Now that the Super Bowl and the 2013 season are in our rearview mirror, it’s time to turn our attention to the 2014 season and the NFL offseason that’s just getting underway. The first step is to examine the offseason needs of each to team to see where they need to focus their efforts in free agency and the draft. We’ll start today with the teams of the AFC East.
Buffalo Bills – Much of the Bills’ 2014 season will hinge on the development of quarterback E.J. Manuel and the team’s young wide receivers, but there are several areas where they can improve their roster. A pass-catching tight end and an improved offensive line could go a long way toward helping Manuel make big strides in 2014, so those are two areas for the Bills to address. Buffalo does have one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL, but they need to add one, if not two, quality linebackers to play alongside Kiko Alonso. The team also needs to re-sign safety Jairus Byrd, and if they can’t do that they’ll need to find a way to adequately replace his presence in their secondary.
Miami Dolphins – For a team that was so close to reaching the postseason, the Dolphins have a lot of work to do this offseason. Miami may need to completely overhaul its offensive line, which is a task that could take up a majority of their time and resources during the offseason. Adding help at running back could also be a part of Miami’s plans this offseason. Defensively, Miami could stand to make improvement at all three levels, although the interior of the defensive line and the secondary are their most pressing needs.
New England Patriots – The Patriots making it to the AFC Championship Game this year with a watered down set of skill players shows that the window to get to the Super Bowl is still open if they can make some improvements. Tom Brady can still do a lot, but he needs more support. New England would be wise to bring in the best wide receiver they can find, while also acquiring a tight end to both guard against another injury to Rob Gronkowski and give them a two tight end attack, which has worked well for them in the past. Help along the offensive line is also a must for the Patriots, as they need to keep Brady healthy for as long as possible. Defensively, New England has some good young talent, although they could use some more depth in their secondary.
New York Jets – Before they do anything else, the Jets need to find some offensive playmakers. New York needs to add at least two, perhaps three, quality wide receivers that they know will be productive in 2014. Adding a tight end would also be beneficial for their offense. The offensive line could use some help as well, but it’s not as much of a priority as the skill positions. Defensively, the Jets are in good shape under Rex Ryan, although they are in need of a safety after their mid-season signing of Ed Reed didn’t work out and they’re also going to need some reinforcements at linebacker, specifically an outside pass rusher.
Well, here we are again: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. There’s a chance that this is the last time we see these two faceoff, so let’s try to enjoy it. That being said, this game isn’t just about the quarterbacks; it’s about the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots playing with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Let’s take a closer look at the AFC Championship Game.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Both teams had a great regular season, won their division, and ended up with a first round bye in the playoffs. Last week, the Broncos held off a feisty but overmatched San Diego team, while the Patriots withstood a good effort from Andrew Luck and the Colts before ultimately winning by a sizeable margin.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS. DENVER DEFENSE
The Patriots have made a surprising transition to a run-based offense that they’re hoping will take them to the Super Bowl. Last week LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined for 48 carries while Brady threw the ball just 25 times. Blount has become a near unstoppable force, running for 189 yards in the regular season finale against Buffalo and 166 yards against the Colts last week, and scoring eight touchdowns over the last three games. Even with all the injuries to their secondary, the biggest threat to the Broncos is New England controlling the ball and the clock with their ground game and keeping Manning off the field. Denver has to find a way to stop the run at all costs, so they can put the Patriots in passing situations and give their pass rush a chance to get in Brady’s face. If New England has success running the ball, not only will it keep the Denver offense on the sidelines, but it will also set up play-action for Brady, where he can be deadly, especially against a Denver secondary that could be vulnerable without a steady pass rush.
DENVER OFFENSE VS. NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
Despite a good collection of defensive talent, the Patriots have rarely shut teams down this season, and they certainly haven’t faced a dangerous set of skill players like this since they played Denver earlier this season, except this time they won’t the benefit of strong Foxboro winds deterring Manning from throwing the ball all over the field. The biggest area of concern for New England could be their rush defense, which was one of the worst in the NFL this year. Manning and his receivers get most of the credit, but the Broncos generally have a good balance on offense and have gotten steady production from Knowshon Moreno all season, as well as meaningful contributions late in the season from rookie Montee Ball. If New England can’t slow down Denver’s running game, the Broncos will stay ahead of the chains, putting Manning and his receivers in advantageous positions to challenge the New England secondary down the field. The Patriots will have to find a way to get the Broncos in long-yardage situations so that their pass rush can get after Manning, although the Denver offensive line has done a great job all season of keeping Manning on his feet, and as long as Manning is on the field and on his feet, it’s a safe bet that the Broncos are going to be able to move the ball and score points.
