Tag Archives: NFL

Pro Football HOF Class Signals Change in Direction

Prior to Super Bowl LI, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the seven new inductees who will make up the Class of 2017. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, Morten Andersen, Kenny Easley, and Jerry Jones will make up this year’s class, and in that group are some interesting selections. In particular, Davis, Warner, and Easley were all superstar talents at one time, but had very short careers by Hall of Fame standards. The there’s Andersen, who cleared a major hurdle in becoming just the third pure kicker/punter inducted and the second in the last four years, which could signal a changing of perception.

I’ll start with Davis, who was absolutely phenomenal for the first four years of his career, running for 6,413 yards, 56 touchdowns, and 4.78 yards per attempt, while earning Super Bowl XXXII MVP honors and league MVP honors in 1998. The remainder of his career is a different story, however, as Davis was derailed by injuries. He would run for 1,194 yards from there on out, or just 77 yards more than his worst season total up to that point. His 3.8 yards per carry over those last three seasons was a far cry from his four-year prime. So yes, he was incredible for the first four years of his career, but was his peak historic enough to make up for the early end to his career? In the history of the NFL, there have been nine other players who ran for 5,500 yards in their first four years.

With a quick look at this list, you’ll notice six Hall of Famers, and four others. Adrian Peterson will get into the Hall of Fame, so let’s focus on the other three. Davis has better numbers than all of them, but not by a whole lot. Two of them, Chris Johnson and Jamal Lewis, probably won’t come close to ever getting inducted, while Clinton Portis’s name isn’t brought up a whole lot in that conversation either. I suggest you take a look at Portis’s Pro Football Reference page and compare his career alongside Davis’s. With that being said, Johnson, Lewis, and Portis all had multiple 1,000 yard seasons after their first four years and lasted much longer than Davis.

If Davis can get into the Hall of Fame, what does that mean for some active running backs? DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles have been up and down, but have also been unstoppable at times. How much more does Le’Veon Bell need to do to enter the Hall of Fame discussion? What about LeSean McCoy?

There is one thing Terrell Davis did better than anyone else – coming through on the biggest stage. Davis averaged 142.5 yards per game over eight postseason contests and won a Super Bowl MVP. None of the other aforementioned backs can lay claim to that, although Lewis won a Super Bowl as well. Davis’s incredible playoff heroics have to count for something. After all, it is the Hall of Fame, and Terrell Davis fits that bill.

Kurt Warner’s career in many ways mirrors Davis’s. Neither was a highly regarded prospect out of college, but both proved the doubters wrong, with each of them winning regular season and Super Bowl MVP awards. But while Warner was incredible during his peak as well, he lacked the longevity of other Hall of Fame quarterbacks. It’s one thing for a running back to get inducted based off a brief but brilliant career, but quarterbacks often need to last longer to be considered among the all-time greats. Among all 10 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame who debuted after 1970, Warner has the fewest total passing yards and second fewest touchdowns behind Troy Aikman. There’s even three Hall of Famers who debuted from 1948-1970 with more yards than Warner and six with more touchdown passes, despite playing in a time when it was much more difficult to throw the ball.

The case to be made for Warner rests on his two league MVPs and four Pro Bowl nominations. What he was able to accomplish, despite getting a late start to his NFL career is nothing short of remarkable. But it’s easier to ignore his late career start than the middle of his career, where Warner started just 31 games from 2002-2006. In fact, he only started ten or more games seven times during his twelve-year career, and only started more than eleven games four times.

If that’s enough to warrant a spot in Canton, so be it. But if that’s the case, how do some current passers stack up? The first two players that come to mind are two franchise quarterbacks from the same draft class – Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Believe it or not, both Ryan and Flacco have already thrown for more yards in their careers than Warner did. Ryan now has an MVP award to his name, and has led his team to a Super Bowl. Flacco is not quite as good as Ryan, but did win a Super Bowl MVP and had maybe the greatest postseason run any quarterback has ever had leading up to that game. Neither is thought of at the moment as a future Hall of Famer, but they’re not far off from Warner statistically speaking.

Warner’s induction also makes Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning near locks, whether you agree with it or nor. Then there’s Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, who have yet to reach a Super Bowl, but have had a much longer period of regular season success than Warner. The currently eligible Donovan McNabb could have a case as well.

Of course, Warner was a great player in his best years. I’m not necessarily saying him or Davis shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but rather trying to predict how their inductions can impact the cases of players who will be eligible in the future. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is much different than the Baseball Hall of Fame. Football tends to reward the most phenomenal performances, no matter how short they may be, over longevity, which is perfectly fine. It’s not anywhere near as exclusive either, which is one of the reasons I’m not as invested in the process as I am with baseball.

Sometimes, football does seem to be inconsistent with how players are evaluated for the Hall of Fame. The most glaring omission among this year’s finalists is Terrell Owens, who has now missed the cut two years in a row. While wide receivers usually have to wait longer than others for whatever reason, it’s baffling how the man who is second only to Jerry Rice in receiving yards has yet to be inducted.

The answer is unfortunately quite obvious; people don’t like him. A showboat who frequently caused a stir with teammates, coaches, and the media, it’s safe to say T.O. rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But that shouldn’t be enough to keep him out. Like it or not, having a “good guy” reputation really helps your Hall of Fame case.

Last but not least, Morten Andersen becomes the second pure placekicker and third kicking specialist elected. The NFL’s all-time leading scorer deserves a spot, and it should also open the door for others. With Ray Guy getting inducted in 2014 and now Andersen, voters seem to be coming around to the idea that kickers and punters play vital roles in the game, and we should therefore honor the best who ever did it.

