The NFC North was one of the most competitive divisions in football last year, putting pressure on teams this offseason to make the right moves that can move them to the top of the division. Let’s take a look at the offseason needs for the Bears, Packers, Vikings, and Lions.
Chicago Bears – With Jay Cutler being re-signed and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery likely to be one of the top receiver duos in the NFL in 2014, the offense is in great shape, which means the Bears need to turn their full attention to the defense. The secondary was atrocious last season, and the Bears could benefit from four new starters there next year, although if that’s not realistic they need at least one new safety to replace free agent Major Wright and one new starter at cornerback to replace Charles Tillman. Chicago devoted much of last year’s draft to the linebacker position, so that may not be a priority this offseason, unless they can add an impact player. However, the same can’t be said about the defensive line. The interior of the line could use an impact player, while Julius Peppers could become a salary cap casualty, forcing the Bears to spend money or a high-round draft pick on a pass rusher, meaning the defensive line will require a lot of attention this offseason.
Detroit Lions – Despite its collapse at the end of the season that prompted a coaching change, Detroit isn’t far away from being competitive if they can have a successful offseason. The Lions have one of the most talented defensive fronts in the NFL, but they leave a lot to be desired in the secondary. Detroit would be wise to bring in re-sign veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis to help solidfy the unit, but they should also sign a younger cornerback that can step into the starting lineup. They were forced to cut safety Louis Delmas for cap reasons, so the Lions may need to use an early-round draft pick on a safety, while also adding depth at that position later in the draft if they can. Detroit could also consider using a high draft pick on a wide receiver, taking advantage of the depth at that position to give Matthew Stafford a talented number-two receiver to complement Calvin Johnson, but right now the Lion’s offense isn’t as much of a priority as the defense.
Green Bay Packers – If the Packers can re-sign Matt Flynn or one way or another bring in a backup quarterback that they trust, the offense should be in good shape heading into next season. However, the Green Bay defense needs a lot of work, as it pales in comparison to the defenses of the other top teams in the NFC. Outside of A.J. Hawk and Nick Perry, the Packers don’t have much at linebacker, and they’ll need an infusion of talent at that position this offseason. Up front, Green Bay won’t miss B.J. Raji that much, but they will need to add one or two defensive linemen, possibly using an early-round pick to do so. In the secondary, the Packers need to do what they can to re-sign Sam Shields, but they’ll also need to add talent at the safety position, as well as depth throughout their secondary.
Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings will likely look to draft a new quarterback this year, but the top three quarterbacks could all be off the board by the time Minnesota is on the clock with the 8th overall pick, so that could make their pursuit of a signal caller complicated. If they can find a suitable quarterback at some point, then the offense should be in good shape, which would allow Minnesota to spend the rest of the offseason focusing on their defense. After a lot of good seasons, Jared Allen appears to be on his way out of town, so the Vikings will need a pass-rushing defensive end, which could be their biggest priority in the draft outside of quarterback. Minnesota also leaves a lot to be desired at linebacker and they may need to make a splash at that position in free agency if their top draft picks are used on a quarterback and a pass rusher. It might also be beneficial for the Vikings to add a piece or two to their secondary, although the future appears to be bright for cornerback Xavier Rhodes, which gives some hope for the future of their secondary.
Yesterday we took one final look at the NFL’s rookie head coaches from the 2013 season, and now it’s time to look at all of the new head coach hires for the 2014 season. Obviously, a few of these guys have been head coaches in the NFL before, but none were NFL head coaches in 2013. Let’s attempt to rank how each of the seven teams that hired a new head coach did in their coaching search.
7. Cleveland, Mike Pettine – It certainly took the Browns long enough to find a new coach after firing Rob Chudzinski after just one season. Cleveland was never going to find the most impressive candidate to be their head coach, but Pettine isn’t a bad choice. He spent four seasons as the right hand man to Rex Ryan while working as the defensive coordinator for the Jets, which could be seen as both a positive and negative attribute, depending on your feelings about Ryan. In 2013, he orchestrated a solid defense in Buffalo, despite some obvious personnel weaknesses at a few spots. The name won’t blow people away, but considering Cleveland’s situation, Pettine was about the best person they could get to fill their coaching vacancy.
6. Houston, Bill O’Brien – This could be the biggest risk-reward hire this offseason. O’Brien is a branch on the Bill Belichick coaching tree, so there should be some skepticism, but at the same time O’Brien is a terrific offensive coach. O’Brien has also spent a lot more time in college than in the NFL, which could be a concern, but at the same time, the work he did at Penn State the last two seasons was nothing short of extraordinary. O’Brien has a lot of potential as a head coach in the NFL, but he also has plenty of drawbacks, so this is coaching hire could go either way.
5. Minnesota, Mike Zimmer – Year after year Zimmer has put together top-10 defenses in Cincinnati, and he’s been one of the top assistant coaches in the NFL for the last several years, so there’s no denying that he’s qualified to become a head coach in the NFL. However, the NFL is all about offense these days, and without previous head coaching experience or experience on the offensive side of the ball puts Zimmer at a disadvantage compared to some of the other new coaches in the league, especially since the Vikings have some things to figure out on offense, specifically at the quarterback position.