Pay no attention to the first meeting between these two teams; it was such an odd game played in unusual weather conditions, and if not for a botched punt return by the Broncos in overtime the game likely would have ended in a tie, so these two teams match up fairly evenly with one another. At least for now, the forecast in Denver calls for clear skies and fair temperatures, which is a sign that the Football Gods are smiling upon Manning and the Broncos. Brady will get his and both teams will score a lot points, but this game is Denver’s to lose. Denver 38, New England 24.
We’re down to the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, and there should be little doubt that these are indeed the four best teams football. With four great teams, we’re bound to get a great Super Bowl matchup no matter which teams win this weekend, and while we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a sneak peak at the four potential Super Bowl matchups.
DENVER VS. SEATTLE
If Peyton Manning is in the Super Bowl, all the focus will be on him and his quest for a second championship ring, which is somehow a necessity for him to be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Manning’s storyline would certainly overshadow the storyline of Russell Wilson possibly asserting himself as best of the league’s young quarterbacks by winning a Super Bowl in his second season, although the Manning-Wilson matchup at quarterback would be quite the dichotomy at that position.
Just looking at the teams, this would be a great matchup between a historically good offense and arguably the best defense in the NFL this year. The combination of Manning and his prolific corps of receivers going up against the trio of Pro Bowlers in Seattle’s secondary would be a fascinating matchup to breakdown and debate for two full weeks of pre-game coverage, and could end up creating an intriguing and entertaining Super Bowl.
NEW ENGLAND VS. SAN FRANCISCO
We almost got this matchup in last year’s Super Bowl, and it wouldn’t be a bad matchup to see this year, although both franchises are in different positions than they were last season. This could be a last chance of sorts for the Brad-Belichick Patriots to grab another Super Bowl ring and add to their legacy, while the 49ers have been slowly building towards a Super Bowl victory, including a loss in the big game last year, and they looked destined to win one at some point, and this game could be seen as a passing of the torch from one dynasty in New England to another potential dynasty in San Francisco.
Despite a great matchup of quarterbacks, a Patriots-49ers Super Bowl would ultimately be about the two head coaches: Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh. Belichick has long been the pre-eminent head coach in the NFL, while Harbaugh has taken the league by storm in his first three seasons as a head coach, leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship in all three years, which is why this game could potentially pass the torch from one dynasty to the next.
NEW ENGLAND VS. SEATTLE
It happened so long ago that it’s hard to believe, but Bill Belichick actually replaced Pete Carroll as the head coach of the Patriots in 2000 after Carroll was fired following the 1999 season. Of course, that move seems to have worked out for both parties, as Belichick has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, although his last was back in 2004, while Carroll enjoyed many years of success at USC before returning to the NFL and finding success in Seattle the past two seasons.
On the field, the Seattle defense would be the ultimate challenge for Tom Brady, who has taken New England a long ways this season with a watered-down set of playmakers around him. Considering the circumstances, this has been one of the best seasons that both Belichick and Brady have had, and while just appearing in the Super Bowl would be considered a great accomplishment, a win would entail getter the better of one of the stingiest defenses in football, which would be an astounding accomplishment if they can pull it off.
DENVER VS. SAN FRANCISCO
Once again, if Manning plays in this Super Bowl, all the focus would be on him. However, just as we saw last year between Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco, this would be a clash between the traditional pocket passer, this time being Manning, and an athletic quarterback that’s just as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm. A win by Kaepernick and the 49ers could signal that athletic passers are here to stay, as they’ve done a lot of damage in the NFL in the past few seasons, but they’ve yet to win a Super Bowl. Of course, a win by Manning and the Broncos would indicate that there’s still no substitute for a great pocket passer.
Of course, these two teams have some Super Bowl history, as the 49ers blew out the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV, so this game could be a chance for redemption for Denver, especially for John Elway, who was the quarterback for the Broncos in that game and is now the Executive VP of Football Operations in Denver.
If you watched Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck play the last two weeks, it was hard not to be impressed. Heck, if you’ve seen him over the past two years it’s hard not to be impressed with him, and how far he’s taken a team that won just two games the year before he arrived. Luck’s performance over the past two seasons is that of someone poised to one day take over as the best quarterback and most impactful player in the NFL. But he’s not there yet, as Luck will be sitting at home this weekend while veterans Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will square off in the AFC Championship Game.
The accomplishments of Luck’s team over the past two seasons do not compare favorably to Brady or Manning, or even the other young quarterbacks in the league like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, who will be meeting one another in the NFC Championship game. However, over the past two seasons Luck has done more with less and elevated his team to great heights, despite supporting cast around him that pails in comparison to what the four starting quarterbacks still playing have around them.
