Sunday, January 18, 2015

NFL picks - Championship Weekend

This may be the least climactic picks column in the history of the Online Jargon.

For the first time in Jargon history, both of my preseason Super Bowl picks are playing on Championship Weekend. If you checked out my season preview, and you have a good memory, you'll already know which teams will be picked to win this weekend.

Whether you remember my preseason picks, scrolled back to check them out, or can recall my "2014 NFL season revisited" piece from a couple weeks ago, keep reading. Even though Championship Weekend is an exciting time, it marks the penultimate slate of NFL contests this season.

Though these picks were determined in early September, I provide them with a caveat: Something smells funny. Too many people are picking Seattle and New England to win, and the lines are too high for my liking. Don't be surprised if one of the road teams is victorious Sunday afternoon.

Let's get to the picks.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers (13-4) at Seattle Seahawks (13-4) 

Line: Seattle -8

Contrary to popular belief, the Packers are not dead quite yet.

Most people outside of Green Bay have read the Packers their last rites, deeming Sunday's NFC Championship Game a mere bump in the road to Seattle's successful defense of its NFC crown.

Something tells me the Packers will have something to say about that.

Much has been made about the calf injury currently affecting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Head coach Mike McCarthy says Rodgers feels better than he did entering last weekend's victory over Dallas, while Rodgers suggests the condition of his calf has worsened.

Regardless of the injury, Rodgers is more than capable of making any throw on the field while staying in the pocket. He's one of the league's most accurate and effective passers, and simply cannot lean upon a strained calf as an excuse.

The key to success will be the balance of the Green Bay offensive attack. If Eddie Lacy is effective early and often, the Packers can use a balance attack to keep Seattle's top-tier defense on its heels. If the Seahawks shut down Lacy and the rushing attack, though, it'll be up to Rodgers - healthy or not - to lead his team through the Legion of Boom.

Seattle will likely find success on the ground, because ... well ... that's what they do best. It is Russell Wilson who will lead Seattle's charge back to the Super Bowl, however. Wilson and the Seahawks must continue to take care of the ball, avoiding costly turnovers in the most important game of the season to date.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I don't buy the severity of Rodgers' injury for a minute. As safety Earl Thomas alluded earlier this week, neither do the Seahawks.

The Pick: Seattle 27, Green Bay 21

AFC Championship - Indianapolis Colts (13-5) at New England Patriots (13-4)

Line: New England -6.5

Contrary to popular belief, the Colts are not dead quite yet.

Most people outside of Indianapolis have read the Colts their last rites, deeming Sunday's AFC Championship Game a mere bump in the road leading New England back to the top of the AFC.

Something tells me the Colts will have something to say about that.

Recent history certainly doesn't favor Indianapolis' chances, however. New England has dominated its last three contests against the Colts, winning by 35, 22 and 21 points. The Pats broke the 40-point mark in each of those three victories, while managed no more than 24 points in those three games. The Colts have not won at all in Foxborough since November 2006.

As is often the case, however, the playoffs are likely to tell a different story. Bill Belichick needed to pull out his bag of tricks to put down a game Baltimore Ravens team last week, and the Colts will look to that gameplan to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since winning Super Bowl XLI.

If the Colts stand any chance of winning Sunday evening, they must control the ground game on both sides of the ball. The Patriots ran wild en route to a 42-20 victory in Week 11.

Dan Herron found success on the ground before running into Denver's stout run defense. Herron will need to be more effective Sunday, as the Patriots ranked ninth against the run during the regular season. If Herron can find a modicum of success against New England's rush defense - something Justin Forsett did throughout last weekend's game - the Colts can, and will, stay in this game.

In the end, it will be New England's defense that will do enough to keep Andrew Luck and the Colts down long enough to recapture the Lamar Hunt Trophy and book the Patriots a trip to Glendale.

The Pick: New England 33, Indianapolis 24

Last week: 4-0
Last week v. spread: 3-1
Playoff record: 7-1
Playoff record v. spread: 6-2
Season record: 170-93-1
Season record: 130-134

Saturday, January 10, 2015

NFL picks - Divisonal playoffs

The NFL's elite eight are ready to go back to work.

Despite the tumult seen throughout the 2014 NFL season, there is plenty of familiarity in this divisional weekend. Baltimore and New England will have their fourth postseason meeting since 2009, while Peyton Manning will renew acquaintances with the Indianapolis Colts.

For the first time in NFL playoff history, a team that finished the regular season unbeaten on the road will travel to face a team that finished unbeaten at home. If that wasn't enough, it's the first time Dallas has traveled to Green Bay to face the Packers since the famed Ice Bowl in 1967.

Three of this weekend's four games, however, aren't expected to be close. New England, Seattle and Denver all enter the weekend favored by a touchdown or more. Green Bay opened as seven-point favorites before seeing Sunday afternoon's line fall to Green Bay -5.5, likely due to the questions surrounding the health of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

For the fourth year in a row, and for the 11th time in the last 15 years, either the Patriots or Ravens will play for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Seattle will look to defend its NFC title, with a chance to either duplicate its season-opening victory or avenge its only home loss of the year.