4. Detroit, Jim Caldwell – Caldwell is a tough guy to figure out with just three years of experience as a head coach in the NFL. Obviously, things went well for him in Indianapolis when Peyton Manning was playing, as the Colts went to the Super Bowl in Caldwell’s first season at the helm. But when Manning didn’t play in 2011, the wheels completely fell off. Caldwell also won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the Ravens last year, but this past season his offense struggled for long stretches of the season. For now, Caldwell will get the benefit of the doubt, because he inherits a talented roster in Detroit, but there are reasons to be skeptical about Caldwell’s ability to do more with all the talent the Lions have than Jim Schwartz did.
3. Washington, Jay Gruden – Gruden was a highly sought candidate, and he does have a lot of head coaching experience and success in the Arena Football League, which obviously isn’t the same as being an NFL head coach, but it’s better than having no head coaching experience. His last name gives him some credibility, and so does the fact that he’s put together good offenses in Cincinnati the last few years, even without an elite level quarterback. Washington wants to win behind Robert Griffin III at quarterback, and hiring one of the top offensive coordinators in the game was a great choice to help make that happen, as Gruden was arguably the best available candidate that didn’t have NFL head coaching experience.
2. Tennessee, Ken Whisenhunt – Despite reaching a Super Bowl and winning two division titles, Whisenhunt had a rather uneven six-year tenure as the head coach in Arizona. However, he’s always had success as an offensive coordinator, and after San Diego ranked 5th in total offense this past season, Whisenhunt was deserving of another chance to become a head coach. Obviously, the Titans wanted to move in a new direction after firing Mike Munchak, and with his previous coaching experience and success as a coordinator, Whisenhunt is definitely an upgrade over Munchak.
1. Tampa Bay, Lovie Smith – The Bucs moved fast after firing Greg Schiano, and when all was said and done they have the best coach out of all seven teams that made a coaching change this year. Smith was 18 games above .500 during his nine seasons in Chicago, which means he averaged a 9-7 record in what is usually one of the toughest divisions in football, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He has a long history of being one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL, and with the talent in Tampa on that side of the ball, he has a chance to put together something special defensively next year, which could make the Bucs a respectable and competitive team right away. On top of all that, having served under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay for five seasons makes Smith a perfect fit for the Bucs and the best new coach hire heading into 2014.
NFL Black Monday: Cowboys, Redskins, Giants, Lions, Bucs, Vikings, Raiders and More to Fire Coaches?
Well, the NFL regular season is over, but before we can turn our focus to the playoffs, we must first endure Black Monday. There were eight new head coaches in the league this year, and there could be just as many teams looking to fill head coaching vacancies for next year. Gary Kubiak has already been let go by the Houston Texans, and there are several other coaches that could also be out of a job by the end of the day, possibly by the end of this sentence. Let’s run down the coaches on the hot seat and look at who will be fired and who deserves to stay:
Jason Garrett, Dallas – Garrett’s fate may have been sealed with Kyle Orton’s interception, although Jerry Jones has previously said that Garrett would be back next season, so there’s no telling what Jones is going to do. Garrett isn’t a bad coach, but the Cowboys have lost out on a chance to go to the playoffs to a division rival on the last week of the season three years in a row, which doesn’t sound like something Jones would be content with, and could push him over the edge towards firing Garrett. Don’t be surprised if Jones takes a few days to think about everything before making his decision regarding Garrett’s future, which is anything but certain right now.
Tom Coughlin, New York Giants – There’s a slight chance that Coughlin walks away willingly and a slight chance he gets fired, and it might be best for all parties if that happens, but the most likely scenario is Coughlin staying in New York and trying to turn things around in 2014. This season will be remembered for the Giants starting out 0-6, but despite inconsistent play from Eli Manning all season, the G-Men played well done the stretch and ended up with a 7-9 record, which isn’t bad at all considering how their season started and how poor their quarterback play was. The strong finish should inspire some confidence in Coughlin’s ability to get things turned around and get the Giants back into the playoffs next year.
Mike Shanahan, Washington – Shanahan may have a couple Super Bowl rings on his hand, and he may have a long history as an excellent head coach, but there’s no way he survives the kind of season the Redskins have had. Washington finished 3-13 and lost their final eight games of the season. More than that, they’ve been a complete mess on and off the field, making it obvious that Shanahan needs to go.
Jim Schwartz, Detroit – A month ago the Lions were a virtual lock to win the NFC North, but under Schwartz Detroit went winless in December and was already out of contention before the start of week 17, which means that now it’s a virtual lock that Schwartz will be fired. With the Lions having such an array of talent on offense and a powerful defensive line, there’s no excuse for not winning a division in which the other three teams were without their starting quarterbacks for a significant chunk of the season, much less finish 7-9. In five seasons, Schwartz led the Lions to a winning record once, with no division titles and no playoff wins; not to mention the Lions are 22 games under .500 over the last five seasons. There’s no way Schwartz will be employed this time tomorrow.
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota – It’s tough to pin Minnesota’s season all on Frazier, considering all the issues at quarterback that the Vikings have had, but he’s had one playoff season sandwiched between two awful seasons, and in an impatient NFL, that’s probably going to be enough to cost him his job. The Vikings haven’t played as bad as their record indicates, and they were 4-3-1 the second half of the season, which could give Frazier some hope to keep his job, but more than likely by Tuesday morning Frazier will be looking for a job as a defensive coordinator and Minnesota will be looking for a new head coach.
Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay – Schiano’s job status could actually go either way, which didn’t seem possible at the midway point of the season when the Bucs were 0-8. However, Schiano has a lot of years and money left on his contract, which could force Tampa Bay to keep him for another season. The Bucs also played well for a stretch this season, winning three in a row and four out of five at one point, and rookie quarterback Mike Glennon did show some promise, so despite a 4-12 record there could be cause to bring Schiano back in 2014. That being said, the Bucs’ play was unacceptable for long stretches of the season, and for a guy with no NFL track record, it’s tough to feel too optimistic about the future in Tampa if Schiano is allowed to stay.
Mike Smith, Atlanta – Smith isn’t likely to be fired, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone in his position to be let go after one bad season. The Falcons had high hopes for 2013 after coming one game short of the Super Bowl last year, and obviously they fell well short of those expectations. Injuries did play a significant role in Atlanta’s poor season, but it wasn’t the only reason. Also, don’t forget that Atlanta is just 1-4 in the postseason under Smith and that their window for reaching a Super Bowl could be getting smaller, so it would be shocking but not impossible for Smith to get fired, although by no means did the Falcons roll over at the end of the season, so the locker room remains behind Smith, which is a positive sign.
Joe Philbin, Miami – Philbin is an interesting case. The scandal that rocked Miami through a large portion of the season is a black eye for the organization, and while he’s partly to blame for the situation, he also weathered the storm and put the Dolphins in a good position to make the playoffs heading down the stretch. Of course, Miami had a complete meltdown the final two weeks of the season and blew a golden opportunity to go to the playoffs. Philbin is two games under .500 in two seasons in Miami, which isn’t awful, but it’s not that good either. It helps that he has a young and promising quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who is still maturing and improving as a player, and that will likely bring Philbin back next season, but the heat is definitely on, and if they wanted to, the Dolphins probably have enough to justify firing him.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets – Before the season, Rex Ryan looked like a lock to be fired with new general manager John Idzik coming aboard, and a month ago that still seemed to be the case, but now there have been rumblings that Ryan might have done enough this season to save his job. The Jets were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season, but Ryan led them to a respectable and overachieving 8-8 record, doing so with a rookie quarterback and a limited amount of offensive skill players. Ryan will still enter next season with a lot of pressure to win games and reach the postseason, but he will be back in New York next season, which is something nobody thought was possible at the start of the season.
Rob Chudzinski, Cleveland – Much to everyone’s surprise, rumors started leaking Sunday night that the Browns would fire Chudzinski after just one season. If Cleveland thought they had a franchise that could be turned around in one year, they are sadly mistaken. Things obviously didn’t go well, with the team losing 10 of its final 11 games, but Chudzinski inherited a futile situation at quarterback and the team traded away 2012 first round pick Trent Richardson the first month of the season, signaling that they were building for the future, presumably with Chudzinski as the head coach. Unless the Browns know something we don’t and have a big-name coach lined up to take the job, firing Chudzinski after one season is a puzzling move.
Mike Munchak, Tennessee – The Titans needed to see some progress this season, and because they haven’t Munchak will likely be fired. It may be a little unfair, because there’s no telling how the season would have been different had Jake Locker not been hurt after a promising start to the season. However, that excuse may not be enough to save Munchak, who’s had back-to-back losing seasons in a fairly mediocre division. It’s not a guarantee that Munchak will be fired, but all signs point to that being the case.
Dennis Allen, Oakland – It’ll be interesting to see what the Raiders do with Allen, because it’s unfair to have expected him to turn things around in Oakland in just two seasons. A pair of 4-12 seasons doesn’t look like a lot of progress has been made, but the AFC West is a lot better this season than it was last year with the other three teams all making the playoffs, so repeating the same win total from 2012 isn’t so bad, especially considering that the Raiders were using an undrafted rookie at quarterback for a big chunk of the season. Two seasons isn’t giving Allen a fair chance, although losing eight of their last nine games doesn’t leave a good lasting impression, and if Allen hasn’t done enough to make the Raiders think year three will be different, he’s likely to be fired.
With just one week left to play in the regular season, it’s almost award season in the NFL. In preparation for awards season, let’s take a look at the top five candidates (in no particular order) for defensive rookie of the year.
Kiko Alonso, Buffalo – Many people believe that Alonso will end up winning the award, as he’s one of the leading tacklers in the entire NFL. His production has been incredible with 145 tackles this season, and he has given life to an otherwise terrible set of linebackers in Buffalo. He’s not only played well against the run with seven games of double-digit tackles, but he’s also done well in pass coverage with four interceptions and five passes defended. Alonso makes plays all over the field and is having the kind of season that warrants serious consideration for defensive rookie of the year.
Ziggy Ansah, Detroit – After missing a few games it’ll be hard for Ansah to win defensive rookie of the year, but his performance definitely deserves consideration. He hasn’t been the most consistent player this year, which should be expected as a rookie, but there’s no doubt that he’s made an impact, leading all rookies with eight sacks. Ansah has three games with multiple sacks, showcasing what he’s capable of doing and the kind of impact he’s made this season.
