakes and that really could have gone either way. But the thing is, we won. And that’s what the Giants haven’t been doing recently. If my memory is correct, this is our first 2-0 start since the 2010 season. That’s six years! That’s big, especially for a young, rookie head coach. Even more exciting is why we’re winning. The defense is looking better than it did a year ago, and Victor Cruz is back and contributing big time. He caught the go-ahead TD in week 1 on a great play to get open after the initial look was covered, and he caught a huge 3rd down in the fourth quarter this past week. He was running straight down the sideline, and the cornerback was right with him as he fought for position. Eli threw it up softly, and Cruz aggressively went after the ball and wrestled it away from the defender, who was in perfect position. That first down allowed the Giants to run the clock down before kicking the go ahead FG, so that they didn’t have to give Drew Brees the ball back.

It cannot be understated how big Cruz was in helping us win the SB in the 2011 season. Not to mention, he was undrafted and wasn’t even starting at the beginning of the 2011 season. And if you’ve ever seen or heard him talk, he’s a really great kid. I’m really happy that he’s come back from injury to be productive. He was out for a long time. And I bet he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder. There were a lot of people saying he wouldn’t be the same guy coming back. But I didn’t have much doubt. Every time he’s been healthy since 2011, he’s contributed. Really cool to see him back and on the field. Not to mention, Sterling Shepard is looking good as well. What’s interesting is that Shepard was a slot guy coming out of college, with questions about whether he could play on the outside. But Cruz was looked at as being primarily a slot guy as well, and most assumed he would take the slot while Shepard would go to the outside opposite Beckham. But from what I can tell, it looks as if Cruz has been playing outside with Shepard in the slot. I’m sure Ben McAdoo will mix it up–he even put Odell in the slot at times the past few years, from which he’s been very productive, just like he is everywhere else on the field–but this is an interesting move. For all the talk of Cruz being a slot guy, he did play on the outside a fair bit in 2011 with all the WR injuries we had. And he was pretty good from there as well. If Shepard can be a productive slot WR (which it looks like he can), we have a pretty good 3 deep WR core. We thought this was the case back in 2013. But Nicks wasn’t the same after injury, Cruz started getting injured, and Randle just was always a bit of a mess. But this is exciting going forward if you’re a Giants fan, no doubt.

Texans Putting Osweiler in Position to Succeed

I’m rooting for Osweiler, if not just because like Bradford has been in the past, he’s another guy that’s going to be under the microscope after signing a big contract. The Texans are 2-0 so far. He played pretty well in week 1 and was eh in week 2. There’s certainly no guarantee he’ll succeed this season. It’s early in the year. QBs really make their money in December. Hoyer in 2014, Fitzpatrick in 2011, and Orton in 2009 were all QBs who started the season well only to implode in the second half. Having said that, I’m cautiously optimistic, and I like what the Texans are doing with Osweiler.

Osweiler, like most QBs, is a system QB. He likely needs to be in a good situation to succeed. When you look at other free agent QB deals that have gone poorly in the past, it’s because these QBs were system QBs that were in over their head and asked to do too much. Kevin Kolb succeeded as a backup in Andy Reid’s system (which has been proven to be QB friendly) throwing to Maclin and Jackson. He wasn’t going to dig the post Kurt Warner Cardinals out of nothingness. Matt Flynn excelled in the GB West Coast with talented pass catchers, but the Raiders were no good when he went there. The same can be said for Matt Cassel in New England. Outside of one very game manager-ish year in KC, he was mostly a bust there.

Yes, these QBs didn’t play well on their respective new teams. But they were brought in to make losing franchises winners again. Usually, those types of Quarterbacks need to come from the draft.