Let's get to the picks.

Baltimore Ravens (11-6) at New England Patriots (12-4)

Line: New England -7

It feels a little bit like January of 2013.

Two years ago, the underdog Ravens headed to New England to take on a Patriots team Baltimore allegedly had no business beating. The Ravens held the Pats to a second-half goose egg en route to a 28-13 victory, their second in three postseason contests played at Gillette Stadium.

Their next meeting was significantly different. In the first game between the Patriots and Ravens not to include Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, New England ran the Ravens right out of the stadium, thumping Baltimore, 41-7.

The Patriots-Ravens rivalry has been a tale of two seasons. New England has dominated the regular season meetings between these two teams, while the Ravens have won two of their three postseason trips to Foxborough.

Saturday's divisional-round opener will come down to the battle in the trenches. Baltimore's defense lives and dies by the success (or lack thereof) of its top-notch front seven. New England is as healthy as ever up front, and can use the likes of Chandler Jones and Vince Wilfork to exploit a banged-up and shuffled Ravens offensive line.

In my visitation of my preseason picks on New Years Day, I said that I would not be changing my preseason Super Bowl pick. That forces my hand here.

Baltimore can absolutely win this game. Don't be surprised if the Ravens leave Foxborough with yet another playoff victory. And don't be surprised if the Patriots start fast and never look back.

The Pick: New England 24, Baltimore 23

Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Line: Seattle -11

Seattle has hosted a game like this before.

Four seasons ago, CenturyLink Field (then called Qwest Field) hosted a playoff game between a division winner with a losing record and the defending Super Bowl champions. The defending champs were favored by double digits, and their lowly opponents stood no chance.

Nobody told the Seahawks, who defeated the New Orleans Saints 41-36, becoming the first sub-.500 team to win a playoff game.

This time around, those Seahawks are the defending champions, hosting a Panthers team that entered the postseason at 7-8-1. Just like that last game, the underdog has a chance.

Carolina and Seattle have played three times in the last three seasons, and the Panthers have taken it to the Seahawks in each instance. Each game was decided by a single score, and neither team has scored more than 16 points.

Those three games, however, all took place in Charlotte, and the Panthers had a healthy defense. There will be no home-field advantage for the Panthers this time around, and their defense will be without All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

Too much needs to fall Carolina's way for the weekend's biggest upset to come to fruition. Only two visiting teams have won in Seattle over the past three years. Carolina won't become the third.

The Pick: Seattle 27, Carolina 13

Dallas Cowboys (13-4) at Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Line: Green Bay -5.5

Ask the national media, and this one is already done and dusted.

Grantland.com, an ESPN creation, anointed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the next Joe Montana. Not 48 hours later, the same website claimed Green Bay's offensive line was the best in football, and would allow Rodgers to walk the Packers right back to the Super Bowl.

DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys will have something to say about that.

There aren't many offenses in the NFL that can stand toe-to-toe with Green Bay's, but Dallas can. Tony Romo led the league in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt. His 113.2 quarterback rating is the fifth-highest mark in NFL history. DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing, compiling 1,845 rushing yards while breaking Emmitt Smith's Cowboys franchise record. Dez Bryant is one of the league's best receivers, and is a match-up nightmare for any secondary.

In a game between two elite offenses, the opposing defenses will decide the outcome. Tramon Williams has seen his best days come and go, and Sam Shields is an overpaid corner all too reliant on his speed.

Williams and Shields, however, are better than Dallas' duo of Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick. And although Bryant will be the best receiver on the field, Rodgers has three options in the passing game at his disposal. It's going to be a shootout, and the game may very well come down to the final possession.

The Pick: Green Bay 34, Dallas 28

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

Line: Denver -7

History tells us Denver's season is more likely to come to an end Sunday afternoon than continue on to next weekend.

Manning's 11 playoff victories are second among active quarterbacks, but his 12 postseason losses are most all-time. Eight of those 12 losses have been of the one-and-done variety. Seven of those eight came with Manning's team favored. In four of those contests, Manning's team was favored by at least 5.5 points.

Manning isn't the same quarterback we've come to know, but that may not be a bad thing for the Broncos. Denver switched to a more run-oriented offense after a 22-7 loss in St. Louis, and the results were positive. Running back C.J. Anderson has averaged nearly 109 yards per game in those six contests, and the Broncos went 5-1.

Indianapolis' defense wasn't as bad as advertised. The Colts finished 11th in total defense and 13th in overall defensive DVOA despite carrying the reputation as one of the league's worst defensive units.

The problem plaguing the Colts is the complete absence of an effective running game. Ahmad Bradshaw did an admirable job, but a broken ankle ended the season of the oft-injured running back.

