Monday, December 29, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 17 Snap Judgments

No defending Super Bowl champion has won a playoff game since the 2004 Patriots, which is pretty remarkable when you really think about that.  Four champions - the Steelers (twice), Giants, and Ravens - failed to even make the playoffs the following year during that same span.  If that isn't a sign of how parity is rampant across the league, then I don't know what will.

Now we come to the curious case of the Seahawks.  At one point, they were 3-3, and then later on they had traded away one of their primary playmakers on offense.  There were all kinds of questions surrounding the leadership ability and overall trust in their quarterback.  There is still talk of whether their running back - another big time offensive playmaker - will be back with the team next year.

Despite all that drama, the Seahawks are the #1 seed in the NFC going into the playoffs and have home field advantage the rest of the way.  They only lost one home game this season, so they'd have to lay a fairly colossal egg to be handed an early exit in the postseason.  Granted, #1 seeds have been sent home in either classic games (e.g. Ravens/Broncos two years ago), or coming out completely flat in their first game after their bye (e.g. Packers/Giants three years ago).  Cliche as it sounds, I don't see the Seahawks coming out flat after they return from their bye week.  They're too well-coached, and it would not surprise anyone if they became the first team since those 2004 Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls.

1. Meanwhile, there will be some job opportunities opening up today.  Jim Harbaugh is already out the door in San Francisco, and Woody Johnson is preparing to clean house for the Jets today as well.  The Raiders are already in need of a head coach, and Chicago and Atlanta are also likely to have regime changes.  Of those five organizations, it's hard to pick which one is the most attractive for anyone looking for a head coaching job.  If the 49ers look outside the organization, on paper they'd have the best roster of players, but there's the obvious question of what kind of control and power a new head coach would have under GM Trent Baalke and owner Jed York.  Chicago and Atlanta are roughly neck and neck in terms of how much rebuilding needs to be done.  Chicago has a running back and elite group of receivers, but there are huge questions surrounding the quarterback and defense; Atlanta has a quarterback and elite receiver, but the Falcons need a running back, and serious help on both the offensive and defensive lines.  The Jets are a complete mess, and the Raiders aren't in a much better position.  I'm sticking with the 49ers as the team in need of a head coach right now that is closest to a "win now" position, but the competition in the NFC West is getting heavier with each passing season.

2. Justin Houston has not gotten the kind of attention he's deserved this season.  I don't think I've brought Houston up at all this year, but he has had an incredible season playing for the Chiefs.  He finished his 2014 season leading the league in sacks, finishing only 1.5 sacks behind Michael Strahan for the single-season record.  If not for J.J. Watt, he'd be a very likely candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.  He's also an impending free agent, and early word is that he and the Chiefs are going to fight over his franchise tag in the offseason.  He also turns 26 in January, so he's just starting to enter the prime of his career.  He stands to make a ton of money with his next contract, so while the Chiefs would be wise to prevent him from hitting the free agent market, they'd be doing everyone a disservice if they can't work out a long-term deal with Houston.

3. The Browns are still a mess.  Once upon a time, way back in the first week of November, the Browns were 5-3 and looking ready to take a big step towards competitiveness in the AFC North.  Fast forward nearly two months later, and they managed to lose their final five games of the season.  Johnny Manziel is quickly showing he doesn't take his job very seriously, and the front office is already very frustrated with his antics.  I find it hard to believe that the franchise would look to drafting yet another quarterback early in the draft in April, but Manziel is already on a very thin thread with management.  For whatever reason, the Browns just can't take a step forward without taking two steps back.

4. The Panthers might actually win a playoff game.  Prior to the season, I thought the Panthers would take a pretty big step backwards after going 12-4 last year.  I expected 8-8 was pretty likely, and as it turned out, that was extremely close to their 7-8-1 record.  It was also enough to win the pathetic NFC South, and they'll host the Arizona Cardinals on Wild Card Weekend.  With the quarterback position up in the air for the Cardinals, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see the Panthers win a playoff game much like the 7-9 Seahawks did when they had beaten the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in 2010 as NFC West champions.  In 2010 I felt the idea of a division winner finishing 8-8 or worse was a fluke; I was proven wrong this season, and I think the time has come for the NFL to rethink its postseason seeding procedures.

5. Joe Flacco finally showed some leadership moxie.  The Ravens had an opportunity to return to the playoffs as the Chiefs beat up the Chargers yesterday.  Instead of taking care of business at home during the first half, the Ravens' offense once again sputtered, putting up only 3 points in their final home game of the season.  They were tied 3-3 at the half, and Flacco had enough.  He gave an impassioned halftime speech, one that lit a fire on everyone in the locker room.  They went out and put up 17 unanswered points to ultimately win the game and grab the final playoff spot in the AFC.  That's the kind of leader Flacco has to be if the Ravens are going to win any playoff games this season.  He may not be interesting or emotional in his press conferences, but he can light a fire when he has to in the huddle or in the locker room.  If he can assert himself like that again Saturday night against the Steelers, the Ravens could make another playoff run.