If the football Hall of Fame chooses to honor flashes or greatness and fame for players who lack the longevity of their peers, there’s nothing wrong with that. Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner both have fascinating stories, and it’s pretty cool that parents will be able to tell those stories to their kids when they see their busts in Canton. Davis was taken near the end of the 1995 draft in the sixth round by the Broncos. Throughout his career, he had to deal with migraines that he suffered from since childhood. Warner wasn’t drafted at all out of college and had to go through a grocery store, the Arena Football League, and NFL Europe before getting a real chance.

Some people believe a person’s Hall of Fame credentials should rest on their importance to the game. If the Pro Football Hall of Fame is going to honor those who were the best at what they did and brought the most to the NFL, Morten Andersen, who scored more points than anyone else, needs to be recognized. And if you’re going to tell the story of the NFL’s past two decades, you cannot tell it without mentioning Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner.

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Super Bowl LI Takeaways: Brady’s Greatness, White’s Historic Game, Future of the Falcons, and More

When Lady Gaga took the stage for the halftime show, Super Bowl LI appeared destined to become one of the less memorable ones in history, unless you were a Falcons fan. With a first half completely dominated by one team, we were headed towards an uneventful ending to an uncharacteristically forgettable NFL postseason. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the game was over, barring the impossible. Well, as it turned out, the seemingly impossible happened.

And that is why there should no longer be any argument over who is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Last night, Tom Brady led the most improbable of victories. No team had ever overcome a deficit of more than ten points in the previous 50 Super Bowls, but the Patriots went far beyond that, capturing the dramatic victory after being down 28 – 3 at one point.

The Greatest Quarterback of All-Time

Among the many feats Brady accomplished in the game, one of his most impressive barely got a mention. Brady’s first Super Bowl win came during the 2001 season, which means he is the only player in NFL history to win championships fifteen years apart. It’s not totally surprising considering how unpredictable football careers can be. First, think about how tough it is for a player to remain at the top of their game for that long. When you then consider how much roster turnover exists in the NFL, it’s almost impossible for one player to win five championships, four Super Bowl MVPs, and remain among the very best at his position for as long as Brady has. Part of the credit goes to the genius of Bill Belichick, but Brady has been a reliable constant each and every year for the Patriots.

It’s becoming harder and harder to make a reasonable argument for any other quarterback being above Brady. Some of the legends of the past have compiled huge career passing statistics and others have made their name by winning the games that matter most, but Brady is the best of both worlds. He’s within reach of the career records for passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating, and already has most of the passing records for postseason and Super Bowl play. For those who value wins more than personal stats, Brady has won more than anyone. Plus, he’s still producing at the same level he always has at an age when most players have been long since retired. That kind of longevity and consistency has to count for something. Amazingly, Brady has never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season. Basically, if Brady is your quarterback, you’re not going to lose very often. In the playoffs alone, Brady’s teams are 25-9 when he starts. He’s now won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback and is tied with Hall of Fame linebacker/defensive end Charles Haley among all positions.

How Did That Happen?

That’s the question fans all over the country were asking following the Patriots’ 34-28 victory. Tom Brady’s poise is one reason, but far from the only one. There were dozens of factors that you can look at to explain how the Falcons possibly lost this game. It starts with defense, and to put it simply, New England’s defense stepped up in the second half while Atlanta’s crashed and burned. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia obviously made some major adjustments at halftime, which you’d expect great coaches to do. And of course, the Falcons need to be held accountable for blowing a 25 point lead. Sometimes, there’s one person or play that can shoulder the blame for something like this, but that’s not the case here. First off, you don’t make it to overtime in the Super Bowl without playing a good game, but there were at least half a dozen mistakes made by Atlanta that, had they not occurred, could have resulted in a very different outcome.

Matt Ryan’s fumble which ignited the spark the Patriots needed was huge, just like the sack he took late in the fourth quarter. That knocked Atlanta out of field goal range, and had they been a little closer, there’s little doubt Matt Bryant would have been able to nail any attempt less than 50 yards in a dome to make it a ten-point game. But I’m not blaming Ryan for the loss. He otherwise played a fantastic game, and both plays were created by bad blocking. Then there’s the pass interference on Martellus Bennett in overtime, the defense allowing two two-point conversions, and the offense failing to shave enough time off of the play clock. The Patriots were also blessed with a combination of amazing hand-eye coordination and a little luck on Julian Edelman’s ridiculous catch, and they continued to keep the Falcons off balance with some innovative play calling. And, there was one guy who served as New England’s secret weapon throughout the entire game…

James White’s Historic Night

Tom Brady said after the game that James White deserved to be the MVP of the game. Brady may have been the one who was ultimately named Super Bowl MVP, but it just as easily could have been White. Brady did set Super Bowl records for passing yards (466) and completions (43), but White set some records of his own as well. The quick receiving back set new Super Bowl highs with his 14 catches and 20 points scored. His lunging, game-winning touchdown run in overtime will become a lasting image in both football and New England sports lore.

Silver Lining for the Falcons

It’s got to be gut-wrenching to be a Falcons fan right now, but this shouldn’t be Atlanta’s last chance at glory. This season, they saw their NFC South rivals, the Carolina Panthers, tumble to 6-10 last place finish following a Super Bowl loss, but it would be a surprise to see the Falcons suffer that same fate. Atlanta’s defense is very young and also very good, and they’re just going to keep getting better. This was only coach Dan Quinn’s second season at the helm, and he should be able to continue to develop his defense. Matt Ryan was just named NFL MVP, and if any number of events had gone slightly different, he could easily have had a Super Bowl MVP to his name as well. It was a breakout year for the veteran quarterback, who had always been very good, but never elite. He’s elite now, and it should stay that way for a while. Ryan has the right weapons around him too, including a solid offensive line, a great running back tandem, and arguably the best wide receiver in football, Julio Jones. The future looks bright for the Falcons, although they will have to compete in a very good division. It should be fun, at least, with the last two NFC champions, a young, up-and-coming Buccaneers team, and the always dangerous Saints offense battling it out.