Luck has played the last two seasons behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, which has kept him under constant pressure and forced him into turning the ball over an in ordinate amount of times, which is one of the biggest complains against Luck, and is seen as a hindrance to his team’s success. However, many of those interceptions, including some of the seven he threw in this year’s postseason, were the result of trying too hard to make plays under pressure, and were not necessarily his fault. At the same time, being under constant pressure has allowed Luck to showcase his superb pocket presence and surprising skills as a runner, which will be even more of an asset when the Colts get better support for him along the offensive line.
Many of Luck’s mistakes the past two seasons, including his seven interceptions in this year’s postseason, have come as a result of trying to bring his team from behind, which has forced him to take more chances and ultimately make more mistakes. The Colts have not had a strong defense the past two years, which has constantly put Luck in a position in which he has to overcome a deficit, much like 28-point deficit he erased last week against Kansas City. Obviously, Luck hasn’t overcome every deficit he’s faced, but he has made some spectacular comebacks, none more impressive than last week against the Chiefs, and as the Colts improve their defense, they will be less reliant on Luck to do everything for them, which will help Luck to cut down on mistakes and perform at an even higher level.
For now, Luck remains a shade behind Brady and Manning, and not quite as accomplished as Kaepernick and Wilson. But his play over the past two weeks has re-affirmed what we have seen over the past two years: he’s capable of some extraordinary things, even when facing an uphill battle, and without a suitable supporting cast behind him. As Luck continues to improve even more and the Colts presumably get more help around him, he will continue his take over of the league as the as the pre-eminent quarterback and most impactful player in the NFL. He’s already done so much in the first two years of his career, and while he’s not there yet, if the past two weeks are any indication he’s real close.
Saturday night in primetime it’ll be an inter-generational matchup at the quarterback position between young Andrew Luck, fresh off the first playoff win of his career, and the aging Tom Brady, who is hoping to win his fourth Super Bowl. Let’s take a closer look at the Colts and Patriots.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
The Colts completed the second biggest comeback in NFL playoff history against the Chiefs, overcoming a 28-point 3rd quarter deficit to beat Kansas City and earn a trip to New England. Meanwhile, the Patriots enjoyed the week off after yet another AFC East Division championship. It wasn’t quite as easy as it’s been in past years, but New England won 12 games and earned the second seed in the AFC Playoffs.
INDIANAPOLIS OFFENSE VS. NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
The Colts have had their rough moments offensively this season, but when they get going they can be close to unstoppable, and there’s no better example of that than the 35-point 2nd half they had against the Chiefs on Saturday. Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton were a lethal combination that were responsible for 224 of Luck’s 443 passing yards, with LaVon Brazill and Cobi Fleener also being frequent targets. However, things may not come so easy against New England. The Patriots will rely on Aqib Talib to help take Hilton out of the game, in what could be the most important one-on-one matchup of the game. New England will also go after Luck with pass rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, as they attempt to expose an offensive line that has had its problems this season. Luck has done well to use his legs to escape pressure this season, and he may have to do a lot of it against the Patriots. One area where the Colts may have a distinct advantage is running the ball against the 30th best rush defense in the NFL, especially with the injuries the Patriots have on defense. Indianapolis can’t always commit to the run, as they tend to fall behind early in games, but Donald Brown has had a nice season, and if they can get him a lot of touches early in the game, it could make things a lot easier for Luck, especially if he doesn’t have to worry about coming from behind. But if the Colts have to come from behind again, the Patriots will be in better shape than the Chiefs were to prevent Luck from pulling off another historic comeback because of their pass rush and the presence of Talib in their secondary.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS. INDIANAPOLIS DEFENSE
Giving up 44 points to an offense that had Alex Smith at quarterback doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence heading into a game against a team that has Tom Brady at quarterback. To make matters worse, there are some injury concerns for Indianapolis, especially in the secondary, which is the last place they can afford to be thin against Brady. The Patriots don’t have a particularly frightening or intimidating set of skill players, but Danny Amendola is healthy for once, Julian Edelman has been a headache for opposing defenses all season, rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has had moments of brilliance this season, and Shane Vereen is a versatile threat that needs to be accounted for. If Indianapolis is missing starters on defense due to injury, the Patriots have just enough skill players to be dangerous with Brady at quarterback, and forcing turnovers may be the only way the Colts can slow down the New England offense enough to give Luck and company a fair shot at winning without having to make another spectacular comebacker.
Is this going to be the passing of the torch? Not just yet. The Colts remain notorious for getting off to slow starts, and that’s going to be a big problem if it happens against the Patriots; Brady and company will blow out Indy if the Colts aren’t ready to play from the start, and coming back on the road against the pass rush duo of Jones and Ninkovich is asking too much of Luck. New England 41, Indianapolis 24.