6. The Giants will be an upstart team for 2015.  The Giants' offense has a chance to be really, really good next year, with Victor Cruz returning and playing on the opposite side of Odell Beckham, Jr.  If Eli Manning cuts back on his turnovers (which he did in 2014 over 2013), the Giants could be right in the mix with the Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC East.  They have to address Jason Pierre-Paul's contract and the rest of their defense in the draft, and if they do they can rebound next season.  Call this a super early bold prediction sure to go wrong for next year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 16 Snap Judgments

I would make for a terrible journalist.

When I write my weekly recaps, I normally start on Monday and write most of the post, leaving a spot open for the Monday night game.  Then on Tuesday morning I add in whatever I have to say about Monday night football, and make any last minute changes before I hit "publish."  Once or twice I wrote the entire post on a Tuesday morning, but I always made a point to finish it.

Until two weeks ago, that is.

I don't even have a good story as to why.  I recall on Monday thinking that I had plenty of time to start working on it, so I did what I did so many times in college: I procrastinated.  Next thing I knew, it was Wednesday morning, and it hit me that I never did my usual write up.  By then I thought it was virtually pointless since Week 15 was starting the following night, and it was too late.

Last week work got in the way of my normal write up.  It's a marginally better excuse than simply forgetting, but it could still have been completed.

Now that I'm done pitying myself, I can finally get to my thoughts on Week 16...

1. Thursday night divisional games are in theory a great idea, but who decided the final Thursday game of the season should have been Titans/Jaguars?  The Thursday slate of games started out pretty awful, most of them being blowouts.  About halfway into the season, there were a couple good games, including Colts/Texans, Jets/Patriots, and Chiefs/Raiders.  But when the league office was building the schedule back in April, did anyone stop to think that ending the Thursday games with Titans/Jaguars could have been replaced with something a whole lot better?  The league obviously wanted to give every team at least one prime time game during the course of the season, but why end its first season with a Thursday night game every week with one that featured two teams likely to be picking in the top five spots in the draft next year?  They could have saved something like Chargers/Broncos or Eagles/Cowboys for that slot instead.

2. The Redskins, Vikings, Texans, and Raiders must all be feeling happy today.  The Vikings and Raiders must be feeling especially happy because they had eliminated the Dolphins and Bills, respectively, from competing for postseason spots.  The Redskins made the road extra hard for the Eagles to make the playoffs at all, and coupled with Dallas blowing out the Colts, the Eagles' chances at playing in January are slim at best.  The Texans kept their equally slim playoff chances alive by dismantling the Ravens (more on the Ravens in a moment).  Since three of these four teams had no shot of the postseason, their respective victories felt a little sweeter knowing they had essentially ended their opponents' seasons as well.

3. The Goat of the Week Award goes to Joe Flacco.  Joe Flacco had one of his worst performances of his career on Sunday, throwing three interceptions (two of which were arguably not his fault) and completing under 33% of his pass attempts on the day.  J.J. Watt was once again showing why no other football player in the league can impact a game like he can, making Flacco uncomfortable in the pocket all day.  The Ravens entered the weekend with the opportunity to win their final two games, seize a playoff spot, and possibly even win their division.  After laying that egg in Houston, they can no longer win their division, and their chances at the postseason rely on scoreboard watching while trying to take care of business against Cleveland in the final game of the regular season.

4. Reports of the Seahawks' demise was greatly exaggerated.  Eight weeks ago, the Seahawks had traded away one of their primary offensive pieces in Percy Harvin to the Jets, Russell Wilson was being accused of not being "black enough" (which I still don't know what that means), and Marshawn Lynch's locker room antics were tearing the team apart.  Does anyone remember those days?  I sure don't.  The team is primed for another postseason run, and they can clinch the top seed in the NFC again by beating the Rams next week.  Pete Carroll has done an incredible job keeping that team together in light of how awful things looked two months ago.  They could well be the first team since the 2004 Patriots to be a defending Super Bowl champion to at least win a playoff game the following season.

5. Dominic Raiola has quickly become a liability for the Lions.  Four weeks ago, Raiola took a cheap shot against Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore when the game was winding down to a Patriots win.  The NFL did not suspend him for that action, but Raiola once again took a cheap shot on Sunday by stepping on Bears defensive tackle Ego Ferguson's leg.  The league has suspended Raiola for one game for that latest incident, which means he won't play against the Packers for the NFC North title game.  These kinds of stupid moves show how much of a dirty player Raiola is, and the Lions may, at the very least, have to find another way to deal with Raiola in order to prevent injury to other players on the field.