A Place in History

Super Bowl LI is the first one to go into overtime, which immediately places it in the conversation of greatest Super Bowls of all-time. It may not have been a back-and-forth affair, but there were few dull moments. It had the buildup of a great dynasty, the so-called “evil empire”, facing off against a team seeking their very first title. Even when the Falcons went up big, there was still that thought in the back of most people’s minds that if anyone could come back from 25 points down, it was Tom Brady and the Patriots. Of course, the second half was about as good as it gets in football.

If it’s not the greatest Super Bowl in history, the past year certainly has a claim as the most thrilling in sports history. We’ve seen the Cavaliers overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals and then the Cubs do the same in the World Series, ending their 108-year drought in extra innings of Game 7. Now we have the first Super Bowl overtime. Not bad for one calendar year.

We can’t forget about Lady Gaga either. Most halftime shows are pretty disappointing in my opinion, due to bad audio, not enough singing, or a bunch of other things. But her performance hit the mark so well that she didn’t even need any guest stars or distracting stunts to make it entertaining. One might say the performance was through the roof.

Falcons Have Framework for Success in Super Bowl LI and Beyond

The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, who match up very evenly on paper, have had drastically different fortunes throughout history. New England will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl and seventh in the last sixteen years. They’ve been perennial AFC favorites for so long that it’s almost a surprise when they don’t make it to the big game. Atlanta, on the other hand, has only made it to the Super Bowl one other time (they lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII). Incredibly, the only time in franchise history the Falcons have even made the playoffs in consecutive seasons was from 2010-2012.

However, this is not the same Falcons team of old. Atlanta was the only team in the NFL to finish in the top five in both passing and rushing yards per game, and finished first in points per game (33.8) by a margin of more than four points over the next best team, the New Orleans Saints. That certainly doesn’t mean anything will come easy, as New England finished third in that category and also possess the top scoring defense in the NFL.

But the while the Falcons don’t have the championship pedigree of the Patriots or even the same national recognition as some of the teams they beat to get here, this is not a team that is built for just one year. Newly minted MVP Matt Ryan had a career year, but maybe it was more of a career breakout. Ryan has always had the talent and this year, everything came together for him in a big way. Julio Jones is still relatively young and is quite possibly the most talented wide receiver in the NFL. And Atlanta’s running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is as formidable as any other duo in the league.

Everyone loves to talk about Atlanta’s high-powered offense, and rightly so, but their defensive turnaround may be their most impressive feat this year. That starts with head coach Dan Quinn, whom the Falcons hired prior to the 2015 season after a pair of lackluster years. Quinn was already well-regarded as a brilliant defensive mind, serving as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks for their two Super Bowl appearances before getting hired by Atlanta. But after a scintillating 5-0 start in his first year, things went south and the team finished the year at .500. In addition to a middle-of-the-pack offense, one of the main problems was the lack of any kind of pass rush. The Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with 19 sacks in 2015. Fast forward to 2016, and Atlanta improved that total to 34 (16th in the NFL), while Vic Beasley had 15.5 sacks all by himself.

Beasley’s rise to stardom is just one of many reasons Falcons’ fans have to be excited for what the future holds, win or lose. Quinn has built this defense from the ground up, and there’s reason to believe it’s going to get a lot better. Along with the second-year pro Beasley, the Falcons have three rookies starting on defense, and two of them (Deion Jones and Keanu Neal) were first and second on the team in tackles.

In fact, the way the Atlanta’s roster is constructed mirrors their Super Rival, the Patriots. While Tom Brady deserves all the credit he gets for his consistency and continued success, Bill Belichick also prides himself on building standout defensive teams. Like Quinn, Belichick has a defensive background and has routinely been able to develop stars on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, Belichick has always maintained a good balance with his offense, just like this year’s Falcons. Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play, New England almost always has a good rushing attack, even if they tend to use quite a few different running backs every year.

The Falcons and Patriots both have teams that are built for success over the long haul, but it’s fair to say that most of their fans aren’t worried about that today. It’s all about one game in Houston tonight. For the Patriots, another championship would enhance the legacy of their dynasty even further, and for the Falcons, the franchise’s first championship would be a moment to cherish forever.

With any luck, Super Bowl LI will be a much better matchup than we’ve seen throughout this postseason. Aside from the divisional matchup between the Cowboys and Packers, we haven’t really seen any competitive games. A thrilling finish tonight would be great for the sport, and with the offensive talent both of these teams have, it could be a high scoring, back and forth affair.

Chargers Bolt to Los Angeles

This morning, the Chargers announced that they would be leaving San Diego to join the Rams in Los Angeles. That puts an end to a 56-year run in San Diego, dating back to the franchise’s days in the AFL. Although the Chargers actually began in Los Angeles, it was for one lone year before relocating to Balboa Stadium in San Diego in 1961. Eventually they moved into Qualcomm Stadium in 1967, which turned out to be the driving force for the team’s relocation. Qualcomm is the fifth oldest stadium in the NFL, and only Green Bay’s Lambeau Field has been continually in use by an NFL team for longer. It’s generally considered outdated and obsolete by NFL standards, so when the Chargers couldn’t get a new stadium built, they decided to bolt. The team will begin playing in the StubHub Center, home to the MLS’s LA Galaxy, before moving in with the Rams at the new City of Champions Stadium in 2019.