There’s just one week left in the NFL regular season, and hopefully by now we have everything figured out. However, that’s not so easy to do in the AFC. Let’s take a look at the AFC power rankings as we close out the season.
1. Denver – There’s no doubt about it, the Broncos are the best team in the AFC. By no means are they perfect; they have some flaws and some injury concerns heading into the postseason, but they have one of the best offenses in NFL history and have been a dominant team for much of the season. Regardless of what the weather is like, Peyton Manning and company will be tough to beat in the postseason.
2. Cincinnati – The Bengals can be frustrating to watch at times, and among all the division winners in the AFC they have the least reliable quarterback, but it’s important to remember that from top to bottom they have arguably the most talented and balanced roster in football. Cincinnati can win in a number of different ways and they’re going to have a chance to win every game they play, which is why they’re a distant second to the Broncos in the AFC.
3. New England – Winning in Baltimore the way they did was a great reminder of what exactly the Patriots are capable of doing, as they completely shut down the hottest team in the NFL on the road. Of course, with the depleted supporting cast that Tom Brady has, New England won’t be the favorites in the AFC heading into the playoffs, but they’ll definitely be contenders.
4. Indianapolis – The Colts finally won back-to-back games, and doing so in convincing fashion in Arrowhead Stadium this late in the season was quite impressive. The defense has gotten the job done the past two weeks, albeit against weak offensive teams, and Indy is now going to enter the postseason with some momentum and some confidence, and when those two intangibles are combined with Andrew Luck at quarterback, the Colts start to look like a team that might be dangerous in the postseason after all.
5. Pittsburgh – All of a sudden the Steelers look like the hottest team in the NFL the past two weeks, dominating the Bengals and pulling out a close win in wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. They’ll need a lot of help next week to get into the playoffs, but rest assured that the Pittsburgh team we’ve seen the last seven weeks is a playoff worthy team and will be a tough matchup if they can find a way into the postseason.
6. Kansas City – The Chiefs don’t look like a team that’s won 11 games, as they’ve lost four of their last six games. Granted, two of those losses came against the Broncos, but Kansas City has lost three in a row at home, which won’t matter for them in the postseason, but it indicates a team that the Chiefs are a team that reached its peak a long time ago, as their offense is still limited and their defense looks fairly average. It’s been a great rebound season under Andy Reid, but their trip to the postseason could be brief.
7. San Diego – Regardless of what happens in week 17 and whether or not the Chargers sneak into the postseason, they won’t have a losing record in a tough division, and they’re going to have at least four wins over playoff teams, including a road win in Denver, which is one of the most impressive results by any team all season. San Diego does have a lot of moments they wish they could take back, but they’re a quality team that has finished the season strong, and if they some how find their way into the playoffs, no one can say they don’t deserve to be there.
8. Baltimore – The defending champs had us believing that they were going to pull off something special at the end of the season, but playing that poorly at home in the most important game of the season is unacceptable. The Baltimore defense deserves a lot of credit, but the Ravens have been mediocre on offense all season and it’s finally caught up to them, and it’s the reason they fall all the way to eight in the power rankings, as the season comes to its conclusion.
9. Miami – With so much on the line, there’s no excuse for the Dolphins playing as poorly as they did in Buffalo on Sunday. Miami has been too streaky this season, winning three in a row on two separate occasions, but also losing four in a row at one point, and that’s not the M.O. of a playoff team. The Dolphins were in a lot of games, but to get shutout by a sub-.500 team with so much to play for is not what quality teams do, even if there’s still a decent chance they can find their way into the postseason.
10. Buffalo – The Bills crack the top 10, and for good reason. Consider this, they have wins over Carolina, Baltimore, and Miami twice, with close losses against New England, Cincinnati and Kansas City. They’ve done all that with either a rookie or a practice-squad player at quarterback, so despite the continued disappointment in Buffalo, that’s not a bad season.
11. New York Jets – As bad as the Jets have been for large chunks of the season, they’ve won two of their last three with a chance to finish .500 on the season, and they have wins over New England and New Orleans to hang their hat on. It might not be enough to save Rex Ryan’s job, but it’s not bad for a team that had the lowest of expectations coming into the season.
12. Tennessee – Despite a hot start and a little bit of hope this year, the Titans are going to finish the season without a win over a playoff team. On top of that, they’re going to finish below .500 in arguably the weakest division in football, which is not a season they should be proud of.
13. Jacksonville – The Jaguars were as bad as can during the first half of the season, but they’ve shown real signs of improvement and progress over the second half of the season. They have a long way to go, but they do have three wins inside their division, which is a nice start under new head coach Gus Bradley.
14. Cleveland – There was a glimmer of hope at the midway point in the season, but the Browns have been an absolute mess late in the year and they remain at the bottom of the AFC North, where they’ve been for quite some time.