But with Osweiler it’s different. The Texans made the playoffs last year with Brian Hoyer at QB and came close the year before with Ryan Fitzpatrick. So they’re already a good team. If Osweiler can prove to be even a marginal upgrade over those guys, then the trade is justified. Furthermore, lots of people were worried about how Houston might remain a contender with Brock getting so much money. But he has lots of team around him. We all know about JJ Watt. There’s also Clowney on that line, who definitely has talent. Bill O Brien wants to rely on defense, and has proven that he’s capable of doing so in the past. (He’s also a good coach, which wasn’t always the case with the other free agent situations I mentioned.) But offensively, they drafted Braxton Miller, a pretty good prospect at the slot position, as well as the speedster Will Fuller, to go along with Deandre Hopkins, one of the best X-ISO receivers in football. They also traded for Lamar Miller, who definitely showed flashes in Miami. They can mix him along with Alfred Blue, who’s proven to be a capable backup. Lastly, Bill O Brien comes from New England, and his pass game is very well schemed. It’s multiple, and aims to get the ball out quickly. All of this puts Osweiler in a very good position to succeed. Yes, he got the big contract. Yes, he likely will have the spotlight on him. But the investments look to be paying off two weeks in. He doesn’t have to be Tom Brady at this point. He just has to be Andy Dalton: efficient and smart.

~

Quick Hits

-It’s unfortunate that Garoppolo got hurt. Because I thought he looked really, really good against Miami.

-I was glad to see Matt Ryan bounce back against the Raiders. They came away with a W, but more importantly, he was aggressive throwing the ball downfield and confident, two things that have been missing from his game recently.

-It certainly doesn’t look like Cam Newton and the Panthers are taking a step back this season. Cam looks just as good as he did last year, and the addition of Kelvin Benjamin makes this offense scary. He’s quickly becoming one of the best young wide receivers in the league. What’s so impressive is his big body and catch radius, which gives Cam Newton margin for error. Then you have Devin Funchess as well, who people didn’t mention last year. WR often take a few years to develop, but he was a big time draft prospect. If he can become something too, then watch out. You also have Greg Olsen, one of the top receiving tight ends in the league, Corey Brown and Ted Ginn for deep shots, and then you ALSO have J. Stewart and that dominant O-Line… AND Mike Shula’s multiple option scheme which is so hard to defend. I don’t like Carolina, but it looks like they could be here to stay. If they play at their peak, they’re tough to defend.

-The Bills firing of OC Greg Roman struck me as a little strange, especially only two games into the season. He fits what they want to do in terms of being run first and then using Tyrod’s athleticism. Also, their problems over the last year seem to be more about defense than offense.

-Josh McCown gave us the usual Josh McCown treatment. Some nice gunslinger throws while under pressure (see the TD pass), and some bad gunslinger INT’s while under pressure (see the game ender). He did okay for himself last year, and should have been the starter this year (which isn’t saying much when RG3 is your other QB). But now he’s hurt, and the Browns might have to draft another QB next year. What number is that, now? Not to mention, they could have taken Wentz this year (who looks like he has the makings to be a star, at least based on week 1), but they traded the pick to Philly. They even spoke negatively about Wentz in the process (because the Browns are sooo good at evaluating Quarterbacks). What an embarrassment of a franchise.

-Can Chip Kelly and his offense succeed in the NFL? The jury is still out. On Sunday, we saw both sides of the equation. On the one hand, SF allowed 46 points. Yes, CAR is a very good offense, but as we’ve seen time and time again with Chip, when your offense plays so fast, you a) get into holes quickly if your offense isn’t producing, and b) your defense tends to suck. On the other hand, the 49ers were within one score of tying it in the 4th quarter. Before the Blaine Gabbert pick that basically sealed it, there was a dropped past by the niners that could have gone for a TD and tied it. Blaine Gabbert hasn’t played well by any means, but the offense has produced, albeit inconsistently. It’s hard to see anywhere else where Blaine Gabbert could go and even come close to this kind of offensive production. But that’s the Chip offense. They play fast, they get the ball out, and they get completions. Gabbert plays fast (wayyyy too fast), but the Chip Kelly offense is a good fit for him, because Chip wants the ball out. And when you have Blaine Gabbert as your QB (and Torrey Smith as your No. 1), you have to scheme offense. There’s nowhere Gabbert could go where they could huddle up, line-up, and simply out execute the defense. But Chip’s offense is at least giving these guys a chance, with a guy that is essentially a backup QB and a below average WR corps. And we’ve seen that with Chip in the past, where guys like Foles and Sanchez have looked serviceable. It hasn’t translated to wins consistently, but it does have the potential to morph offensive production.