6. Speaking of cheap shots, Alec Ogletree gave one to Odell Beckham, Jr.  And guess who the Rams defensive coordinator is?  That would be one Gregg Williams, the same Gregg Williams who was at the center of the Saints bounty scandal from their 2009 season.  In fairness, there are a couple important notes worth mentioning here.  First, I'm not making any kind of allegation that Williams is up to his old bounty ways.  Second, the Giants and Rams had been roughing each other up all day prior to Ogletree laying a hand on Beckham after he had knocked Beckham out of bounds.  Third, while the Rams have been playing decent defense for the last few weeks, there haven't been any kinds of signs that Williams was returning to his old tricks.  Still, this game nearly got out of control very quickly, and Beckham once again showed why he will be an incredible playmaker for years to come.  In the end, he got the last word because of the kinds of plays he can make.

7. The NFL made the right call in not scheduling the NFC South title game for Sunday night.  The league normally prefers flexing in a "win or go home" game for its Week 17 Sunday night game.  The last three Sunday night season finales were all NFC East title games, featuring the Cowboys and a round robin of divisional opponents.  The NFC South has come down to a "win or go home" game between the Falcons and Panthers, but the league office had enough self-respect to not schedule that for the Week 17 Sunday night game.  The South has been a joke of a division for the entire season, and there's no need to revisit how ridiculous it is that the eventual winner will get to host a playoff game.  Opting for two good teams vying for another division title was a much better choice.

8. Peyton Manning is running out of gas.  It's pretty shocking to think that Peyton has now thrown more interceptions this season than his brother Eli.  In his last 8 games, Peyton has thrown 12 picks, which those alone are already more than the 10 picks he threw in 2013.  Admittedly, he played in some ugly conditions last night in Cincinnati, but he is clearly showing signs of slowing down versus his last two seasons in Denver where he put up video game numbers.  Maybe he pulled a bit of a Houdini act on us in making us think he was immortal.  Reality had to set in sooner or later that time would catch up even with the great Peyton Manning, and last night was a signal that he is, in fact, approaching the twilight of his career.  The second championship that Peyton wanted for so long may not ever come.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

NFL 2014 Week 13 Snap Judgments

On a personal note, I have some funny fantasy football stuff to share.  I'm in two leagues with two separate groups of friends, both of which I've been part of for several years.  In one league, I have clinched the #1 overall seed for the playoffs and got a bye through next weekend.  I can "rest" all my players and not have to worry about setting any lineup until Week 15.  I'm feeling really good about my team's chances to win my league's title this year, which would be my second championship in this particular league.

On the complete other end of the fantasy spectrum, my season came to a merciful end in my other league.  I went a spectacular 0-13 there, despite making all kinds of roster moves to pull at least one win out.  I don't think anyone ever had a winless season in that league before, and I could only laugh at my team's ineptitude week after week.  These two teams combined form the literal best of times and worst of times in fantasy football.  I have no idea how in one league I could put together a championship-caliber team, and the other is one of the worst teams in the history of fantasy sports. I feel like both popping my collar and laughing at myself at the same time.  That's fairly impressive.

On to actual football action.....

1. Nobody is really talking about how many good teams in the AFC will be left out of the playoffs.  The subject has been discussed at length as far as the NFC is concerned, mostly because of how bad the entire NFC South has been this season.  There will almost certainly be a Wild Card team in the NFC who will have a better record than the winner of the NFC South and have to play on the road.  Odds are that at least one team in the NFC will reach double-digit wins but be left out of the playoffs entirely.

The situation in the AFC is arguably tougher though.  There are currently 11 teams who have at least 7 wins through 13 weeks, which means 5 of those teams will be left without chairs when the music stops after Week 17.  In 2008, the Patriots became one of the few teams in league history to win 11 games but be left out of the playoffs.  We are facing a very similar situation this season, only things would be tougher since it's possible that multiple teams with double-digit wins will be left out of January.  It makes for great drama right now, but there could be as many as 5 teams who have 10 or more wins and be very upset by season's end.

2. Colt McCoy only made the Redskins' decision-making process more difficult.  McCoy showed on Sunday that he can play, throwing for nearly 400 yards (albeit mostly in garbage time when the game was clearly lost) and 3 scores in Indianapolis.  Robert Griffin III is still being described as part of the offensive plan for the rest of the season, but that doesn't mean much of anything considering how vague the wording is.  The toughest decision is what the Redskins do with Griffin next season when the team has to choose whether it will exercise a fifth-year option on his rookie contract for $18 million.  Opting not to exercise the option would be a referendum on the trade the Redskins had made to draft Griffin in the first place, showing just how much of a waste the draft picks the team had to give up to St. Louis truly was.  If they stick with Griffin yet again, they are hindering any kind of progress going forward since McCoy is clearly a better quarterback.