Alec Ogletree, St. Louis – There have been some growing pains for Ogletree this year, as he definitely had some maturing to do after his three years at Georgia, but he has shown improvement throughout the season and has really come on strong late in the season. Ogletree has adjusted well to playing outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme after playing in the middle of a 3-4 scheme in college, and he’s made 45 tackles over the last five games. Most importantly, Ogletree has shown the propensity for creating turnovers, as he returned a 98-yard interception for a touchdown in week 6 and forced four fumbles, indicating he has a promising future in the NFL after a nice rookie season.
Star Lotulelei, Carolina – The stats don’t tell the whole story with Lotulelei, who has been an unheralded but important part of Carolina’s great defense this season. The Panthers are far less effective against the run when he is not on the field, as having a big body like Lotulelei that can stuff the run has helped raise the level of play of the entire defense. He has 40 tackles and two sacks, so without eye-catching stats it’s going to be hard for him to win rookie of the year, but based on the impact that he’s made on the field, he’s as deserving as anybody else.
Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets – The Jets have been one of the best teams at defending the run this season, and the addition of Richardson is a big reason why. He has 76 tackles on the season, which is astounding for a defensive lineman and will draw a lot of attention from rookie of the year voters. He got off to a fast start, has been consistent throughout the season, and has had several dominating performances. If there’s anybody that has a chance to take the award from Alonso, it’s Richardson, who is a safe bet to at least be a close runner up for defensive rookie of the year.
It’s another Monday night and there’s another meaningful football game with playoff implications. These two teams may be in different conferences, but both need to come out on top in this game. Let’s take a closer look at the Ravens and the Lions.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
There’s a lot of pressure on the Lions, as the Bears have taken over the lead in the NFC North after Detroit had plenty of opportunities to run away with the division and failed to do so. The Lions will win a tiebreaker with the Bears, but a loss tonight by Detroit would mean that Chicago controls its own destiny, which is not a position the Lions want to be. Baltimore is in a similar position, as they control their tiebreaker with Miami for the final wildcard spot in the AFC, but a loss tonight would put them a game behind the Dolphins, meaning Miami would control its own destiny. Miami also has an easier schedule the final two weeks than the Ravens do, so it’ll be easier for the Dolphins to lock up the final wildcard spot if they get a lead on Baltimore, making this game a must-win for the Ravens, even on the road.
BALTIMORE OFFENSE VS. DETROIT DEFENSE
It has not been a good season for the Ravens on offense, but there have been marginal signs of improvement in recent weeks, which gives them some hope coming down the stretch. The issue they’ll have in this game is that Detroit is one of the best teams in the league at stopping the run with its stout defensive front, and if Baltimore can’t establish its ground game, it’ll be tough for Joe Flacco to go deep, which is what he does best. If the Ravens can make the Lions respect their running attack and keep Flacco protected in the pocket, he may be able to have success with a growing group of playmakers around him with the return of Dennis Pitta and the emergence of rookie Marlon Brown, who caught the game-winning touchdown last week against Minnesota. Detroit’s defense has given up a lot of yards and a lot of points this season, and they’re not always reliable, but if they can stuff the run and pressure Flacco with their pass rush, they should be able to slow up the Ravens enough to win the game.
DETROIT OFFENSE VS. BALTIMORE DEFENSE
The Lions have a great gunslinger in Matthew Stafford and one of the best wide receivers in football in Calvin Johnson, but that hasn’t always translated into wins for them. Reggie Bush is in limbo after missing last week’s game, but he’s expected to play, and he’s the ultimate x-factor for the Detroit offense. When Bush is involved in the offense and is being productive as either a runner or receiver, the Lions reach another level and can be tough to stop. The Baltimore defense has done well this season even after losing several key players, but this will be the best offense they’ve faced since week 1 when they played Denver. If the Ravens can’t stop the Lions from moving the ball, then their only hope could be to force turnovers, which is a weakness Detroit has showcased several times this season, although taking the ball away isn’t necessarily a strength of the Ravens. If the Lions can hold onto the football, they should be able to score a substantial amount of points, but if not, the advantage in this matchup could go to the Ravens.
This is a tough game to call, because both teams need to win, so there’s a sense of urgency on both sides. Detroit is the more talented team, but they’ve also lost three of their last four and have let opportunities pass them by, while the Ravens have won four of their last five and are fighting hard to get back to the playoffs, and they look excited to be playing football, so it’s not hard to envision the Ravens pulling off a surprise win on Monday night. However, the Ravens are 1-5 on the road this season, and in a dome stadium, offense is worth more than defense, and there’s no doubt the Lions have a distinct advantage there. Detroit 31, Baltimore 21.
NFL Week 14 Preview: Colts-Bengals, Falcons-Packers, Raiders-Jets, Lions-Eagles, Chiefs-Redskins and More
We’ve made it to December, and that means just four weeks left in the NFL regular season. There is plenty left to be decided concerning the playoffs, so let’s take a closer look at all the games on the week 14 schedule:
Indianapolis at Cincinnati – Both these teams are heading to the playoffs, although they probably won’t meet unless both get to the AFC Championship Game. As bad as the Colts have been over the past month, they will clinch the AFC South with a win, although if Indy doesn’t get better performances out of their defense and running game, Andrew Luck is going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do against a good Cincinnati defense. Meanwhile, the Bengals have been in a lot of close games and are battle tested; in fact, they’re two overtime losses away from an eight-game winning streak, so they’re actually playing quite well coming into this game. Even if Andy Dalton isn’t at the top of his game, the Bengals have a lot of playmakers that will be tough for a questionable Colts defense to stop.