-Speaking of Gabbert, he’s another guy that, like Bradford, can be frustrating. Like I said, at this point, he’s ideally a backup. He plays way too fast, and is way too overreactive to pressure. Because of that, his lower body mechanics become compromised, which leads to inaccuracy and missing throws he needs to make. It’s always been a problem with him, and pocket presence isn’t really something you can teach. But he also is capable of making really impressive throws. His TD throw this past week to Torrey Smith was an example. You do see the arm talent and the type of throws that explain why he was a first round pick. It’s just the other stuff that keeps him from being good.

-It looks like Mike Tirico is replacing Bob Costas as the host of pre and post-game Sunday Night Football. It’s unfortunate; I think Costas is better. I was never a big Tirico fan. He’s definitely a professional; I just don’t really like his voice or his style. But after the NFL told NBC they couldn’t put Tirico on Thursday Night broadcasts, they probably wanted to find something for him to do.

-We’re in the golden age of passing in the NFL, and we might be in the golden age of Quarterbacking as well. From vets to young guns, there’s a lot of talent in the NFL. I saw it all over the highlights this past sunday. Like I said earlier, Matt Ryan made some really impressive throws. Derek Carr as well. Marcus Mariota’s game winning TD pass was phenomenal, and Flacco’s TD to Mike Wallace was nice as well. Then as I mentioned there was Jimmy Garoppolo who looked really good, but Tanehill, although he’s dabbled in mediocrity, has a big time arm and is capable of big time throws as well, which can be seen with his TD pass to Jordan Cameron in the endzone. And Carson Palmer is back to MVP form; he continues to be a tremendous asset for Arizona.

-If it’s the golden age for passing, it might be the golden age for receivers as well. The NFL is full of physical specimens that we didn’t use to see, and these guys attack the ball. Late in the game, Amari Cooper went up for a first down catch on a short hitch that was spectacular. The ball was high and his arm extension was crazy. I was wrong when I said Larry Fitzgerald was done a few years ago, he’s rejuvenated with Palmer and is an absolute dog, attacking the football and running after the catch. Then there’s Julio Jones. A lot of people have been mentioning Antonio Brown’s name as best WR in the NFL, but don’t forget about this guy. Hardly anyone draws as much defensive attention as he does on the Falcons, yet he continues to make plays. He has a lethal combination of size and explosiveness. On a lot of those in-breaking routes, he reminds me of Andre Johnson, because he’s practically impossible to stop. He’s such a big target and so strong to the ball. Then there was the deep ball he caught from Ryan on the second and one deep shot. The ball placement was perfect, but his closing speed to the ball was ridiculous. He was double covered and behind the ball when the camera closed in on him, but by the time the ball got there, he ran through the double coverage and right into the ball. Phenomenal stuff.

Hopefully there’s plenty more great football on its way! Continue to stay tuned in to the blog to keep getting updates and analysis.

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The Bears Release Robbie Gould

In a somewhat surprising move, the Chicago Bears have parted ways with their longtime kicker, Robbie Gould. The move comes less than a week before the start of the season. Gould was Chicago’s all time leading scorer with 1207 points and was the most accurate kicker in franchise history. He had been with the team since 2005, and currently ranks ninth all time in career field goal accuracy percentage at 85.449%. <pfref>

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Robbie Gould is the Bears all time Leading Scorer

 

Gould hit on 33 of 39 field goals last year, good for an accuracy percentage of 84.6%, ranked 19th in the league. But he had crucial misses in back to back weeks: In week 13, Gould had ugly misses of 40 and 36 yards, the latter of which would have won the game. Then, in week 14, Gould missed a game-tyer late from 51 (career long is 58). The Bears went on to lose both games. They finished the season 6-10. That’s a potential extra two wins cost because of your kicker. Coaches have very little patience for that stuff.

Gould also appeared to be getting progressively worse on his kickoffs. According to teamrankings.com, his 46.99 touchback percentage ranked 27th in the league. And according to footballdb.com, his average kickoff distance of 60.3 yards ranked dead last. (Although, Bleacher Report’s Kicker Rankings have him at 63.4 yards, so not positive what the correct number is there.) This was a kicker once known for his strong leg; although to be fair, leg strength on field goals doesn’t always translate to kickoffs, and vice versa. Gould did, however, try to increase his weight over the offseason, which I can’t imagine would be for any reason other than adding strength.