15. Oakland – It’s going to be six straight losses for the Raiders at the end of the season, and eight losses in their last nine games. There are no answers at quarterback and the defense hasn’t played particularly well either. Oakland is bottom-5 team in the NFL, there’s no doubt about it.
16. Houston – With 13 straight losses, the Texans may very well be the worst team in the NFL. Head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t survive the season, and now this organization needs a new coach and a new quarterback, and has a long climb ahead of them to get back to where they were a couple of years ago.
11NFL Week 15 Preview: Redskins-Falcons, Bears-Browns, Patriots-Dolphins, Packers-Cowboys, Bengals-Steelers
We’re getting down to the nitty gritty with just three weeks left to play, and the playoff picture in both conferences is still far from decided. Things are bound to start taking shape after this weekend’s games, so let’s take a closer look at the week 15 schedule:
Washington at Atlanta – This game is meaningless playoffs wise, but it does have draft order significance, although the Redskins won’t have their first round pick anyway. Kirk Cousins is taking over at quarterback, so it’ll be interesting to see if he moves the ball any better than Robert Griffin III did. Of course, Cousins will have little affect on Washington’s defense, which will have to stop an Atlanta offense that is capable of scoring points against a weak defense.
Chicago at Cleveland – The Browns let one slip away last week, but they’ll have another chance to play spoiler this week, as the Bears can’t afford to lose another game the rest of the season. Chicago was lightning in a bottle offensively Monday night, but that won’t be so easy against a tough Cleveland defense. Despite winning one game in the past two months, the Browns have a solid defense, and with Jason Campbell at quarterback, Cleveland’s offense is capable of scoring points against a questionable Chicago defense, which means a win is far from a certainty for the Bears, whose defense needs to play with a sense of urgency on the road in order to win.
Houston at Indianapolis – The Colts have already locked up the division, but they need to start playing better down the stretch or their postseason will be brief and disappointing, and this is a game the Colts should be able to win in order to get back on track. As for the Texans, they are still riding an 11-game losing streak, but they’ve lost plenty of close games during that stretch and looked better with Matt Schaub back at quarterback last week, so this is a game they can steal if Indianapolis continues to struggle and doesn’t play a complete game.
New England at Miami – The Patriots are lucky to have won the last two weeks, and they won’t have much margin for error this week down in Miami against a team that needs to win to stay in the playoff hunt. Despite some deficiencies, the Dolphins are playing good football and always put themselves in position to win in the 4th quarter; Ryan Tannehill and company need to make sure they’re the ones making the game-winning plays late, especially against a team that has a history of making key plays when it matters the most. Miami is tied with Baltimore for the last playoff spot, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker between the two teams, so there is no margin for error down the stretch for the Dolphins, as they have to finish ahead of Baltimore to make the postseason, and that’ll be tough to do if they lose this game.
Philadelphia at Minnesota – The Eagles are really rolling right now, and their offense should be tough to stop inside a dome, where there’s no chance of the weather becoming a factor. The Vikings are a little better than their record indicates, and they’ll put up a fight against a contending team, but if Adrian Peterson doesn’t play, or isn’t 100%, it’ll be difficult to keep up with Philadelphia’s offense.
Seattle at New York Giants – The Giants put up a fight after starting the season 0-6, but after their performance last week in San Diego it looks like their season is over. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are comfortably in first place, but they won’t be happy about last week’s loss, which means they’ll be motivated to play on the road, whereas the Giants may have resigned themselves to just playing out the season.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay – The 49ers made a statement by beating Seattle last week, but their playoff spot is not yet secure, so they need to bring that same intensity with them to Tampa Bay. We know the Bucs are going to play hard, and they’re just good enough to take advantage of teams that aren’t at the top of their game, especially on defense. The San Francisco offense needs to do a better job of finishing drives in the end zone than they did last week, because if they don’t the Bucs will hang around and have a chance to pull off the upset.
Buffalo at Jacksonville – Nothing much to see here, although the recent resurgence by Jacksonville is a pleasant surprise for a team that some had pegged as a one or two win team this season. The Bills embarrassed themselves last week in Tampa, and they need to avoid repeating that this week and at least play with some pride.
Kansas City at Oakland – There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned AFC West rivalry. The Raiders are out of contention, but they’re going to play hard and look to knock off the Chiefs on their way to the postseason. If the Oakland offense can get it going like they have the past couple of weeks, this game could get interesting, although the Chiefs can lock in a postseason birth with a win, so they won’t be taking the Raiders lightly, while also hoping that their recent offensive surge will continue.