It has to be upsetting when a team with so much history in one city is gone all of a sudden. When the Rams moved to L.A. last year, the circumstances were a little different in that they had only been in St. Louis for 21 years. Despite their lone Super Bowl win happening in St. Louis, the bulk of the team’s history was in L.A., so it was more of a homecoming. That’s not to say that there weren’t fans in St. Louis who were hurt by the move. It’s bad for any sports league when teams have to relocate. But the Rams already had plenty of history and a potential fan base in L.A. to market itself to.

I’m not a Chargers fan nor am I from San Diego, so I can’t know what it’s like to lose your team, but this has to be a huge slap in the face for lifelong fans of the franchise. I am a fan of the history of the game and to move a team that’s been in one place for so long is unfortunate. What’s worse, according to Mike Florio of NBC Sports, the team is considering rebranding completely, which means ditching the Chargers name and their classic color combination. They’ve already unveiled a new (very bland) logo, an “LA” inscription that appears to be a Los Angeles Dodgers logo with a Tampa Bay Lightning logo running across it, although apparently this is only for marketing purposes just to make the announcement. The current logo and colors will remain for the time being. That’s a little hard to believe, because it doesn’t make sense to unveil a new logo if you weren’t planning on using it or attempting to eventually transition to a full rebrand. To rebrand the franchise would essentially be tossing aside a half century of history and telling San Diego the same thing Ron Burgundy told the city that resulted in his firing. If this does indeed happen, hopefully the original name, colors, and records can be transferred to a new franchise should the NFL decide to place an expansion in San Diego in the future. After all, nearly every city that has lost an NFL team has gained a new one within ten years.

Although they never won a Super Bowl, many great players have passed through Qualcomm Stadium over the years. From John Hadl in the AFL days, to Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and Philip Rivers, the Chargers have had a tradition of great passers. When Don Coryell coached the team in the late 1970s into the 80s, he used Fouts’ strengths to his advantage and transformed the game to include deep passing as an integral part of it. Many notable people consider Coryell to be the father of the West Coast Offense. In Coryell’s offense, Kellen Winslow also helped to transform the tight end position into a legitimate receiving threat.

In 1994, the Chargers reached their first and only Super Bowl, losing Super Bowl XXIX to the 49ers by a score of 49-26. That team and the ones that followed were led by defensive star Junior Seau, one of four Chargers to have played 200 games with the team. The year 2000 represented a low point for the franchise, as they finished a league worst 1-15.

In the following year’s draft, San Diego selected two players who would become NFL icons – LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees. As you know, Brees ended up having more success in New Orleans after being replaced by Rivers, but Tomlinson built his case in San Diego as one of the greatest running backs of all-time. An alum of TCU, L.T. ranks fifth all-time in rushing yards and third in scoring touchdowns. The majority of his work came in San Diego, highlighted by his historic 2006 season in which he took home an MVP award and set an NFL record with 31 total touchdowns scored. That year, the Chargers went 14-2, the best record in franchise history, but lost in the divisional round to the Patriots. When Tomlinson likely gets voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month, it will be a little awkward when the San Diego Chargers won’t be able to congratulate arguably their greatest player ever.

In addition to the greats listed above, the Chargers have also been blessed with players like Ron Mix, Lance Alworth, Charlie Joiner, and Antonio Gates over the years. While San Diego ultimately fell short of winning a Super Bowl (they did win an AFL Championship in 1963), there were nonetheless some incredible highs and countless players who entertained fans throughout the last 56 years.

What’s puzzling about the move to Los Angeles is why the Chargers would expect to draw better in a city that just welcomed another team a year ago. Back in the early 90s, L.A. had two teams (the Rams and the Raiders), and both had to move out in 1995. Why is it going to be more successful this time? In 2016, the Rams did not draw particularly well for a team in a new city, nor did they perform well in TV ratings. Part of it has to do with the fact that they were a bad team lacking exciting players, but there is usually more buzz for a team in its first year. The Chargers were actually among the worst NFL teams in terms of filling their stadium, but if that’s the case, why is it going to be any better in L.A.? At least there are football fans in L.A. left over from the old Rams days before the 90s, so it’s easier to see where they can draw their fan base. Unless the Chargers have gained a large Los Angeles following as the only Southern California team in the NFL for two decades, they could very well end up being second banana in a city that a year ago had zero teams. To complicate matters, the StubHub Center has a seating capacity of 27,000, less than half of what nearly every other NFL stadium holds.

Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S., certainly deserves one NFL team, but it should have to prove it can support that team before it gets another. San Diego, on the other hand, is now left with only one major professional sports team, the San Diego Padres. In fact, even the Padres have stated their disappointment in the city’s football team leaving. For passionate San Diego Chargers fans, unfortunately, the greed of team ownership won this time, and for that I really feel bad for those people. Hopefully the NFL can return to San Diego one day, but Charger fans deserve better than this.

 

NFL Playoff Predictions (2016)

The NFL postseason kicks off this Saturday with an action packed four-game weekend, beginning with the Texans hosting the Raiders at 4:30 p.m. ET. There’s plenty to talk about with the four Wild Card games, so let’s get right to it.