Atlanta at Green Bay – The status of Aaron Rodgers is still up in the air, but even without Rodgers, the Packers should be able to move the ball against Atlanta’s defense. Green Bay has a sliver of postseason hope left, but they can’t afford to lose at home to the Falcons, who are still playing for pride. The Packers will need to show a sense of urgency to secure their first win in over a month, even against the 3-9 Falcons.
Cleveland at New England – The Patriots almost let one slip away last week, and they need to make sure that doesn’t happen again this week against another inferior team, especially with New England still chasing Denver for the top seed in the AFC. The Browns shouldn’t be able to hang with the Patriots in Foxboro, unless the Patriots let them.
Oakland at New York Jets – Expect this one to be ugly. The Jets are good enough on defense to shut down the Raiders, but they’re also terrible on offense and shouldn’t be expected to score many points. Whichever team can make fewer mistakes and commit fewer penalties, a steep challenge for both sides, will have the advantage in this game.
Detroit at Philadelphia – This game has major playoff implications, with the Lions trying to create some distance in their division and the Eagles locked in a tie with the Cowboys in their division. The Philadelphia defense has shown signs of improvement lately, but playing Detroit will be a true test of how good they are. If the Eagles are truly better on defense than most people think, they should be able to slow down Detroit’s offense enough to win this game, because the Lions may not be able to stop Nick Foles and the Eagles on offense. However, if Detroit’s offense gets rolling as well, this one could go back and forth and become a shootout between Foles and Matthew Stafford.
Miami at Pittsburgh – This game is critical in the AFC wildcard race, as the Steelers are still alive, but only if they win this game. Pittsburgh won three straight before losing on Thanksgiving, and if they can get their offense rolling again, they could have the advantage in this game, especially at home. The Dolphins will need Ryan Tannehill to step up his game and lead them to victory in a tough road environment against a defense that can be tough to go against; otherwise, Miami’s playoff hopes could start to slip.
Buffalo at Tampa Bay – The Bills need to win out to have any hope of reaching the postseason, although it’s not impossible, considering their remaining schedule. Doug Marrone had Greg Schiano’s number when the two faced each other as head coaches in college, so the Bills should have an advantage in that department, although most coaches have had Schiano’s number the past couple of seasons. If Buffalo can avoid costly turnovers, they have a good chance to win on the road.
Kansas City at Washington – The last thing the Redskins need right now is to see a Chief’s team that is angry after losing three straight. Of course, Washington is at home and the Kansas City defense isn’t quite as intimidating as they were earlier in the season, so there is some hope for them. If RG3 can avoid Kansas City’s great pass rush, the Redskins should be able to score some points and have a chance to win. However, if the Chiefs get after RG3, a disastrous year in Washington will continue.
Minnesota at Baltimore – The Ravens have moved toward the front of the AFC wildcard race, but even at home the Vikings can be a tricky team to face. Baltimore has one of the top rush defenses in the NFL, but those stats go out the window when facing Adrian Peterson. If Baltimore can stuff the run, they should win easily, but if they can’t, it’ll be up to Joe Flacco to give the Ravens their third straight win.
Tennessee at Denver – The Broncos are rolling again after last week’s win in Kansas City, and they should be able to win again this week, officially end any hope the Titans have of making the playoffs. It will be nice to see John Fox back on the sidelines for the Broncos, and interesting to see how the team to reacts to having their head coach back, as they have four weeks left to come together and prepare themselves for a deep postseason run.
St. Louis at Arizona – The Cardinals need to avenge a week 1 loss to the Rams if they’re going to remain in the playoff hunt. Three turnovers doomed Arizona last week, and that’s something that can’t repeat itself this week against a St. Louis defense that can pressure quarterbacks and force turnovers. The Rams are also a little more dangerous offensively than they were in week 1 with two solid running backs and Tavon Austin starting to breakout, so the Cardinals will have their work cut out for them at home against a team that has the potential to play spoiler down the stretch.
New York Giants at San Diego – The playoff hopes for both teams are bleak and both will need to win out to have a chance, so both teams should have a lot of urgency to win. Outside of that, the matchup of Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers is always an interesting one, as the two were traded for one another on draft day about a decade ago. Whichever team gets better play out of their quarterback should win the game.
Seattle at San Francisco – The Seahawks crushed the 49ers back in week 2, and now San Francisco seeks some redemption against Seattle, who can lock up the division with a win. It’s hard to imagine anybody beating Seattle after what they did to the Saints on Monday night, although the 49ers look much improved in recent weeks and they have a front-7 that may be able to force the Seahawks into throwing the ball to win the game, and Seattle may not have the wide receivers to do that. However, the key to this game is Colin Kaepernick. His slump started when he faced the Seahawks the first time this season, and he’s going to need to make plays with his arm and his legs if the 49ers are going to have a chance to win.
Carolina at New Orleans – This is the game of the week, a Sunday night showdown with the NFC South Division lead on the line. These teams will meet again in two weeks, so this game isn’t the deciding factor in the division race, but it will go a long way. Moreover, the Saints haven’t played great football for the past month, and they are coming off a humiliating loss to the Seahawks Monday night, while the Panthers are riding an eight-game winning streak. However, New Orleans remains undefeated at home this season, so something will have to give. Carolina’s defense has shut down a lot of teams this season, but stopping the Saints in the Super Dome might be their toughest challenge yet, so we’ll see if they’re up to it.
Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the Detroit Lions will be the NFC North Division champions in 2013. They have a mere one game lead in the division with four weeks left in the regular season, but neither the Bears or Packers look like they’re going to win too many games down the stretch, and with the Lions having the tie-breaker advantage with the Bears, it seems like a good bet that Detroit is going to end up winning the division. But how will the Lions fair once they get to the playoffs? They’ve been up and down this season, never winning or losing more than two games in a row, so when Detroit gets to the postseason, will they be a contender or pretender?
On the surface, Detroit’s offense indicates that they’ll have a chance to make some noise in the postseason. It’s hard to put Matthew Stafford in the “elite quarterback” category until he has some postseason success, but he’s played at a high level all season, making the Lions one of the top passing teams in the NFL, and giving himself a chance to eclipse the 5,000-yard mark before the end of the regular season. Helping Stafford immensely this season has been Calvin Johnson, who is arguably the best wide receiver in football right now, and at times has looked unstoppable. The duo of Stafford and Johnson, combined with a nice group of complementary receivers gives the Lions a passing attack that will be difficult to stop, even for top teams in the NFC like Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, and New Orleans, all of whom have quality defenses.
Detroit’s offense can get even better and go to another level when running back Reggie Bush becomes involved in the offense in a meaningful way, both running and receiving, as it gives the Lions a dynamic offense that can gash teams on the ground and through the air. However, Bush is injury prone and his production isn’t always consistent from week to week, which makes him somewhat unreliable. Bush has averaged less than four yards per carry in four games this season, and the Lions have lost each one, meaning it could be tough for Detroit to win in the postseason if Bush is hampered with an injury or has difficulty getting going and contributing to the offense in a significant way.
There should also be concern about the Lions on the defensive side of the ball, especially with so many of the NFC’s top teams possessing quality defenses that Detroit will have to matchup against in the playoffs. The Lions have been erratic and unreliable on defense this season, holding their opponents to fewer than 20 points on only three occasions: against the Browns, against the Bears with a rusty Jay Cutler, and against the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. Despite having a talented and intimidating defensive line that has stopped the run and put pressure on quarterbacks, the Lions have a below average pass defense that’s allowed a lot of points this season, which has forced Stafford and the offense to perform at a high level in order to win games, and putting that much offense on Stafford and the offense in the playoffs could be like playing with fire.
With all that in mind, will the Lions be contenders or pretenders in the postseason? Pretenders. Detroit’s offensive talent and passing attack is tantalizing and can fool you into thinking they can carry it all the way to the Super Bowl. But they’ve failed to put together more than two consecutive wins at any point during the regular season, and that inconsistency indicates that they won’t be able to do so during the playoffs, especially when they’d have to do it against multiple teams with defenses that can at least slow down their great offense. Detroit doesn’t have the defense to match the other top teams in the NFC and that puts too much pressure on an offense that relies a little too much on the inconsistent and injury prone Bush, as they aren’t quite as dynamic without him. Even with a frighteningly talented offense and a home playoff game, the Lions will be pretenders this postseason.
NFL Week 13 Power Rankings: Seahawks, Panthers, 49ers, Saints, Eagles, Lions, Cowboys, Cardinals and More
There are just four weeks left in the NFL season and things are starting heat up throughout the NFC. As we prepare for the final month of the season, let’s take a look at how every NFC team stacks up heading down the stretch.
1. Seattle – After what happened Monday night there is no doubt that the Seahawks are the best team in the NFC, and will be a difficult team to beat in the postseason, when they will certainly have home-field advantage. Seattle dominated the Saints on both sides of the ball, and look head and shoulders above nearly every other team in the NFL, especially at home.
2. Carolina – The Panthers just keep on rolling, even in what could have been a pair of trap games the last two weeks with a showdown with the Saints on the horizon. Carolina finally had a dominating outing on Sunday against Tampa Bay and that moves them up to the second spot in the power rankings with a trip to New Orleans coming up this week.
3. San Francisco – The 49es are definitely starting to peak, and while Colin Kaepernick is far from where he was this time last year, he is showing signs of breaking out of his slump. San Francisco is not far behind the two teams ahead of them in the power rankings, and they have a chance to prove that they should be on equal footing with everyone else when they host the Seahawks this week.
4. New Orleans – The Saints have been sputtering for a while, but they fall hard after being humiliated on Monday night. Not only is home-field advantage in the postseason all but lost, New Orleans is now tied in the NFC South with a red-hot Carolina team that they will see twice over the next three weeks, and if they don’t start to play better, the Saints may have to settle for a wildcard spot.
5. Philadelphia – The Eagles aren’t quite an elite team, but they’re definitely better than the pack in the NFC, as four straight wins displays a level of consistency that most teams in the NFL lack. Philadelphia seems to have an identity, as well as a formula for winning games: the offense gets a lead early and the defense does just enough to hang on. It’s not a flawless philosophy, but it’s certainly working for the Eagles, especially with the way Nick Foles is playing.