The fall for kickers is often swift and unforgiving. Billy Cundiff used to be a pro bowl kicker for the Ravens. He was never anywhere near as good as their current kicker, Justin Tucker, but he hit on 26/29 (89.7%) in 2010, good for sixth in the league. He also led the league with a ridiculous 40 touchbacks in 2010, back when kickoffs were still from the 30 yard line. That was a record for kickoffs after the instatement of the K-ball rule. The Ravens signed him to a long term extension after the 2010 season.

We all know where this is going. In the 2011 AFC Championship game, Cundiff missed a 32 yard chip shot to send the game to overtime in Foxborough with 15 seconds left, and the Patriots went on to lose to the Giants in the Superbowl (hehe). He was released before next season started.

I feel bad for Cundiff, as I don’t really entirely blame him for missing the kick. Never talked about is the fact that the scoreboard at Foxborough was actually behind a down, causing Cundiff to think it was only 3rd down when it was actually 4th. This caused Cundiff to be late coming onto the field, as the replay shows him running to get to the play with the clock at 15 seconds and counting. As a result, he likely rushed the kick, causing him to over-rotate his hips and miss wide left. Kickers are creatures of routine like no other. Any time that routine is off, chaos can ensue.

Ultimately though, none of this mattered. The NFL is a results oriented business. Cundiff was cut. He kicked here and there for the Redskins and Browns, but never kicked higher than 80 percent in a season after the Ravens cut him. He’s currently unsigned.

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Billy Cundiff misses a chip shot to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2011

 

Blair Walsh also had a big time miss in the playoffs that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Walsh missed a go ahead 27 yarder with 26 seconds left in the game in last year’s divisional round vs Seattle. But the punter, Jeff Locke, gave Walsh the laces for the second time that day. Who knows whether this truly affected that specific kick or not, but anyone who’s seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective knows that giving the kicker the laces is a no-no. The Vikings chose to stick with their young kicker, but a few weeks ago in the preseason at Seattle, he missed a longer kick with almost the exact same trajectory. It’s just one kick, but the jury is still out as to whether Walsh will bounce back or not.

Bouncing back as a kicker is tough. The position is so mental. Josh Scobee played ten years with the Jaguars, but he was released in 2014. He was also released by the Steelers last year after going just 6/10, and missing two late kicks against Baltimore that could have put the game away. He was injured last year, but again, it’s results that matter in this business.

Good kickers are around for so long, due to the non-contact nature of the position, that they often become part of the identity of the team, as well as some of the more well known faces of the league. Adam Vinatieri, currently the oldest player in the NFL, has been playing in the league since 1996. That’s absolutely ancient for this league. He’s older than the Giants new coach, for crying out loud! Gould has been around for a while and has been one of the better kickers in the league. I feel bad for Gould. It would have been nice to see him retire a Bear. Apparently, he struggled during the preseason. And like I said, he wasn’t great last year. I know it’s a brutal business, but the Bears could have at least given him a chance to rebound. If they were worried about money, they could have asked him to take a pay cut. That’s what the Packers did with Mason Crosby after his horrendous 2012 season in which he hit just 21 of 33 for 63.6%. I was surprised when they didn’t cut him, but he bounced back nicely and has been above 81% every season since. I believe he was just extended.

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Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 against Brett Favre’s Packers (Left). Vinatieri, now a Colt (Right), continues to be one of the best kickers in the NFL today.

 

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Phil Dawson, 41, after a successful career with the Browns, continues to be an asset with the 49ers.

 

Do kickers ever find life on new teams after such long tenures with their first team? David Akers, after 11 years with the Eagles, had a great season with the 49ers in 2011, but struggled in 2012 and was cut after the season ended. He is now retired. Phil Dawson, one of the best kickers in the league, was released after 13 years with the Browns and is now in his 4th season with the 49ers. He is still going strong. (The Niners did, however, take him off kickoff duty, just like the Colts did with Vinatieri in 2009.) Olindo Mare stands out as similar to the Gould situation because, although he, unlike Gould, bounced around teams for a lot of his career, Mare missed some late crucial field goals in 2011 for the 6-10 Panthers, and was cut the year after. (Unlike Gould, Mare was a great kickoff man that year.) The Panthers replaced Mare with Graham Gano, a guy who’s had a really nice turnaround in Carolina after a few terrible seasons in Washington. Gano’s different however because he was still young when he went to Carolina and hadn’t been with Washington for that long. He also made some really noticeable mechanical changes after coming to Carolina; he looks like a different kicker. Gould doesn’t struggle mechanically. He’s always been a really smooth and easy kicker. He just needs to make the kicks. And Gould is 34 years old. Even though like I said, age isn’t as much as an issue for kickers in terms of the body wearing down, it’s still the case that when older kickers start to falter, it usually tends to be pretty final. Kicking is just a position that’s so mental, and a position where there’s just not a lot of tolerance for error.