WILD CARD ROUND

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (Sat. 1/7, 4:30 ET, ESPN/ABC)

Both of these teams enter the postseason with very questionable quarterback situations. Oakland plans to start rookie Connor Cook, who has thrown just 21 NFL passes, all last week in Denver. In fact, he would become the first quarterback ever to make his first NFL start in a playoff game. Houston, on the other hand, will likely turn back to Brock Osweiler, who had previously been replaced by Tom Savage until Savage suffered a concussion last week. For lack of better words, Osweiler has been atrocious this year after being handed a lucrative $72 million contract. During the regular season, the Raiders were a far better team than the Texans. While Oakland finished sixth in the NFL in points scored, Houston scored the second fewest touchdowns in the league (24). That is historically inept for a playoff team; no playoff team since the merger has ever scored fewer touchdowns in the regular season. However, the Texans do have one point in their favor. Oakland’s success this season has been largely tied to MVP candidate Derek Carr’s performance, whereas Houston has won with terrible quarterback play all year. Without Carr, it’s anyone’s guess how the team will respond. Both teams can be expected to run the ball heavily. In addition, both teams possess an elite pass rusher, Khalil Mack for the Raiders and Jadeveon Clowney for the Texans. This game could very well come down to which team runs the ball more effectively and how often Mack and Clowney can pressure the opposing quarterback. Despite all the uncertainly surrounding the Raiders, I’m picking them to win this game in a tight, low-scoring affair. With Houston’s unsightly (-49) point differential for the season, they don’t belong in the postseason at all, and I just can’t trust them to even beat a team who is missing their most important player.

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks (Sat. 1/7, 8:15 ET, NBC)

This is another matchup that looks slightly less appealing than it would have earlier in the year. Detroit began the season 9-4, with Matthew Stafford playing some of the best football of his career. However, they stumbled into the playoffs by losing their last three games, albeit all against playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have problems of their own. They still finished third in the NFL in fewest points allowed, but the defense has regressed since Earl Thomas’ season-ending injury in Week 13. In addition, the rushing attack which has been such an integral part of Seattle’s success for the last half-decade has taken a big step back this year. While Thomas Rawls did an outstanding job filling in for the injured Marshawn Lynch last year, a fractured fibula earlier in the year limited him to just nine games and he has averaged a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry, down nearly 2.5 yards from last year. With that being said, the Lions don’t have the greatest running game either, and their offense has scuffled of late. Like the Raiders-Texans game, I expect this one to be close, but I think Seattle pulls it out. CenturyLink Field is possibly the toughest place for visiting teams to win, and despite the issues they’re facing, Seattle was still 7-1 at home. One more caveat to this matchup – the Lions have not beaten a playoff team all year.

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sun. 1/8, 1:05 ET, CBS)

The Dolphins are yet another playoff team who will in all likelihood be playing without their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. With veteran backup Matt Moore slated to play in his stead, Miami will rely heavily on breakout star running back Jay Ajayi, who became the fourth player to rush for 200 yards three times in one season. Pittsburgh has plenty of weapons to match up with Ajayi, led by the outstanding offensive trio of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger. Although the Dolphins enter the postseason as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning nine of their last eleven contests, they were a decidedly middle-of-the-pack team in terms of points for and against and had a negative point differential for the season. This is the only Wild Card Round game that I don’t think will be very close. As good as Miami has played in the latter half of the season, Pittsburgh has been even better, currently riding a ten-game winning streak following a rocky start. Their defense has been much better in the second half and the Dolphins’ offense is no match for the firepower provided by Brown, Bell, and Roethlisberger. If there’s a silver lining for the Dolphins, it’s that they did beat Pittsburgh in Week 6 by a score of 30-15. But for that to happen, it will probably take another 200-yard outing from Ajayi, and the Steelers will be sure to make stopping him their main focus.

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (Sun. 1/8, 4:40 ET, FOX)

The Packers have won their last six games, and Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Green Bay is always tough to beat at home, but the Giants have a recent history of winning at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. New York has a legitimate championship defense that really turned it on in the second half of the season. But while their defense has been incredible, their offense has disappeared. The Giants have gone five games without scoring 20 points, which is not an encouraging way to enter the postseason. While the Packers’ defense has been wildly inconsistent throughout the year, they’ve been much better at home. The Giants have a terrible running game and Eli Manning is a turnover-prone quarterback, so unless Odell Beckham Jr. can break off a couple of big plays, the burden once again falls on the defense. Pro Bowlers Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins will be especially counted upon in the secondary, as well as New York’s excellent pass rush. The success of Green Bay’s offense is tied completely to Rodgers, since they too have one of the league’s least intimidating rushing attacks. Because the Giants defense is so stellar, they have a chance to win any game against any team, but I like the Packers’ chances here, because Rodgers has been too good lately and I don’t think New York’s offense will be able to keep up. The Giants have only won three games this year by more than one score and only one by more than 11 points, which came against the woeful Cleveland Browns.

DIVISIONAL ROUND

TBD at Atlanta Falcons (Sat. 1/14, 4:35 ET, FOX)

The Falcons finished the regular season with the NFL’s best offense by a wide margin (33.8 points per game) and they sure are fun to watch. Matt Ryan may win the MVP award, averaging a league-best 9.3 yards per pass attempt, a number only a handful of players have reached in the last 40 years. Atlanta also possesses one of the game’s best wide receivers in Julio Jones and a two-headed monster backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Although they often win or lose on the heels of their offense, Atlanta’s defense and pass rush in particular have improved throughout the season. The Falcons will be a tough opponent for anyone in the NFC to beat, since they have far fewer flaws than any of their potential Divisional Round opponents.