6. Detroit – The Lions jumped back in control of the NFC North with a convincing win on Thanksgiving. The defense came to play, albeit against an under-manned Green Bay offense, and their offense was spectacular. However, they also committed four turnovers in that win, which is a concern, as is their lack of consistency, which is what’s holding them back from being in the same category as the top-tier teams in the NFC.
7. Dallas – Once again, the Cowboys showed how good they’re capable of being on offense when they run the ball effectively. If Dallas can keep on running the ball the way they have the past couple of weeks, there aren’t too many defenses that can keep them contained on four quarters, but finding that consistency is still as issue for them. The Cowboy’s other problem is their pass defense, which struggles against mediocre teams, and could hold them back against several of the teams they’ll face down the stretch.
8. Arizona – We may have jumped the gun on the Cardinals just a little, although they only lost to the Eagles by a field goal on the road, and that was with a -3 turnover ratio. Arizona is definitely on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture, but they’re still alive and good enough to make a strong push during the final month of the season.
9. New York Giants – It may be too little too late for the postseason, but the Giants have won five of their last six games and are playing better than nearly half the teams in the NFC. At the moment, they’re almost on a level playing field with Detroit, Dallas, and Arizona, but their 0-6 start is too much to overcome, even though they’re playing like a team that should be in contention.
10. St. Louis – For a team that’s played with Kellen Clemens at quarterback for much of the season, the Rams are hanging in there. They held San Francisco’s running game to less than three yards per carry on Sunday and are doing what they can on offense, despite being limited at quarterback. They won’t sniff the postseason, but they’ll be a hard team to play the final four weeks of the season.
11. Chicago – It’s a shame Jim Mora isn’t the coach of the Bears, because the phrase “playoffs? I just hope we can win a game” is starting to come to mind. They’ve only been blown out once while losing three of their last four games, but a team with such great weapons on offense needs to be able to find a way to win close games, and they haven’t done that over the past month, even though they had plenty of opportunities to take control of the NFC North.
12. Green Bay – Five straight weeks without a win and Aaron Rodgers still questionable to come back with four games left to play puts the Packers toward the bottom of the power rankings. Without Rodgers they may not be able to win another game the rest of the season and could plummet further in the power rankings by season’s end.
13. Minnesota – The Vikings are tougher to play than people think, and they showed that on Sunday against the Bears. Minnesota has just one loss in their last four games, and they’re going to enjoy playing the role of spoiler down the stretch, as Leslie Frazier fights to keep his job.
14. Tampa Bay – It was a nice three-week winning streak for the Bucs, but they’re back to being a terrible team that needs to make a coaching change after getting completely dominated by a division rival.
15. Washington – The Redskins have only held an opponent to less than 24 points once this season; even with a healthy quarterback that’s not going to give you a winning record. Things are really bad in Washington right now.
16. Atlanta – Don’t get too excited about the Falcons ending their five-game losing streak because they did not deserve to win that game; the Bills gave the game away with two late fumbles. Atlanta is still a bad team, and probably the worst in the NFC right now.
Thanksgiving Day isn’t all about food; football is also a tradition on the final Thursday in November. Let’s take a closer look at the three games we’ll be watching while we stuff our faces.
GREEN BAY AT DETROIT
No team in the NFC North won last week, and not only has that made the divisional race tight, but it has also made it unlikely that the division will send more than one team to the postseason, making this a critical game for a pair of NFC North teams jockeying for position. Green Bay is winless in November without Aaron Rodgers, but somehow they are tied in the loss column with Chicago and Detroit and are still alive in the division. Meanwhile, the Lions had a golden opportunity to take control over the division after beating the Bears a few weeks ago, but instead they’ve lost two in a row, which has kept the division close and given this game massive importance, especially considering Detroit’s loss to Green Bay earlier this year.
The Packers got a glimmer of hope in the second half last week with the play of Matt Flynn, who should give Green Bay competent play at the quarterback position if Rodgers isn’t ready to return from his injury. Another key for the Packers will be running back Eddie Lacy, who’s rushed for at least 70 yards on seven occasions this year. The Lions have lost the last two weeks despite stopping their opponents rushing attack completely, so a viable ground attack would make things real tough for Detroit’s defense and give Flynn the support he needs to have success throwing the ball.
Of course, there could be a lot of pressure on Flynn if Green Bay’s defense can’t keep Matthew Stafford and the Detroit offense contained. The Packers only allowed nine points against the Lions back in Week 5, but they haven’t played all that well over the past month, as they’ve dealt with injuries, and in a dome stadium it could be tough for them to stop all the weapons the Lions have on offense. Expect this game to stay close into the 4th quarter, and expect the score line to get into the 20’s, but if it creeps into the 30’s, the Packers could be in trouble on the road without Rodgers in a game that both teams desperately need.
OAKLAND AT DALLAS
The Cowboys got their season back on track with a last-second field goal against the Giants, but they’re going to be in a dogfight with the Philadelphia Eagles down the stretch, as they hope to secure the NFC East, and losing to the Raiders at home is not something that can happen. Meanwhile, Oakland suffered a last-second loss to Tennessee last week and now they need to win out to have a chance at making the postseason, so this game has plenty of significant for both teams.
