NFL Week 14 Recap: AFCmageddon Fallout, NFC Seedings and Both Grudens

patriots defense

It takes a mammoth story to knock the NFL out of the lead spot on Monday morning news cycles, but that’s exactly what the college football playoff standings did yesterday. So I guess in a sense the new playoff format has already paid off because of the headlines and attention it’s grabbing. But I feel like any debate over which is the better brand of football, college or the pros, is over. Say what you want about this year’s NFC South tragedy or any other year when a 7-9 or 8-8 team makes the playoffs, but at least we all know the rules and parameters for getting into the postseason ahead of time (and we know it’s 100% based on the actual game results). You just can’t have a legitimate sports league and champion when you make rules up as you go along (and possibly reward schools with playoff berths because of things other than their on-field performance).

The college football selection show was one of only two things that took my attention ever-so-slightly off of football on Sunday. The other was “Eaten Alive.”

A TV show that promised a live human would be consumed by an anaconda, “Eaten Alive” probably should have been called “If, after days of wandering through the Amazon to find the perfect snake to eat me alive, I do in fact find that perfect snake (that might not even exist in the first place), then I will indeed be Eaten Alive…but only if the snake follows my arbitrary rules of not breaking my arms & legs, which could have been better protected if I didn’t refuse the armor that my team wanted to put on me…THEN I WILL BE EATEN ALIVE…for all of six minutes out of a 2-hour TV show.”

Needless to say, I’ll probably pass on the next show that promises a man will be eaten by a dangerous predator.

On the AFC

While AFCmageddon didn’t totally disappoint this past weekend, the results for many of the AFC teams precluded next week from having very many exciting matchups. For example:

  • The Dolphins at Patriots is no longer interesting because Miami lost to Baltimore, dropping them three games behind New England.
  • The Texans at Colts is no longer interesting because Indy pulled out a ridiculous comeback in Cleveland that kept them two games ahead of Houston.
  • And with Cleveland blowing that home game, it makes their game against Cincy in week 15 much less interesting, as the Browns would need some miracles over the final three weeks to win the North.
  • In the West, the Broncos’ win combined with San Diego’s loss allows Denver to lose their upcoming matchup without any repercussion in the division standings.

In all my gambling losses over these first 14 weeks of the season, I’ve learned only one thing: Stay the F away from the AFC North. It’s probably been a detriment to gamblers that this division got to face the entire NFC South this year because those games have artificially inflated how decent the North looks.

The AFC North has a .821 win percentage against the NFC South (everyone’s favorite sacrificial lamb). Against everyone else? It drops to a .526 win percentage. Not great unless you can play the trash of the NFC every game.

Also consider: Cincy had won five of its last six games, including three on the road. They had gotten some key guys healthy in the last few weeks. On Sunday they couldn’t stay within 20 points of Pittsburgh, a team that really hasn’t played well on the road this year and lost to New Orleans AT HOME just a week earlier. Baltimore lost at home to San Diego in week 13 and lost more defensive starters before their road game in Miami on Sunday. Of course they held Miami to 13 points. What I’m saying is…the AFC North is the definition of stayaway. It’s the least predictable division in the NFL.

On the NFC

What people are most excited about after week 13 is the race for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs, specifically who will have home field if the dream matchup of Seattle vs Green Bay happens. If Arizona fades like many are expecting, we’d basically have three teams vying for the top spot: Green Bay (10-3), Seattle (9-4), and the winner of the NFC East. Philadelphia (9-4) or Dallas (9-4).

For argument’s sake, let’s say the Eagles win the East (since they’re hosting the game against Dallas this coming weekend). If the season were to end with a three-way tie, the Seahawks would win the tiebreaker because they beat both Green Bay and Philadelphia. And even if it’s a two-way tie between Seattle and the Packers, the ‘Hawks would still take the #1 seed. But here’s why you can R-E-L-A-X again, Packer fans: Your team already has a one-game lead over Seattle and their final three games are at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay and home against Detroit. They should win all three of those games.

And if these two teams do matchup in a key January game, regardless of where it’s played, I think Seattle wins because Green Bay has never shown any sign of beating this Seattle team when its defense is at full strength.