TBD at New England Patriots (Sat. 1/14. 8:15 ET, CBS)

Since New England will face off against the lowest remaining AFC seed, they won’t play the Steelers in the Divisional Round, and that means they will almost definitely play a team led by a backup quarterback. It’s hard to believe any of those passers will match up well against Tom Brady, who was nearly perfect in twelve games this year, throwing 28 touchdown passes versus just two interceptions and compiling a 112.2 quarterback rating. But the Pats aren’t just a one-dimensional team. LeGarrette Blount rushed for a league leading 18 touchdowns and is one of the game’s best short yardage and goal line backs. In addition to having the NFL’s third best offense in terms of points per game, New England’s defense gave up the fewest total points for the season. Whoever they face, the Patriots could very well cruise to the AFC Championship Game with a victory of at least three touchdowns.

TBD at Kansas City Chiefs (Sun. 1/15. 1:05, NBC)

The Chiefs are an old school type of a team, built around a strong defense, an explosive running game, and a conservative but effective passing attack. Kansas City’s defense generated the most takeaways for the season and tied with Oakland for the best turnover ratio. If their opponent makes any mistakes and gives the Chiefs an opening, it will spell disaster. Even more daunting is that when opposing teams have been able to score against them, Kansas City has shown an ability to open up their offense more and keep up. The Steelers would likely give the Chiefs the toughest matchup, but I envision K.C. to be one of the few teams that could limit Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense, even though they fell to the Steelers 43-14 in embarrassing fashion in Week 4.

TBD at Dallas Cowboys (Sun. 1/15, 4:40 ET, FOX)

The NFC’s top seed is among the most complete teams in the NFL, but a number of close games in past couple of months have shown that Dallas is not invincible. If my Wild Card predictions turn out correct, the Cowboys would be matched up against the Packers, who lost to Dallas earlier in the year, but have a good enough passing game to compete. Otherwise, it’s possible that Dallas hosts the Giants, whom they have already lost to twice. A lot will depend on whether their opponent can contain Ezekiel Elliott and how well Dak Prescott will handle the pressure of his first playoff start for a franchise that is starved for a deep playoff run. If he struggles in the first half and the Cowboys fall behind by multiple scores, it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned to Tony Romo to change things up. However, I like Dallas’ chances of advancing past their first playoff game.

This year’s postseason should be intriguing because there is no team that stands out as the clear-cut favorite. With that being said, we could very well see all four teams who have a first-round bye advance to their respective conference championship games. Most of the other teams in the field are flawed in some way, while the top seeds are much more complete in all aspects of the game.

Should that happen, my early prediction is a Falcons/Chiefs Super Bowl. I think Atlanta would beat Dallas, or any other NFC team for that matter, since their offense has been so superior to the rest of the league. Going with the Chiefs is a tough call, but I do think they could come up with the right formula to upset New England should those two meet. Teams that have beaten the Patriots in the past have done so with good ball control and by pressuring Tom Brady, two of the hallmarks of Kansas City’s success. Between Atlanta and Kansas City, it’s the Falcons who I see coming out on top of that matchup, which makes them my early pick for Super Bowl champions.

In any event, expect the majority of the matchups, including those this upcoming weekend, to be thrilling, tightly-contested games. Many of the NFL’s top teams this year have not been to a Super Bowl in a long time, so it should be an exciting road to Super Bowl LI on February 5th.

Midseason NFL MVP Candidates

After eight weeks of the NFL season, it’s a good time to take a look at some of the early frontrunners for MVP. In ranking my top ten candidates, I took into consideration both the player’s performance and that player’s importance to his team’s success.

  1.  Matt Ryan, QB (Atlanta Falcons)

The veteran is enjoying his best season so far, and finds himself atop the league leaders in passing yards, even before his superb Thursday night performance. He is also second only to Tom Brady with a 119.0 quarterback rating. Ryan has figured out a way to improve his accuracy and limit his turnovers in a big way in 2016, after experiencing a couple of down seasons the last few years.

  1. Ezekiel Elliott, RB (Dallas Cowboys)

Not only is he the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Elliott could very well take home the MVP award with the way he has played. Dak Prescott’s fantastic rookie season has garnered a good deal of attention in Tony Romo’s absence, but the Cowboys love to run the ball and Elliott has been the focal point of one of the NFL’s best offenses. He has averaged 114.1 yards per game on the ground, nearly 20 yards more than any other player.

  1. Derek Carr, QB (Oakland Raiders)

The resurgent Oakland Raiders are 6-2 and Carr is a huge reason why. Possibly the single most important player to his team’s success this season, the third year quarterback is fifth in the NFL in passing yards, while throwing 17 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions. He just came off of a ridiculous game against the Buccaneers where shattered the Raiders’ franchise record for passing yards in a single game.

  1. Von Miller, OLB (Denver Broncos)

Miller has once again wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, with 8.5 sacks to show for it. Defensive players don’t usually win the MVP, but Miller is a special player, and the Broncos defense is so dominant with him leading it that he merits serious consideration.

  1. A.J. Green, WR (Cincinnati Bengals)

Green paces all players in catches and receiving yards, and would probably have a better chance of winning the MVP than Julio Jones if the Bengals were to make the playoffs. Andy Dalton is good, but isn’t having the MVP-caliber season that Matt Ryan is, which makes Green’s numbers stand out just a little more.

  1. DeMarco Murray, RB (Tennessee Titans)

The Titans are in the playoff mix in the NFC South, and they owe a lot of that to Murray’s bounce-back year. He has proven that last year’s terrible performance with the Eagles was just an anomaly, and the 2016 version of Murray looks much more like the player who led the NFL in rushing two years ago. Murray has been a force both running the ball and catching passes in the backfield.