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Robbie Gould had a great ten years with the Bears. I wish him all the best. If the Giants do end up getting rid of Josh Brown because of the recent domestic abuse incidents that are starting to come to light, I would be happy to give Gould a shot in Blue.

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Championship Weekend Thoughts

The games start in less than 2 hours and I didn’t have much of a plan of writing any sort of preview or prediction beforehand. However, after watching a myriad of NFL.com videos led by Deion Sanders and a crew of players spewing the same old nonsense about Brady/Manning, Brady being the best ever and winning with everyone being injured, it being his best season (which they say every year), can Manning even play or throw right now, what if he loses the Superbowl, legacies, bla bla bla, I have to at least attempt to exorcise those thoughts out of my system. (I do complain a lot about how so many people have such misinformed beliefs about the NFL, but when you see what the masses are being spoonfed it becomes more understandable…)

Anyway, I’m going to attempt to keep it short here (things usually never go well when I say that) and just provide some informal musings and thoughts regarding these matchups. Earlier in the week I was trying to come up with some predictions for the games and figure out how they might go, but to be honest, I really have no idea. I tend to stay away from predictions in general because the NFL is itself so unpredictable (even though I did correctly predict Superbowl 47 a few years back at the start of the season), I’m really more of a guy that likes to go back and look at the process. Having said all that, there are times where you can have a general sense of how games are going to go, but the more I thought about these two games the more I realized I really had no idea who was going to win either. These are really two games that could go either way. As a fan that’s what you want; it bodes well for an exciting championship Sunday as it should be really interesting to see how things play out. So like I said, this isn’t going to be any pre planned crisp analysis as I really don’t have enough to say to offer any of that. Rather, I’m just going to share some thoughts regarding the matchups and what my thought process has been trying to analyze them in a sort of thinking out loud. Ultimately we’re going to have to wait until the games are played to see what really happens.

I’ll start in the AFC where we have the infamous “Brady-Manning” showdown. This may very well be the last time we get to see these two faceoff as it is highly likely that Manning retires after this season. Because of the history these two quarterbacks have and the fact that it is so late in both of their, but especially Manning’s career, the game is intriguing from a story perspective. Because of that it will be fun to see how things play out. However, when you put that historical aspect of it aside, it’s not a super exciting matchup, as both teams have some flaws and question marks they have to overcome, especially on offense. It could very well be an unexciting game.

I don’t think framing this in terms of the Brady/Manning career argument is the right way to look at this game. Manning’s going to retire very soon and we’ll be having that conversation for eons when that happens. We’ve also had it seemingly every year up to this point. It can wait. Another reason that it shouldn’t be focused on is this isn’t your typical Brady or Manning matchup or Brady/Manning year. It’s been a strange and very atypical year for Peyton, one that’s almost hard to believe even while seeing it unfold before you. This is the first time in recent (or distant) memory that Peyton could be viewed as sort of an underdog, or at least, not a massive overdog. This isn’t the Peyton machine we’ve seen in years past. This isn’t the point where weeks and weeks of greatness and high scoring are causing pressure to build up to see if the machine can make it all the way. Nope, instead Peyton is running a much more watered down version of his offense with Kubiak having neutered him a bit. He’s coming off one of his worst and toughest seasons in years, and he hasn’t even played for most of the regular season. When you see how this team plays every week, particularly on offense, you always figured it would have to break down at some point, yet here they are in the AFC Championship. This is not frontrunner big man stat compiling high scoring record rewriting isheisorishenotthegreatestofalltimeorjustthemostoverratedofalltime Peyton. This is Peyton being carried on the back of this Denver team, toughing out and fighting against the forces of injury and father time, trying to push through to make one valiant last effort at a title and at glory before father time takes over. That should be the storyline surrounding this game, and it honestly feels nothing like the matchups of the past. So ultimately, while there are always title and legacy implications and it’s hard to not have that conversation, I really think it’s the wrong one to be having and we can hold off right now. I get — well I don’t “get”, but I can see why people like to beat down on Peyton when he has the big time seasons because he sets the bar so high. But at this point, he’s just trying to not have the bar crush him. It’s a miracle of football baby jesus that they made it this far and he’s even playing right now. So please, let’s just try to lay off the legacy, “can he throw” “is he a choker” etc etc etc talk for just a bit. That’s not what this game is about.