And Back to the AFC

I know I’m jumping around a lot here, but one more note on this past week’s Indianapolis over Cleveland game. Has any game this season been more responsible for some very important implications? With that loss by Cleveland, the Johnny Manziel Era starts, Brian Hoyer will be on a different team in 2015, the Browns are effectively out of the playoffs and the Texans are more or less in that same boat (due to Indy winning and remaining two games up on them with three to play). A lot was decided when Cleveland blew that game.

The Grudens

I’m reading more and more that Jay Gruden could be one-and-done in Washington as the head coach. Let me go on record as saying that should absolutely NOT happen. I loved the way he called out RG3 to the media a couple weeks ago because it needed to happen. It seemed to me like a last-ditch effort to get through to a player who doesn’t want to listen. I gained a lot of respect for Gruden after that press conference. RG3 should be the one leaving the team after the season. But I do wonder if the amount of dysfunction across the board on this team will lead to a deep cleaning of the roster and the coaching staff. They might decide to remove anyone associated with the stink of 2014…coach, quarterbacks (all of them), coordinators…it’s almost like they should do a full reset, you know? Maybe change their branding even?

As for my favorite announcer quote of the week, it was all the glowing things that Jon Gruden said about Steven Jackson on Monday night. I can’t pick just one. It wasn’t like he said semi-logical things like, “Jackson’s been struggling for a little while now, but he’s had some nice games lately.” Instead he said outlandish things like, “In this Atlanta offense, if you can get good blocking from your offensive line, Steven Jackson will take care of the rest.” If you only listened to Gruden’s comments about Jackson and didn’t pay attention to football otherwise, you’d assume Jackson’s leading the league in rushing and might be the greatest runner in football history.

Why the Patriots are Finally Different

As a big time New England homer, I typically predict the Patriots to win the Super Bowl every year based on the logic of Tom Brady & Bill Belichick, and not much more. This year’s different. In their past five games, they’ve limited offenses led by Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers to 16.6 points per game. For the season, those teams are averaging 27.3 points per game. And this run for the Pats’ defense coincided with two significant personnel losses, Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones. Mayo’s out for the year, but Jones may be back as soon as this week. For the first time in many years, this New England defense might just carry the team to the promised land (assuming the referees allow Brandon Browner to make clean hits without throwing a flag, which is still to be determined).

Week 15 picks coming on Thursday.

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Week 14 NFL Recap: The Floundering Four & Rooting For A Referee Mistake in the Super Bowl

gronk

We’ve got the next eight weeks to discuss the playoff teams. Today we lead off with possibly the craziest single subplot of the NFL season, and the one people are ignoring the most.

Four playoff teams from 2012, including two who won 12 or more games, currently boast the four worst records in the NFL. These epic free-fallers are Houston (2-11), Washington & Atlanta (both 3-10) and Minnesota (3-9-1).

Typically a handful of the previous year’s playoffs teams will miss the current year’s playoffs. But never have those teams all fallen to the very bottom of the league.

It’s simply stunning.

So what happened? Was their playoff appearance the anomaly or is their absence from this year’s playoffs the outlier? And how about the futures of each team’s head coach and starting quarterback? Let’s dive in.

Atlanta is probably in the best shape of these four teams. The Falcons have won 10 or more games in four of the past five seasons, and their implosions in the playoffs have become a yearly tradition. They were probably due to struggle a little and win only nine or 10 games in 2013, but the Julio Jones injury along with a few others absolutely short-circuited Atlanta’s season. But Matt Ryan will be fine at quarterback, and they still have good skill position players. I’m on record as saying Mike Smith will never get them to the Super Bowl, but you could do a lot worse than him. Even with the Falcons losing Tony Gonzalez after this season, I think they still contend for a wildcard spot next year and beyond. I’m going to say 2013 is the anomaly for Atlanta.