  1. Julio Jones, WR (Atlanta Falcons)

As good as Matt Ryan has been, Jones makes him even better with his electrifying speed and ability to make acrobatic catches. Jones is the only player in the NFL with at least 30 catches and 20 yards per catch. He is the most dynamic player on the NFL’s best offense.

  1. David Johnson, RB (Arizona Cardinals)

Johnson leads all running backs in catches and receiving yards, while placing third in rushing yards. He has also run for eight touchdowns and accumulated a larger percentage of his team’s offensive yardage than any other player in the league. If the Cardinals are going to turn their season around in the second half, they will need Johnson to continue playing at a superstar level.

  1. Drew Brees, QB (New Orleans Saints)

Brees has been his usual self, completing nearly 70% of his passes and leading the league in passing yards per game. The Saints defense is awful and they will have to make the playoffs for Brees to be voted on as MVP, but if New Orleans does find its way into the playoffs after a rough start, it will most certainly be because of Brees, who keeps solidifying his case as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

  1. Lorenzo Alexander, OLB (Buffalo Bills)

The 33 year-old linebacker is one of this season’s best success stories. He was signed way back in 2005 by the Panthers as an undrafted free agent, but has spent most of his career as a special teams player for the Redskins, earning a Pro Bowl nod for his special teams work in 2012. However, he has elevated his game all the way to becoming the NFL’s sack leader through Week 8 with nine, and has actually doubled his career total this year. Alexander is one of the most important players on a good Bills’ defense that is in the middle of the playoff race.

Defense Wins Championships, Not Quarterbacks

It has long been said that said that the quarterback is the most important position in football, perhaps even more so in the past decade with the explosion of passing numbers and teams’ ever increasing reliance on airing the football out. With 4,000 passing yards becoming ordinary for quarterbacks, many believe that you not only need a good quarterback to be a championship contending team, but an elite franchise quarterback.

If the start to this season has proven anything, it’s that this is not entirely true. There are five teams off to 3-0 starts – the Patriots, Ravens, Broncos, Eagles, and Vikings. Interestingly, only the Ravens from this group have used a quarterback that was on their roster last year. Three of these teams, the Patriots, Broncos, and Eagles, have not used a quarterback who had ever started a game before this year. And the Vikings have gone undefeated with journeyman Shaun Hill and Sam Bradford, whom the Eagles traded away in the offseason.

Of course, it’s not like any of these teams have received poor quarterback play. On the contrary, the NFL’s five undefeated teams gotten very efficient play in their passing games, uncovering some breakout stars in the process. But there is one thing they all have in common – defense.

The five aforementioned teams are all in ranked in the top eight in fewest points allowed. For good measure, despite efficient quarterback play, not a single one of them ranks in the top half of the league in passing yards. Philadelphia ranks 17th, the highest among the group. That stat could be somewhat misleading, since teams with good defenses are less likely to be tailing big late in games, which would result in garbage time passing yards. But the truth remains that the NFL’s best teams in the young season have been doing it on the strength of dominant defensive performances.

Furthermore, of the top 12 defensive teams through the season’s first three weeks, only the Titans had a losing record. If you take a look at the top scoring teams, the list is far less indicative of overall record. By contrast, only half of the top 12 offensive scoring teams had a winning record entering Week 4. It’s obviously very early in the season to make any kind of definitive judgments, but the early numbers indicate that defense is the most telling factor as to why football teams win games.

That’s not to say you don’t need a good quarterback, as it’s still the single most important position in the NFL. If your team has one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league, chances are they won’t be very successful, no matter how good the rest of the team is. However, it is possible to be a great team without the advantage of a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback. I would even go as far to say that the quarterback position has become overvalued because of the prevalence of the passing game in today’s NFL. It’s one thing to shell out big money for an elite Hall-of-Fame type star, but in recent years we’ve seen teams hand out questionable contracts near or above $100 million to the likes of Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill, and Colin Kaepernick. It would be much wiser to use that valuable cap space to invest in other areas of need, like defense, rather than overpay for a mediocre quarterback.

 

7 NFL Players Poised for Breakout Seasons

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but from here on out, expect to see more regular and frequent posts on View From the Upper Deck. The other piece of good news is that the NFL season has gotten underway.

On the dawn of the new season, here’s a look at some players who are poised for huge seasons. A lot of these guys played pretty well last year, but I expect them to take their games to another level in 2016. I haven’t included any rookies on this list, only players who have been in the league at least one year.

 

C.J. Anderson, RB (Denver Broncos)

Following Peyton Manning’s retirement, the Broncos will likely lean towards more of a run-heavy offense, and that means Anderson will be the main benefactor. Anderson has the physical skills to be every down back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry for his career with great strength and speed, and he’s already off to a great start after Thursday night’s performance against the Panthers. With the Broncos’ featuring an elite defense, they should use the ground game early and often to move the ball, and if Anderson proves he’s up for the task, the fourth year pro could find himself in contention for the league’s rushing title at season’s end.

 

Travis Benjamin, WR (San Diego Chargers)

When he finally became a starter in his fourth NFL season in 2015, Benjamin showed off the type of big play ability he is capable of. He is primed to take an even bigger step forward this year, as he moves from Cleveland to San Diego, where he will have a much more capable quarterback throwing him the ball, as well as the benefit of lining up alongside Keenan Allen and Antonio Gates, both of whom figure to see a good deal of attention from defenders.