New York Jets at Carolina – The Panthers had a rough time last Sunday night and they need to respond well this week or speculation will start to grow that they peaked too early. Of course, the Jets may be the best team for them to play right now. New York had a nice game offensively last week against Oakland, but that’ll be tough to repeat against Carolina’s defense. As long as the Panther’s defense gets back on track, winning shouldn’t be an issue and they can go back to setting their sights on the postseason.
Green Bay at Dallas – It doesn’t look like Aaron Rodgers will play in this one, but that doesn’t mean the Packers won’t be able to score against the Dallas defense, which was atrocious Monday night and now has a short week to prepare for the Packers. If Green Bay can establish their running game early, it could soften up the Cowboy’s back-seven and create some space in the secondary for Matt Flynn to get the ball downfield. If the Packers are anywhere close to as efficient on offense against Dallas as the Bears were Monday night, once again all the pressure will be on Tony Romo and the offense, which is not where Dallas wants to be. The Cowboys can score on offense, but it won’t matter unless their defense can get some stops.
Arizona at Tennessee – This could be a tricky game for the Cardinals, but with Seattle and San Francisco on the schedule the final two weeks, it’s a game they need to win. Arizona has built up a lot of momentum over the past month and a half, and they need to keep that going into the final three weeks. In this game, the Cardinals need to start fast and take an early lead. The Titans would like to win and play spoiler, but if Arizona gets up early, it’ll be easier to take care of business against a team that’s just 2-4 at home this season.
New Orleans at St. Louis – The Saints were quite impressive last week at home against the Panthers, but now it’s time to show everybody that they can just as impressive on the road. The Rams haven’t looked all that threatening the past couple of weeks, but they’re capable of pulling of a surprise, so the Saints need to make sure they’re crisp and efficient on offense by controlling the St. Louis pass rush, which could pose some problems for the Saints. For now, New Orleans has a strong hold on the NFC South, but a loss in St. Louis could cause some problems for them heading into their road trip to Carolina next week.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh – A couple of close losses the past two weeks have all but ended Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes, but they’ve playing much better than they were early in the season, and they’ll have a chance to knock off the Bengals at home Sunday night. The Steelers are going to have to clamp down defensively and force Andy Dalton into making bad decisions and bad throws because playing from behind against the Cincinnati defense will be a difficult task for them. If the game stays low scoring, the Steelers will have a good chance of winning, but if Dalton plays mistake free football the Bengals should score plenty of points, making it hard for the Steelers to keep up.
There are just three weeks left to play in the season, and the picture in AFC isn’t getting any clearer. Let’s try to make some sense of everything with this week’s power rankings of the top-10 teams in the AFC.
1. Denver – The injuries and the personnel turnover in the secondary are definitely a concern, but the Broncos played in freezing temperatures on Sunday and Peyton Manning looked as sharp as ever, proving that he is capable of playing in cold weather. There’s no reason why the Broncos shouldn’t be able to win their final three games and close out home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
2. Kansas City – The Chiefs accomplished two things in week 14: they put a stop to their three-game losing streak, and they continued to look impressive on the offensive side of the ball. The Kansas City defense may not be the same as they early in the season, but if the offense continues to score at a high rate, they’ll be a more balanced team and a dangerous team down the stretch and in the postseason.
3. Cincinnati – When the good Andy Dalton shows up, this team is dynamic offensively and is tough to beat. They’ve won three in a row, and if not for a pair of overtime losses, they could have nine straight wins. Not enough people are talking about them as a viable contender, but if Dalton plays well, they’re definitely a threat in the AFC.
4. New England – The Patriots are a bit lucky to have won their past two games against inferior teams, and on top of that, they’ve now lost Rob Gronkowski for the season, which will weaken their offense, much like the beginning of the season. They should be able to wrap up the AFC East at some point, but they have two road games against teams with a lot to play for coming up, so they’ll be challenged even more so than they have in their narrow wins against inferior teams the past two weeks.
5. Miami – Even in the games they’ve lost, the Dolphins have been close and competitive with everybody they’ve played this year. Miami has been both lucky and good, and now they have a real chance to win out and finish the season with 10 wins; they can also put some pressure on the Patriots if they can beat New England at home this weekend.
6. Baltimore – The Ravens survived a rough stretch in October and November, and now they are winners of three in a row, although those three wins haven’t been pretty. There are signs that Baltimore is starting to put things together at the right time, and make a late-season push for the playoffs. Of course, they face a tough schedule the rest of the way, which means Joe Flacco will have to be at the top of his game, whether he gets help from his surrounding cast or not.
7. San Diego – The Chargers have been the victims of a tough schedule and being in a division with the AFC’s two best teams, but on any given day, they can play with anybody. They won’t factor into the playoff picture, but they’re on a level playing field with the teams that still have a realistic chance of claiming the final wildcard spot in the AFC.