3. Right now, there could be as many as 6 head coaching openings by season's end.  The Raiders will already need a new head coach since they had fired Dennis Allen earlier this season.  Other possible openings include the Bears, Giants, Falcons, Jets, and perhaps most shockingly, the 49ers.  Jim Harbaugh's working relationship with the 49ers' ownership keeps getting worse with each passing week, despite the team reaching the NFC Championship Game each of the last three seasons and appearing in Super Bowl 47.  San Francisco would certainly be the most attractive head coaching job of that bunch on a player talent level, but the documented personality clashes could make some applicants concerned about how much control they'd have over personnel and decision making.  The Falcons may stick with Mike Smith if they wind up winning the NFC South, but if that job opened up that may become even more attractive than the 49ers job.

4. Andy Dalton should buy Marvin Lewis a pretty special Christmas present.  Lewis bailed out his own quarterback on Sunday after Andy Dalton played another lousy game in Tampa with some relatively unconventional tactics: Tampa had the ball and was driving down field in order to attempt a game-winning field goal.  Lewis noticed the Bucs had 12 men on the field at one point, something the refs all on the field had missed.  The game had less than 2 minutes to go, a point when head coaches are not allowed to challenge calls or ask for a review.  Lewis was forced to throw his challenge flag on the field in order to get the refs' attention, at which time they caught the error.  The Bucs were kicked out of field goal range once the penalty was assessed, and the Bengals held on to be the only team in the AFC North to win on Sunday.  Dalton could have been the Goat of the Week otherwise.

5. The Goat of the Week Award goes to the Ravens' defense.  The Ravens were flagged a whopping 14 times on Sunday against the Chargers for 98 yards, some of which were questionable calls, namely the final pass interference penalty called on Anthony Levine as he blocked Eddie Royal from catching a go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute to play in the game.  Safety Matt Elam was flagged twice as well for defensive holding, but perhaps the dumbest penalties went to Elvis Dumervil, who was hit three times for being offsides in the neutral zone.  The Ravens' defense should have been able to contain Philip Rivers, especially with the offense putting 33 points on the board on Sunday.  Instead, they shot themselves in the foot in the chase for the playoffs and may have to win all four of their remaining games to have a chance now.

6. The Browns shouldn't pass the torch to Johnny Manziel just yet.  Manziel was put in at quarterback Sunday when Brian Hoyer threw 2 more interceptions (in his last three games, Hoyer had thrown only 1 touchdown against 6 picks).  Cleveland was another AFC North team who didn't seize the opportunity handed to them against another AFC team hunting for the playoffs, Hoyer is now on a thin thread, but he shouldn't be bumped permanently for Manziel yet.  Mike Pettine will announce within the next 24 hours who will start at quarterback on Sunday against the Colts, and Manziel should only be given the keys to the team if the Browns fall hopelessly out of the playoff hunt.  Hoyer can still help them win now; he shouldn't be replaced unless the team starts looking towards 2015.

7. The Patriots/Packers game was a rare example of a heavily hyped game that actually lived up to its billing.  The Patriots did everything they could to take Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson out of the game, forcing Aaron Rodgers to throw to his other receivers.  Fortunately for the Packers, Davonte Adams and Richard Rodgers stepped up, along with Eddie Lacy running the ball effectively to keep the passing game open.  Green Bay did its best to keep Rob Gronkowski at bay, but he's too large of a target to completely shut down.  HaHa Clinton-Dix made the play of the game with about 3:25 left in the game by taking away a touchdown reception from Gronk.  It's far too soon to start predicting whether these two teams will face off again in Phoenix in Super Bowl 49, but this was one of the best games in years.

8. Arizona is quickly allowing the rest of the NFC to catch up to them.  Once upon a time, a whole two weeks ago in fact, the Cardinals had what looked like a stranglehold on the NFC.  While their lead at the time was hardly insurmountable, they didn't look like they had missed a step after Carson Palmer went down with a torn ACL.  They soundly beat Detroit, who at the time was their closest rival in the conference.  Since then, they were beaten badly by the Seahawks and looked lethargic on the road in Atlanta Sunday.  They share the same record with the Packers now, and only hold the top seed's edge by a 1-game margin in their conference record.  The Seahawks are only a game behind them now, and they go head to head in Arizona in two weeks.  It's quite possible to see them fall all the way from the top seed in the league down to fighting for a Wild Card spot.  Bruce Arians has still done an incredible coaching job there, but they are playing their worst football of the season at the wrong time.