Washington would probably be next, but their value is almost 100% based on one player: Robert Griffin. He’s not even having a good year, but an average RGIII is a huge advantage over the teams that are starting the Matt Cassels and Case Keenums of the world. It seems like a known fact that Mike Shanahan won’t be back next year. As for the long term outlook, Redskins fans seem to be holding on tight to the notion that the $30 million they get next year toward the cap that they didn’t have this year due to violations will solve all the problems. But last time Dan Snyder had cap room like that, he bet big on Albert Haynesworth. So who knows. If RGIII comes back healthier in 2014 and they fix whatever management and player leadership problems seem to be bubbling to the surface, I think 2013 will go down as the anomaly during the Griffin Era. If he can’t stay healthy, then the 2012 playoff run will stick out as the outlier.

Houston steps up next with a roster full of names who should be better than an 11-game losing streak. One big problem is the injuries. No one could predict season-enders for Arian Foster and Brian Cushing. Matt Schaub’s midseason injury…no one can decide whether that actually hurt the Texans or helped them. There’s also a chance they were just extremely unlucky this year as eight of their 11 losses have come by a touchdown or less. Gary Kubiak’s already gone. It’ll be interesting to see if they use their high draft pick on a quarterback, or if they talk themselves into having Schaub and Keenum compete for the starting job in 2014. I don’t think they’re necessarily looking at a full rebuilding that will take three to five years because they have talent at several positions, but any time a team changes out its head coach and starting QB, you have to expect some struggles for a little while. I think worst case scenario for Houston is that they go back to being an annual 7-9 or 8-8 team, which means 2013 is somewhat of an anomaly.

And finally, those poor bastards up north, Minnesota. Truth be told, they were one of the top two candidates from last year’s playoff teams to miss this year’s postseason (Indy was the other one, and if they played in any division other than the AFC South, they’d probably be fighting for their playoff lives instead of being locked into the #4 seed). It’s not a complete anomaly that they made the playoffs last year, at least not in the same way a Buffalo Bills playoff appearance would be an anomaly. The Vikings have made the playoffs in four of the past nine years, but it’s not like they’ve been a true Super Bowl contender during that time (except for 2009 when Brett Favre brought them to the brink of the Super Bowl before devastatingly ripping them away from the brink with a classic Favre interception in the NFC Championship game). Besides that one Favre season, Minnesota’s had nothing in the way of quarterbacks over the last decade, and that feels like an understatement for 2013 when Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman have played hot potato with the starting QB position. If the Vikings do anything other than focus on finding a franchise QB during the offseason, every decision-maker in that organization should be exiled from our society. I don’t really know about Leslie Frazier as head coach, but if ownership is unsure about him at all, they might as well make a change after this season when the whole organization goes into rebuilding mode once again. But, hey, at least they’ll always have that tie in Green Bay. I think the Vikings are a long way off from competing. Let’s call the 2012 playoffs an anomaly, linked specifically to Adrian Peterson’s outlier of a career season that year.

Since it’s already Tuesday afternoon, let’s quickly empty out the week 14 notebook:

  • Starting with the Monday night game…You know that Chicago team that showed up last night? The one with two giant wide receivers who are practically uncoverable and the versatile running back who can play receiver almost as well as he plays runner? That’s the Chicago team that I’ve been betting on all year. Except only rarely have they shown up as this particular team, which helps me understand why I’ve lost so much this year. To me they seem like a more-talented version of the Patriots (except at QB). I’ll take Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey over any two WRs from the Patriots. And obviously Matt Forte is 100 times better than Stevan Ridley. Both defenses are awful against the run and suspect against the pass. What am I missing? Especially with no Gronk, this Chicago team does laps around New England from a talent standpoint. And yet, one team is fighting just to stay in the playoff mix and the other is still charging toward a 1st-round bye. I guess the difference is Brady/Belichick but also the weak AFC East.
  • From an objective standpoint Sunday morning’s games were collectively the craziest set of games in NFL history. But when your X factor, indispensible offensive weapon goes down for the year with a knee injury amidst all that amazing chaos, it’s impossible to feel good about an entertaining Sunday. That was seriously the most heart-breaking hour of excitement for Patriots fans. It would have been nice to have a few minutes to enjoy yet another come-from-behind win before remembering “Oh yeah, these guys barely cracked 20 points per game without Gronk, they’re fucked.”
  • But I will say, it’s the first Sunday of the season where I made the conscious decision to let my bladder burst, if it came to that, rather than miss a single play on the Red Zone Channel by using the bathroom.
  • We can feel sorry for ourselves that two entertaining players suffered season-ending injuries on the same day…Gronk and Tyrann Mathieu, or we can petition Spike TV to create a reality show around these guys rehabbing their ligament tears while living in the same apartment in a party town. I would kill to see Mathieu trying to lay low while recovering, staying on the straight & narrow, avoiding the temptations that got him into trouble in college, while Gronk parties night after night, bringing home a truck full of women and inadvertently enabling Mathieu to slip back into his old habits. I would watch that TV show.
  • In the “punishment does not fit the crime” category, I dare someone to convince me that tapping a quarterback on the helmet or knee is an equivalent offense to a kicker grabbing an opponent who’s running 20 miles per hour by the face mask and violently twisting it 180 degrees. Not only do both actions come with a 15 yard penalty, but the guy who taps the QB’s helmet is likely getting a bigger fine (if the kicker even gets fined at all). I thought of this when Saints punter Thomas Morstead almost ripped Tedd Ginn’s head off in this very manner to save a touchdown on Sunday night.
  • Speaking of the Saints, I might have underrated their chances at beating the Seahawks in a rematch at Seattle in my column last week. They’d obviously be an underdog, but even if the Sean Payton-Dres Brees offensive genius is a little overblown, they’re still the team most likely to be able to add a couple offensive wrinkles and put up 30 in Seattle. The Seahawks are probably going to average at least 30 points per game at home in the playoffs so I’d think the Saints would be a more likely candidate to match that score than someone like Carolina or San Francisco.
  • Since we’re talking playoffs…have you ever seen a team back into the playoffs quite like the Indianapolis Colts? They’re now 2-3 in their last five games (4-4 in their last eight), and look terrible every week. There’s probably not a less deserving playoff team.
  • So the Colts are pretty much locked into the #4 seed, and the Chiefs are almost guaranteed the #5 seed. That means they’ll be facing each other in the wildcard round of the playoffs, but more importantly, neither team has anything left to play for in the regular season. Keep that in mind when picking games that involve them. You don’t want to be the asshole who bets on the Chiefs and finds out too late that Chase Daniel is getting the start over Alex Smith.
  • The NFC North has become everything we ever wanted out of the NFC East: No one daring to keep their record more than one game above .500, the teams treating the division title like it’s an STD…really inspiring stuff coming out of that division.
  • I’ve been saying it all year, but it feels relevant to reiterate my stance on the current state of officiating: The NFL has been NBA’ified. Not only do the refs actually look incompetent more than they ever used to (prime examples this week were Jeff Triplette ruling BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s scamper into the end zone a touchdown even though his knee hit the ground well short of the plane, and Jerome Boger’s crew getting nearly every call wrong in the Patriots game, including the touch foul against Cleveland in the end zone on the Patriots’ game-winning drive), but the scrutiny around every single call is out of control. Fans expect a flag on every play. Players and coaches scream for a flag every time a play works against them. Multiple Vikings players were quoted after their loss to Baltimore as thinking the refs really boned them good, except no one could point to a specific call that went against them. They just thought the entire game was poorly officiated.
  • And I think we’re at a breaking point. With how many games have been determined by a disputed call or non-call at a crucial moment this year, you’ve got to think at least one of 11 playoff games is going to fall into this mess. I want to see some officiating reform because I think it stinks that the non-athletes on the field are determining games. Therefore I’m rooting for the Super Bowl to be determined on an atrocious penalty or non-call.
  • As far as the week 14 picks against the spread go, well it was a throwback to 2012 for me. 10-6 against the spread including 4-1 in my confidence picks. And Julie was no slouch either. She went 9-7 despite using the weather as literally the only determining factor in each pick. Should I run it back for week 15 with both mine and Julie’s picks? I know she’s a fan favorite, but I’ll have to see if she has time in her busy schedule.
  • Week 15 picks coming on Thursday.