Like I said earlier, I have no idea what’s going to happen in these games. You never thought the Broncos would get this far and that Peyton would come back and yet here they are. Then there’s New England, who always seems to defy the laws of just about everything. They’re close to impossible to predict. When you see them struggle you want to count them out. But they’re New England. They can turn it on anytime. They can take a weakness from a week earlier and turn it into a strength the next week, and vice versa. Tom Brady will struggle for a bit and you think he’s done, and then he channels his inner supply of elixir of youth and he’ll look like the same old Brady. If there’s anything I’ve learned up to this point, it’s that you can never count these guys out… even when they give you absolutely every reason to. And that’s sort of the story of this game isn’t it? Despite each team having really no reason to be here, here they are.

Now enough editorializing, let’s look at the actual matchups. New England started the season at fiery pace, but ever since the injury bug bit they just haven’t been the same offense. They went 2-4 in their last six games of the regular season and in a way which is not very New England like, it really felt like with each passing week they were actually trending in the wrong direction. A 10-20 loss to this year’s lowly Miami team with close to no passing output was the icing on the cake, but there were also games like the Philly game, which broke New England’s ridiculous streak of being undefeated at Gillette with a lead of 8+ (something like 91-0, an absolutely absurd number) in most embarrassing fashion. It was not only who they lost to (the Chip Kelly led disaster show Eagles), but how they lost, giving up a myriad of special teams return touchdowns (where Belichick teams are usually rock solid) and giving up .. I believe it was 28 unanswered after building a 14-0 lead.

It was really starting to look like the injury bug was too much to overcome for New England. Tom Brady gets a lot of credit for winning without big time receivers and for getting the ball out quickly, but without shifty Julian Edelman’s ability to get open quick on those option routes, Tom was holding the ball a lot longer. With no Vereen this year and Dion Lewis injured, they were running out of backs as well. James White and Brandon Bolden have done a good job for themselves in the receiving game, but are they of starter quality? Edelman’s play will be key today and Denver needs to make sure they have the right man on him (in addition to of course recognizing the routes based on motions and stacks and finding a way to be in the right position in those plays and not letting Edelman get the free releases they like to give him). I don’t purport to know who that man is.

There was actually a little bit of doubt coming into the wild card round hosting a red hot Kansas City. It was looking like they might be able to give New England a run for their money, especially with their pass rush. The NE offensive line was really starting to look like a weakness, which hadn’t been the case in the past. They were very injured and it was starting to look like it was going to cost New England. Tom Brady can account for offensive line weaknesses, but like any QB, only to a certain point. People always make a bigger deal about receivers than need be in New England, but oline is a much more important position.

But, would you know, it all turned out to be fine. New England went empty and went to the quick game, Gronk and Edelman got involved, Tom Brady was barely touched, KC’s offense stalled most of the day, Andy Reid was Andy Reid, and New England won a clean, easy, and somewhat boring game. That’s the thing about New England. Their coaching advantage is so good that in that division and that conference, they can get to the AFC Championship and not even play that well. Heck if they have home field advantage they can get to the Superbowl without even playing that well. They just know how to work around weaknesses and play situations. They’re so good at it that they make it so talent isn’t even that important at times. They can be an annoying team for sure, but their ability to maintain success the way they have is absolutely historic.

