AFTER FURTHER REVIEW - JANUARY EDITION
Brendan Lavell; @brendan_lavell
From "You Like That?!" to Super Bowl 50 predictions, Brendan covers everything NFL
And then there were eight. Twenty-four teams have been sent home, but for those still playing, the ultimate dream of hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the end of Super Bowl 50 is very much alive. Carolina did finally lose a game (to the Falcons, go figure), but they still finished with the NFL’s best record at 15-1. The Panthers rode MVP frontrunner Cam Newton to a league-leading 31.2 points per game while allowing just 19.2 points per game, sixth best in the NFL. Arizona won nine straight games before being decimated at home in the season finale by Seattle, 36-6. Still, the Cardinals clinched the NFC West and a first round bye at 13-3 behind a well-rounded offensive attack and a defense ranked fifth in the league in yards per game. Minnesota won their final three games of the year, including a de facto NFC North title game against Green Bay in Week 17, to clinch the conference’s third seed at 11-5.
At 30 years old, Adrian Peterson defied Father Time, leading the league in rushing with 1,485 yards. However, the Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs in their first game when Blair Walsh missed a go-ahead 27-yard field goal in the game’s final minute. In the NFC East, Washington won their final four games, clinching the division with a 9-7 record. Kirk Cousins not only set a franchise record for passing yards, but became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw a touchdown in every game of the season. Green Bay earned the first NFC wild card spot at 10-6 despite winning just 4 of their final 10 games. Aaron Rodgers has struggled a bit this year (by his high standards) in the absence of Jordy Nelson, while Eddie Lacy and James Starks have been wildly inconsistent running the ball. The Packers offense did, however, manage to rediscover its elite form in the wild card round, as they beat the Redskins 35-18. Seattle gained the NFC’s final playoff spot, winning six of their final seven games to finish 10-6. This strong finish was in large part due to Russell Wilson, who threw 24 touchdowns over that span to just one interception. The defense also enjoyed a revival, allowing more than 13 points just twice in those seven games. That defense held strong in the opening round of the playoffs as Seattle beat Minnesota, 10-9.
At 10-6, Pittsburgh clinched the AFC’s final playoff spot in Week 17 with a win over Cleveland and a Jets loss to Buffalo. The Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell for the season in Week 8, but have still managed to score 26.4 points per game, fourth best in the league. Backup running back DeAngelo Williams also suffered an injury, in Week 17, but Pittsburgh still managed to survive the opening round of the playoffs with an 18-16 win over Cincinnati. Only one team with a record above .500 failed to make the playoffs. The New York Jets finished 10-6, but failed to beat Buffalo in Week 17 and lost the tiebreaker to the Steelers. The Jets missed out on the playoffs despite finishing in the top 11 in both scoring offense and defense.
At 3-13, Tennessee clinched the NFL’s top spot in the upcoming draft. Cleveland, who also finished 3-13, will pick second. San Diego, Dallas and Jacksonville will round out the top five. Seven coaches did not survive into the offseason. Chip Kelly (Philadelphia), Joe Philbin (Miami) and Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee) were fired during the season. Mike Pettine (Cleveland), Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) and Jim Tomsula (San Francisco) were let go after the season. Tom Coughlin (New York Giants) resigned following the team’s final game. For these teams and coaches, NFL glory will have to wait until a later year, but for the 12 that remain glory could lie just weeks away. Playoff football is upon us.
Player of the Month
“You like that?!”
Tweet of the Month
The Miami Dolphins had a rough season. After finishing 8-8 in 2014, many pundits believed Ryan Tannehill was ready to join the league’s elite and team up with Lamar Miller to form a potent offensive attack. So the Dolphins gave Tannehill a six-year contract extension and signed Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million deal to shore up the team’s run defense. Expectations were sky high. Many thought Miami would earn a wild card berth and maybe even make a playoff run. But things didn’t turn out as planned. Tannehill regressed, the defense gave up the fifth most rushing yards in the league, and head coach Joe Philbin was fired after just four games. The team finished 6-10. Apparently the disappointing season became too much for Miko Grimes, wife of Dolphins 3-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes, to take. Following an 18-12 loss to Indianapolis, Miko took to Twitter to vent her frustrations, starting with the Dolphins franchise quarterback:“i knew this qb stunk the minute we signed to this team but i tried to keep quiet so i didn’t discourage bae from believing in his team.” When asked to share his own opinion, Brent refused to back up his wife. “He’s our quarterback. He’s a quarterback. He makes plays… My wife’s opinions are her opinions. They’re not my opinions,” Brent said via the Miami Herald. Playing in the challenging AFC East, Miami may have a tough time turning it around next year. If that’s the case, it should be interesting to see if Miko continues to make noise with her anti-Dolphins Twitter rants.