 

Stefon Diggs, WR (Minnesota Vikings)

Diggs came out of nowhere to lead the Vikings in receiving yards last season, and now finds himself the top passing target for Minnesota’s offense. Don’t expect off-the-charts fantasy numbers, as the Vikings will be without Teddy Bridgewater for the season, and their offense will still be centered around Adrian Peterson. But Diggs is ready to establish himself as a trustworthy playmaker for whoever will be throwing him the ball.

 

Leonard Williams, DE (New York Jets)

The Jets took a chance by using last year’s #6 overall pick to take Williams, a highly talented athlete, but one who plays a position that New York had no obvious need for. Though he could end up seeing time at both defensive end and nose tackle, Damon Harrison’s departure in free agency should open the door for Williams to get more playing time and further refine his skill set. He’s only 22 and there’s plenty to like about Williams.

 

Zach Miller, TE (Chicago Bears)

Miller may be 31 years old, but he finished the 2015 season strong, recording four games of at least five catches and 50 yards during the last eight weeks of the season. Not to be confused with the former Raiders and Seahawks tight end of the same name, Miller nearly doubled his career yardage total in 2015. The reason for optimism? Miller showed late last season that he could be a very useful short passing option for the Bears, and with Matt Forte gone, a shortage of depth at wide receiver, and no competition behind him at tight end, Chicago could sure use that. A late career breakout is certainly in the cards, a la Gary Barnidge.

 

Jameis Winston, QB (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

While Winston’s 2015 numbers can easily get lost among the depth of quality quarterbacks in today’s game, try comparing him to the historic ranks of rookie quarterbacks. Last year, he joined Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. He also added in six rushing touchdowns for good measure. Yes, he does need to improve upon his accuracy and decision making, but Winston has the athleticism and the offensive weapons around him to put up a big season.

 

Blake Bortles, QB (Jacksonville Jaguars)

This is a bit of a stretch since Bortles really had a breakout season last year, but I expect him to take an even bigger step forward. Bortles put up huge numbers in 2015 (4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns), but a lot of those numbers came with the Jaguars trailing big, and he turned the ball over 32 times, worst in the NFL. If Bortles can learn to protect the ball better, he can become an integral part in leading the Jaguars to their first playoff appearance since 2007.

 

Two other players who deserve an honorable mention are wide receivers Kevin White of the Bears and Dante Fowler Jr. of the Jaguars. Both were taken in the first round in last year’s draft, but missed the entire 2015 season due to injury. Now both of them find themselves in key roles with their respective clubs. White will be Chicago’s #2 option at wideout, alongside Alshon Jeffery, and Fowler is expected to be a key force on Jacksonville’s young defense.

NFL Divisional Round – Preview and Predictions

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

After rolling past the Texans last Saturday, the Chiefs will have a much tougher task ahead of them this week as they face the 12-4 Patriots in Foxborough. With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman expected to play, the Patriots appear much more dangerous than the team that lost four of its last six games. However, the Chiefs match up well because of their propensity to rush the quarterback and rack up sacks (4th in the NFL during the regular season). History shows that the best way to beat the Patriots is to put pressure on Tom Brady and control the clock, two things that Kansas City does very well. Of course, these are also areas that New England excels at and you have to believe that their offense will be good enough to force the Cheifs to score over 20 points to win the game. The Chiefs have a top-ranked defense and have been red hot since mid-October, and for those reasons, I’m predicting that they’ll be able to pull off the upset.

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals

For much of the last decade, the Packers have dominated on offense and have rarely been out of a game. This season hasn’t been quite the same, but they stepped up in Washington last week to put up 35 points, thanks to Aaron Rodgers playing the best he has in over a month and solid rushing performances from Eddie Lacy and James Starks. The Cardinals are a much better team than the Washington team they beat last week, and we can’t forget the 38-8 pounding that the Packers took from the Cardinals in Week 16. Arizona has among the best combinations of a potent offense and shutdown defense in the entire league. The Cardinals should take care of business at home, and it might not be very close.

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers

The Seahawks have blowing out their opponents in the second half of the season. With Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham sidelined for a significant part of the season, Russell Wilson has stepped up and played at an MVP-caliber level. Last week, the Vikings gave them a good fight, but Seattle was able to edge them out in a defensive battle. The only player in the NFL that has been as good as Wilson in the last two months is Cam Newton, whom he will face off against tomorrow, in what should be a great matchup of top-tier defenses, superstar quarterbacks and solid rushing teams. Lynch is expected to return for Sunday’s game, which gives Seattle’s offense an added dimension. I’m going to give the edge to the Panthers for their dominant and consistent play the entire season, and because of their proven ability to excel late in the fourth quarter this year, but this one could go either way.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

The outcome of this game depends a lot on how the two quarterbacks play. Ben Roethlisberger injured his shoulder during last week’s game in Cincinnati, but returned to the game to lead his offense down the field on Pittsburgh’s final drive, albeit with a little help from  a couple of Bengals defenders. It was revealed after the game that Big Ben could not throw the ball deep on that final drive, resulting in the Steelers calling only shorter passing plays. He will play Sunday, but even if he is at 100%, the team will be without two of their best offensive players in DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown. On the other side, Peyton Manning will be starting for the first time since mid-November. While his return gives Denver much more experience and superb playcalling ability, Manning did not play very well this season, finishing second in the NFL with 17 interceptions despite only playing eight full games and parts of two others.  The Broncos are the top seed in the AFC because of their defense, not their offense, and that defense will be tasked with stopping a Steelers team that was tied for fourth in the league during the regular season in points per game. I’m picking the Broncos to win this game because, due to the injuries for Pittsburgh, the Broncos will be able to contain their depleted offense, and Peyton Manning will be able to do enough to outscore the Steelers.