8. Indianapolis – They may have clinched their division, and they may be hosting a playoff game, but this is not a good team. They have a lot of injuries, and they tend to start slow, which has hurt them time and time again this season. The Colts have alternated wins and losses for the last six weeks, and that inconsistency is not becoming of a top team that will be a threat in the postseason.
9. Pittsburgh – The Steelers are mere inches away from still being in the midst of the playoff race. Despite their record, they’ve played good football for the past month and have done well to shake off a bad September. It might be too little too late, but expect Pittsburgh to finish the season strong.
10. Tennessee – Somebody’s got to round out the top-10, and unfortunately it’s the team that has lost four of their last five and surrendered 51 points this past week. Aside from their game against Denver, the Titans have hung tough during the past month, and lost a lot of close games, and for now that’s enough to make them 10th in the AFC.
We got a nice head start on week 13 on Thursday, now let’s take a look at all of the NFL games on the slate for Sunday:
Jacksonville at Cleveland – The season is over for both these teams, but the Jaguars are continuing to play hard and have won two of their last three games, while the Browns are spiraling out of control, and now have to go back to Brandon Weeden at quarterback. Don’t expect too many points in this game, although if Weeden plays well, Jacksonville could struggle against Cleveland’s top receivers Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron.
Tennessee at Indianapolis – We saw this game a couple weeks ago, with the Colts coming back from an early deficit to steal a win on the road. Last week, Indianapolis continued to struggle while the Titans pulled out a late-win against the Raiders, giving the Colts a two-game lead in the division, a lead that could be in jeopardy if they lose this game. If the Colts get off to another slow start, the Titans are good enough to take advantage, and confidence is running high in Tennessee this week after a 300-yard passing game from Ryan Fitzpatrick last week. The Titans are fighting for their playoff lives, but considering how Indianapolis has played the last few weeks, all the pressure is on the Colts.
Chicago at Minnesota – The Vikings should be excited about the possibility of playing spoiler against the division rival Bears, who need to keep pace with the Lions atop the NFC North. Chicago’s defense has been a disaster recently, and that could be a serious problem as they try to stop Adrian Peterson, not to mention that Christian Ponder played well in Minnesota’s tie last week. The Bears have the weapons to score points on offense, but it may not be enough if their defense can’t play better.
Miami at New York Jets – This may be the most important game in the AFC Wild Card race left in the season, at least until these two teams meet again the final week of the season. The race for the final postseason spot in the AFC remains cluttered, and neither team can afford to lose this game. The Jets have been pitiful the last two weeks, and they could be on the verge of completely collapsing if they can’t get their act together this week, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, the Dolphins seemed to have weathered the storm of off-field controversy and are playing well, as they’ve been in close games each of the last four weeks, winning two of them. The Jets may get blown out, but there’s no way the Dolphins aren’t in the game in the 4th quarter, but if they don’t find a way to win in the final minutes, they could be done, as their schedule is difficult the final four weeks.
Arizona at Philadelphia – These are two of the hottest teams in the NFL over the past month, and both need to keep winning to remain on the right side of the playoff bubble. This game could come down to a matchup of strength vs. strength, as the Eagles are the top rushing team in the NFL, while the Cardinals boast the second best rush defense in the league. If the Cardinals can slow down Philadelphia’s running game, they should be able to outscore the Eagles, but if not, expect both teams to put a lot of points on the board.
Tampa Bay at Carolina – With seven straight wins, the Panthers own the top wild card spot in the NFC and may be making a push for first place in the NFC South. However, they can’t sleep on the Bucs, who have won three in a row. Carolina isn’t explosive offensively, which means Tampa’s defense should be able to keep them in the game, giving rookie Mike Glennon a chance to lead the Bucs to their fourth straight win if he can outplay Cam Newton.
New England at Houston – The Patriots are starting to click on offense, and after last week’s win against Denver, they are still in contention for the top spot in the AFC, so they won’t be taking the Texans lightly. With nine straight losses, things can’t get much worse for Houston, who will be lucky to stay competitive with the Patriots this week.
Atlanta at Buffalo – The Bills are still alive for the postseason if they can take advantage of a weak schedule the next three games, beginning with the Falcons this week. Buffalo has a strong defensive line that should keep Atlanta’s running game contained and put pressure on Matt Ryan, which will force the Falcons to play good defense if they expect to stay in the game. If E.J. Manuel plays well, he’ll keep Buffalo’s slim playoff hopes alive.
St. Louis at San Francisco – The San Francisco defense has been exceptional lately while the offense is getting some key players back, which bodes well for the 49ers moving forward. However, the Rams are a lot better not than they were when the 49ers beat them early in the season, and St. Louis is ready to put up a fight. Both teams have a strong defensive front-seven to stop the run and pressure the quarterback, and because the Rams are limited throwing the ball, the key to this game will be the play of Colin Kaepernick, who can carry the 49ers to victory if he can regain the form he had last year.