Young Guns Watch
In a Week 12 matchup against the 49ers, Arizona watched their top two running backs, Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson, go down with injuries. So the following week against St. Louis, the Cards turned to rookie David Johnson, a third round pick out of Northern Iowa. Johnson responded with four spectacular performances. From Weeks 13-16, Johnson rushed for 417 yards at 5.3 yards per carry. He also tacked on 182 receiving yards and five total touchdowns. By the time Ellington was healthy enough to return, Johnson had supplanted him as the starter. Johnson did not play well in the season finale against Seattle, rushing for only 25 yards on 11 carries, but has already proven that he’s capable of being yet another weapon on a dangerous Arizona playoff team.
Five Things I Think
1. I think Marcus Mariota will have a better career than Jameis Winston. Although I’ve always believed this, I did think that Winston would be much better this season because he was in a better situation in Tampa Bay than Mariota was in Tennessee. Winston did have the better season, but if it weren’t for Mariota’s injuries it probably would’ve been close. Winston impressed, throwing for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns with 15 interceptions (a reasonable number for a rookie). But Winston had the luxury of throwing to Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson and future Pro Bowler Mike Evans. He also had Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin to relieve pressure on the passing game. In 12 games, Marcus Mariota threw for 2,818 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 picks while running for 252 yards at 7.4 yards per carry. And he accomplished all of this with only one true weapon, tight end Delanie Walker. Kendall Wright? Meh. Dorial Green-Beckham? Maybe some potential, but still a ways to go. Bishop Sankey? CFL talent at best. Winston could have a fine career, but if Mariota stays healthy and the Titans bring in some talent around him, he will be an elite QB.
2. I think the New York Jets deserve to be in the playoffs. I’m tired of seeing teams with double digit win totals sitting at home come January. The Jets finished 11th in scoring offense, 9th in scoring defense and 8th in turnover differential. Those are playoff numbers. However, I’m also not in favor of simply taking the six best teams from each conference regardless of division. In NFL history, two division winners have finished with records below .500. Both won their first round playoff game. Instead, I would add one or two wild card teams to each conference, expanding the playoff field to 14 or 16 teams. That would’ve put the 10-6 Jets in the postseason. Last season, that would’ve put the 10-6 Eagles in the postseason. That would’ve put the 2008 Patriots, who finished 11-5, in the postseason. Yes, an 11-win team once missed the playoffs. Imagine a 14-team playoff format in which we would see a first round rubber match between the Patriots and Jets. That’s a win for both the fans and the league.
3. I think I underestimated the Panthers. A lot. Throughout the first half of the season, I claimed that Carolina was overrated and that their perfect record was a result of their weak schedule. But their defense has returned to elite form, and Cam Newton has elevated his game as a passer and a leader, leading to his inclusion in the MVP race. Fact is, Carolina was the best team in the NFL this year. That being said, I also claimed that the Panthers would not win a game once they made the postseason. I’m sticking to that claim. Seattle, coming off an underwhelming 10-9 win over Minnesota, will be ready to go this time. Carolina, coming off a bye, will lose to Seattle. And thus Cam’s MVP season will end without a taste of postseason success
5. I think the Broncos will embark on a long playoff run. Call it a hunch, but I think the Denver defense will recapture its dominant early season form. I think Peyton Manning, now nearing full health (probably), will stop turning the ball over and play smart enough as a game manager to put up points. And perhaps most importantly, I think the team will get the lucky bounces they need along the way. I see them beating Pittsburgh in the divisional round and going on to face Peyton’s archrival, Tom Brady and the Patriots, in the AFC Championship. In a tightly contested game at the Mile High Stadium, Manning will lead a scoring drive in the final two minutes to send Denver to its second Super Bowl in three years. Finally, in a Super Bowl matchup against perhaps the most well-rounded team in football, the Arizona Cardinals, the Broncos will find a way to win Peyton his second Super Bowl ring. Maybe it’s a fairytale, maybe I’m delusional, but I sometimes believe it will happen. I don’t know how, but sometimes that’s just sports, anything is possible.