But now they go on the road to Denver, which is what gives Denver an advantage. It’s not so much that Denver has played great at home than it is that New England is just unbeatable at home but vulnerable to good teams on the road. The Chiefs were a good team but they were still just the Chiefs. I don’t think anyone was genuinely surprised by the loss. New England will be tested at Denver. Will the oline hold up against Von Miller and company? Will Tom Brady be able to get rid of the ball quickly enough? Will their offense look like its confused late season self? From a coaching and QB (for this season) standpoint NE has an unequivocal advantage. But Denver is a good team and a really good defense. Like I said, it could go either way. New England could cruise to a win, or they could struggle. I just never know with them. You can always envision both scenarios because they’ve shown us both over the years. They’ve shown the ability to struggle when you expect them to do well and do well when you expect them to struggle. They just defy the laws of prediction. If I knew more about these teams rosters this season specifically I might be able to give you more. But unfortunately, I don’t.

Moving on to Denver (Bill Belichick voice). Again, this is a game that you would think New England has the edge. The Denver offense has seemed broken all year regardless of who’s playing Quarterback. Peyton is not who he used to be. The oline has been a serious issue, which could be exposed against a really overlooked New England defense. The running game has been on and off, and they’ll need to sustain it if they want a chance of winning. It doesn’t need to be lights out, but they can’t be all pass and expect to win this one. And it seems like Belichick usually stops running teams when he needs to. The receiving group is average at best and has been having the dropsies all over the place. There isn’t really a game changer at tight end or a versatile receiving back. And I’ve never really trusted the Gary Kubiak offense in big moments… and this certainly isn’t the offense he typically wants to have.

When you think about all that, you want to say New England has it. Again though, Denver’s model has been a defense, grind it out win, offense struggles but just stays afloat sort of team. It’s weird to think about a Peyton team that way, but that’s their model. Again, Peyton hasn’t even played most of the season, and you really don’t get the sense it will come down to him like it does in the past, because it hasn’t yet this season. If Denver has any chance, it might be because this might be a scenario where we forget about the regular season and our expectations regarding this usual matchup, and look at Denver and say, can they put this three game stretch together. Can they defy expectations and just play solid defense, be good enough on offense, and have Peyton be healthy enough to manage the game and do what he still does best, which is the mental game and the little checks at the line. This is what Denver has to hope for to win. They’re hoping they can defy all prior logic and just put together this three game stretch with the new model they’ve built this year. It’s one none of us are used to seeing, but it’s one that just might be what they need to get to the Superbowl. It’s not pretty, but they squeak out the wins. Who would’ve thought they would’ve made it this far? Will the Cinderella story make it all the way? Or will Belichick make the glass slipper fall off and make us laugh for even thinking that this Denver team could match up with the almighty Patriots? If anyone is going to do that, it’s going to be him. Also, was that even the right metaphor? I haven’t seen that movie in eons…

Let me get back to X’s and O’s for a sec. I don’t mean to just be editorializing and act like Denver is just going to cross their fingers and pray here. This matchup has the potential to be close because the Patriots offense has holes and has struggled, and because Denver has a really big time defense. Ultimately, that is what Denver is hanging their hat on.

Also, one more thought. You can see Peyton is still in control of the offense and you can see why they brought him back over Brock. It’s all the mental experience. He’s playing quicker and he’s in command. He’s keeping the pace going, he’s making the right reads, and he’s making the checks he needs to. His arm looked a little better last week than it had for most of the season. He definitely looked a little healthier. At this point we know he doesn’t have a big time arm, so saying anything more about that is just a waste of breath. It is what it is at this point. What I was going to say is that there were a few plays last week where Peyton made the right check to a shot play, often a deep post, and he just overthrew it slightly. If the Broncos want to win, he’s going to have to make those throws. He’s going to have to make the plays that are there. The mental ability can only get you so far. He won’t have to make a ton of big time throws, managing the game will mostly be fine, but he’s going to have to make the few that are there.

At the end of the day, it’s really a miracle that this matchup is happening. Peyton was playing so poorly and so injured that after they went back to Osweiler I really did not foresee a scenario in which he came back to play for them, let alone had success. But here we are. Peyton wasn’t going quietly into the old night without one more Brady Manning matchup before one more shot at the elusive second ring. It’s almost poetic justice that we get to see this matchup again after all Peyton went through this season. Lets enjoy it while it’s here, because it’s likely the last time we’re going to see this historic rivalry.

NFC

How’s that whole “keeping this article short” thing going? Not so well? Hopefully I can pick up the pace for this section; otherwise the games are going to start before I finish this article– T-Minus 30 Minutes until kickoff!! Is this what it’s like to be a journalist????