Denver at Kansas City – The winner of this game will have the inside track on winning the division and having home field throughout the AFC playoffs, while the loser will likely have to settle for the wildcard. Kansas City’s defense hasn’t been the same over the past couple of weeks, and it’ll be difficult to regain their early-season form with injuries to Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, regardless of whether they’re able to play or not. The Chiefs need to keep this a low-scoring game, and it’ll be hard for them to keep up with the Broncos if they have to score more than 20 points, even at home.
Cincinnati at San Diego – A win over the Chiefs last week kept the Chargers in the playoff hunt, but they need to keep on winning in order to get to the postseason, even against a talented Cincinnati team. If Andy Dalton can shake off his recent problems with turnovers, the Bengals should be able to score against San Diego’s defense, which means it’ll be up to Phillip Rivers to have another exceptional game and lead the Chargers to victory, much like he did last week against Kansas City. As Rivers goes, so do the Chargers, and he’ll have to be significantly better than Dalton this week in order for San Diego to keep their playoff hopes alive.
New York Giants at Washington – Both teams are out of playoff contention, but these two division rivals should find a way to keep this game interesting. Both teams would like to finish strong, and both coaches could be on the hot seat this offseason if they don’t win a few games down the stretch, especially against division foes, so this game does carry some importance for both sides.
Happy Thanksgiving everybody! While we all reflect on what we have to be thankful for this year, let’s take a look around the NFL at the players, coaches, and teams that have something to be thankful for this time of year.
Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs should be thankful to the Philadelphia Eagles for firing Andy Reid and making him available for them to hire. Despite losses in their last two games, Reid has helped the Chiefs pull a complete 180 following a disastrous season last year. Already reaching the nine-win mark is better than even the most optimistic fans could have expected from the Chiefs coming into the season after just two wins all of last year. Kansas City is almost certainly going to the playoffs, and they have Reid to thank for their swift turnaround.
Philadelphia Eagles – Not only are the Eagles thankful for Chip Kelly, whose offense has put a lot of points on the board this season, despite a few off weeks, they’re also thankful for Nick Foles. The Eagles could have traded away Foles this offseason, as he’s not the proto-typical quarterback you see in Kelly’s offense, but he’s been exceptional over the past month and has the Eagles atop the NFC East and eyeing a potential playoff birth in Kelly’s first season in the NFL.
Greg Schiano – Schiano should be thankful that he still has a job. At any point during Tampa’s 0-8 start to the season, the Bucs would have been justified in firing him, especially since they also lost five of their final six games last year. The Bucs winning three in a row does give them a chance to salvage the season, although it does indicate that they had too much talent to lose their first eight games, and that Schiano’s poor coaching was the main culprit in their poor start to the season. Either way, Schiano is still employed as a coach in the NFL, and he should be thankful for that, because a month ago it was far from a guarantee.
New England Patriots – We tend to take what Tom Brady does for granted, but considering all the problems New England had during the offseason, and the injury problems they’ve had during the season, where would the be without him? Slot receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski are the best weapons Brady has this year, and both of those guys have missed time with injury, forcing Brady to get by with rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Yet, the Patriots are where they always are this time of year: they have a seemingly insurmountable three-game lead in the AFC East and are just a game behind Denver and Kansas City for the top seed in the conference, and an overwhelming amount of the credit belongs to Brady.
New Orleans Saints – The Saints have gotten a huge boost from the return of Sean Payton this year, but they really need to be thankful to the Dallas Cowboys for firing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, because Ryan coming to New Orleans to run the defense has been the biggest difference maker for the Saints this season. New Orleans couldn’t stop anybody last year, but now they’re a top-5 defense against the pass and have only allowed 20 or more points on three occasions this season, and with Drew Brees playing quarterback that’s a combination that will win a lot of games. The Saints are 9-2 right now, and should have no trouble making the playoffs and being one of the favorites to come out of the NFC, with a great deal of credit going to Ryan and the play of his defense.
Seattle Seahawks – At the moment, Percy Harvin has exactly one catch for 17 yards, but over the next two months the Seahawks are bound to grow increasingly thankful that they have him, and that he’s been able to come back from his hip injury and get back on the field for them. Harvin gives Seattle a dynamic threat in their passing game that has lacked playmakers all season, despite the fact that they have a quarterback that can create big plays if he has the weapons around him. Harvin is that weapon that Russell Wilson and the Seahawks need, and they’re about to be thankful that they have him down the stretch and in the postseason, because he’s a difference maker.