Due in part (but not completely) to injuries, Dallas has one of the worst defenses in the NFL against both the run and the pass. Of course, the Raiders may not have the kind of offense that can take advantage of that. Matt McGloin has been solid the past couple of weeks, but he’s not necessarily going to take a lot of shots downfield against a vulnerable Dallas secondary. However, Rashad Jennings could be a threat against the Cowboy’s rush defense, as Jennings has come on strong over the past month and is averaging five yards per carry on the season. If Jennings has success running the ball and McGloin isn’t asked to do too much, the Raiders are good enough to stay competitive with the Cowboys in a low-scoring game.
It’ll be up to the Dallas offense to overwhelm the Raiders early and crush any hope Oakland has of springing the upset. Dallas is best when they’re running the ball effectively, or at least when they’re trying to run the ball and have a balanced offensive approach. Even if the Cowboys think they can score points through the air, they have to give running the ball a chance, even against an Oakland defense that’s top-10 in the league against the run. If the Raiders can force Dallas to abandon their running game completely they could keep the one-dimensional Cowboys from running away with the game early and give themselves a chance in the second half, which is all they can ask for against a more talented team.
PITTSBURGH AT BALTIMORE
For a game between two sub-.500 teams, this one is quite intriguing. Both teams are trying to make a late-season playoff push and find themselves in a six-way tie for the final wildcard spot in the AFC with a record of 5-6. Both teams have a difficult schedule the final month of the season, with Pittsburgh’s being slightly more manageable, and the loser of this game will have a tough time crawling back into the mix, while the winner stays alive in the playoff race and will have a temporary lead over the rest of the teams competing for that final playoff spot.
These two teams met back in Week 7, with the Steelers winning an ugly game 19-16 on a last-second field goal, so this should be a fairly even matchup. Ordinarily these two teams would play a tough and physical brand of football between the tackles, but neither team has been particularly effective running the ball this year. Of course, both quarterbacks are capable or airing it out, but neither has a great collection of playmakers, and both defenses have defended the pass well this season, which could make for a game between two painfully inept offenses.
Knowing how important this game is, both teams should play it tight to the vest, which means the game could be decided by whichever team takes a risk and makes a big play at the right time, or which team makes a mistake at the wrong time. Either way, it’ll be an ugly but interesting way to cap off Thanksgiving night.
NFL Week 11 Predictions: Bills-Jets, Bears-Ravens, Bengals-Browns, Lions-Steelers, Texans-Raiders and More
With the Broncos-Chiefs, Pats-Panthers, Saints-49ers, etc on the schedule, this week is full of exciting matchups. Here are the teams we like to come out on top:
Bryan Zarpentine: Tampa Bay 23, Atlanta 21 – The Bucs keep up some forward momentum while the Falcons continue to spiral out of control.
Cole Stevenson: Atlanta 23, Tampa Bay 21
Bryan Zarpentine: Buffalo 20, New York Jets 10 – The Bills respond to Doug Marrone’s fiery comments last week and play a complete game.
Cole Stevenson: New York Jets 21, Buffalo 13
Bryan Zarpentine: Chicago 27, Baltimore 13 – The Baltimore defense can’t put together two straight weeks quality performances, especially against a talented Chicago offense.
Cole Stevenson: Chicago 24, Baltimore 19
Bryan Zarpentine: Cincinnati 20, Cleveland 17 – It isn’t pretty, but while at home the Bengals find a way to edge out the Browns.
Cole Stevenson: Cincinnati 23, Cleveland 18
Bryan Zarpentine: Detroit 30, Pittsburgh 17 – The Lions get their running game going and become too much for the Steelers to handle.
Cole Stevenson: Detroit 27, Pittsburgh 20
Bryan Zarpentine: Houston 21, Oakland 10 – The Raiders can’t do much on offense against Houston’s defense, giving the Texans a much-needed win.
Cole Stevenson: Houston 24, Oakland 16
Bryan Zarpentine: Philadelphia 38, Washington 28 – The Redskins can’t stop Philadelphia’s offense and RG3 can’t keep up.
Cole Stevenson: Philadelphia 31, Washington 24
Bryan Zarpentine: Arizona 31, Jacksonville 10 – The Cardinals win going away in a rout.
Cole Stevenson: Arizona 27, Jacksonville 17
Bryan Zarpentine: San Diego 27, Miami 21 – The Chargers have played well on the east coast this year, and take advantage of a team that’s still going through turmoil.
Cole Stevenson: San Diego 24, Miami 20
Bryan Zarpentine: New York Giants 24, Green Bay 14 – The Giants continue to make incremental progress, and they have just enough to beat a depleted Packer’s team.
Cole Stevenson: Giants 25, Green Bay 20
Bryan Zarpentine: Seattle 24, Minnesota 7 – The Seahawks are sluggish offensively at first, but ultimately they’re too good for the Vikings.
Cole Stevenson: Seattle 23, Minnesota 10
Bryan Zarpentine: New Orleans 34, San Francisco 17 – The 49ers don’t put up much of a fight in the second half against a much better team.
Cole Stevenson: New Orleans 30, San Francisco 19
Bryan Zarpentine: Denver 31, Kansas City 20 – The Chiefs keep Peyton Manning under wraps in the first half, but the Broncos blitz them with big plays in the 3rd quarter and pull away.
Cole Stevenson: Denver 28, Kansas City 19
Bryan Zarpentine: Carolina 20, New England 16 – The Carolina defense keeps Tom Brady under wraps just enough to pull out another impressive win.
Cole Stevenson: New England 24, Carolina 20
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