This is really the better matchup and after a year of Phil Simms I couldn’t be happier that we’re getting the good FOX matchup in the primetime slot. The NFC has been absurdly better than the AFC this year and I’m really excited for this one. If it weren’t for the storylines in the previous game this would undoubtedly be the better game exponentially. And it still probably is the better game. These are two really big time teams. They were the two most dominant teams of the regular season and the quarterbacks were the two top MVP candidates. It’s fitting that we get to see them clash heads in the NFC Championship game.

Like the last matchup, I really have no idea how this one is going to go, although unlike the last matchup, I don’t have as much editorializing to do. Like I said, these were the two best teams in the regular season and both were dominant. Pretty sure they are the 1 and 2 seed actually. It’s rare we get to see the two most dominant regular season teams also face off in the postseason. With the fluky nature of the postseason and how tough it is to not be an underdog (what’s the opposite of underdog, overdog..?), those types of teams often get outed in earlier rounds.

Both teams are tough as nails. Arizona embodies the personality of their head coach Bruce Arians, a no nonsense hit you in the mouth kind of guy that is one of the most inspiring coaches out there and also one of the smartest football minds. They have a big time old school quarterback in Carson Palmer and a rejuvenated dog in Larry Fitzgerald. The result is one of the more aggressive, spread you out, complex full field route concepts, multifaceted offenses there is out there. Their pass game, both due to the coach and players and just tactically, is really tough to defend. They also have an aggressive blitz heavy defense that is going to pressure you.

On the other hand there’s Supercam, who’s been all the rage this year, leading the CAR attack. No one seems to be playing with more confidence and swagger than him right now–although you never know when nerves are going to take over when the stage is this big. Their offense is also very tough to defend. They, like the Cardinals, are also very multidimensional, but moreso in the run game. They use Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton to build the run game with a ton of misdirection and option elements. Their offensive line is one of the best in the business and they are incredibly physical. Then they build the pass game off of that, with even more deception using all sorts of play action. It’s tough for a defense to keep up with. They have a deep threat in Ted Ginn and a big time receiving tight end in Greg Olsen and they use the backs in the pass game as well. Although, you wonder if Funchess is going to have to play a bigger role in this game. If Patrick Peterson is on Ginn (which I don’t know if he will be), it’s very unlikely Ginn wins that matchup. The Panthers too, are very good on defense. Kawann Short has been off the chain, and Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the best linebacking duo in the game. Those two don’t move like linebackers. Their athleticism, playmaking ability, and football instincts most importantly are phenomenal. Carolina also has home field advantage, and that crowd was roaring last week.

It’s tough to get a sense of Carolina based off of last weeks game as it was kind of a weird game with Carolina getting up so quick. Does that lead show how dominant they are, or was Seattle just sleepwalking to start the game? Does the fact that Seattle came close to tying it up again prove anything about Carolina, or was that just a case of them playing conservatively with a lead? Those big leads are tough to play with. Its very hard to find the line between being conservative/not taking too many risks with a lead and keeping your foot on the pedal. As players its just strange to think about when you’re up by that much, strange to know how to play. It’s not the normal dynamic of a game. I struggle knowing what to take away from that game.

One thing I will say about Arizona is this. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s their offensive line. It’s been a point of weakness all season but Carson has compensated. However, it was exposed a little bit against Green Bay last week, and Kawann short is going to be chomping at the bit. Offensive line is often overlooked when talking about big time teams with a lot of weapons. But it all starts with protection. Just ask Denver in SB 48 or NE in SB 42. You can’t get the ball to your playmakers if you don’t have time to get the throw off.

I’m rooting for Arizona, although I’m not super confident about them on the road against this Carolina team. But overall I have high hopes for this matchup and am really looking forward to it. It’s two of the best, most consistent, most dominant, most physical, best schematically, and well rounded teams in the league, and way better than anything the AFC has given us. It shouldn’t disappoint.

Only three more games left in the NFL season before we see who is crowned the winner of Super Bowl 50!! But enough talk, let’s get going already!!! So go ahead and plop a seat on the couch, order some wings to be delivered, grab a beer from the fridge, and answer me this one question…

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL???????!!!!