Necessity will force the Colts to use second-year back Dan Herron, who has made the most of his opportunites. Herron averaged 4.5 yards per carry throughout the regular season, and averaged 4.7 yards per attempt in last week's victory over the Bengals.

Chuck Pagano's hand may be forced, as Herron is the only pro-caliber running back available to his team. This isn't a bad thing, as Herron can take some of the work load off Andrew Luck's hands.

The last time all four home teams won on Divisional Weekend was the 2004 season. The streak continues in Denver.

The Pick: Indianapolis 33, Denver 31

Last week: 3-1
Last week v. spread: 3-1
Season record: 166-93-1
Season record v. spread: 127-133

Saturday, January 3, 2015

NFL picks - Wildcard weekend

In a year rife with controversy, the NFL playoffs were destined to continue the trend.

For the second time in five seasons, a team with a losing record won their division, sending a 10-win team out of the postseason in the process.

In 2010, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West, while the 10-6 Giants and Buccaneers watched the playoffs from their homes. The 7-8-1 Panthers finished the season with a four-game winning streak, taking home the NFC South title for the second year in a row and earning a home playoff game. This time, it was the 10-6 Eagles watching a sub-.500 team play while they sat out.

Unlike those 2010 Seahawks, Carolina is favored to win their wildcard match-up. This first round of playoff games also features a match-up of two teams that missed the postseason last year, as well as another chapter in one of the league's most intense rivalries.

Let's get to the picks.

Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)

Line: Carolina -5.5

Few quarterbacks as bad as Ryan Lindley have started a postseason game.

According to Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com, only three quarterbacks with a poorer career rating than Lindley's 50.3 mark have started an NFL postseason contest. Two of the three actually won, but none of those three men started their respective contests in the last 33 years, when the pro game was much different than it is today.

Don't expect much derivation on Saturday afternoon. The Cardinals haven't scored more than 20 points since early November, and haven't broken double digits twice in that same time frame.

Carolina hasn't been the model of domination, but the Panthers have done what is necessary to claim a second consecutive division title. Despite a porous offensive line and injuries to Cam Newton, the Panthers had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, including rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin.

Injuries have limited Newton all year, but even at less than 100 percent, he's leaps and bounds ahead of Lindley. The Cardinals have done an admirable job overcoming injuries to Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, but the end of the line comes in Charlotte.

The Pick: Carolina 24, Arizona 10

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) 

Line: Pittsburgh -3

The Ravens and Steelers play one another twice a year, but a third match-up has become somewhat of a regularity.

Baltimore's trip to Pittsburgh will mark the third time in seven seasons these teams will meet in the postseason. The Ravens will look to reverse their fortunes, as Baltimore is 0-3 against Pittsburgh all-time in the playoffs.

Saturday night's match-up will come down to the battle between Baltimore's pass defense and the aerial attack of the Steelers. Pittsburgh ranks first in pass offense DVOA and second in passing yards, while the Ravens rank 15th in pass defense DVOA and 23rd in pass yards allowed.

However, Pittsburgh's offensive line has been susceptible to the league's better pass rushes, and few in the NFL have been as good as Baltimore's. Only the Bills tallied more than the Ravens' 49 sacks this season.

In the end, Baltimore's secondary, which has been decimated by injury, will prove incapable of providing an answer to All-Pro wide receive Antonio Brown.

The Pick: Pittsburgh 27, Baltimore 25

Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

Line: Indianapolis -3.5

The narrative surrounding Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis has been well-documented. Dalton and Lewis are both winless in the postseason, and the Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990.

History doesn't favor the Bengals, but an injury to the team's best player is what will end up dooming Cincinnati's changes in Indianapolis. A.J. Green suffered a concussion in last week's loss to the Steelers, and is unlikely to suit up in Sunday's wildcard match-up with the Colts.

Dalton has thrown for more than 250 yards in a game once since Halloween. The absence of Green is going to make things even more difficult.

When these teams met in Week 7, the Colts cruised to a 27-0 blowout victory. This one will be much closer, but the result will be the same.

The Pick: Indianapolis 24, Cincinnati 16

Detroit Lions (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-4) 

Line: Dallas -6.5

The Wildcard Weekend finale will pit two teams with a history of tough luck in the playoffs.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is 1-3 in playoff games since taking over the starting job in 2006. Detroit hasn't won a playoff game since 1991, their only playoff victory since winning the NFL championship in 1957. That Lions victory came over these same Dallas Cowboys.

Like many playoff games, this contest will boil down to the quarterbacks. Despite his reputation and a less-than-sterling playoff record, Romo had the best season of any quarterback in the NFL. Romo led the league in quarterback rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt. In fact, Romo's 113.2 quarterback rating was the fifth-best mark in NFL history.

Detroit's Matthew Stafford has been the antithesis of Romo. Stafford had to deal with injuries to two of his most prolific playmakers, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, but those absences do not explain Stafford's lackluster play this season. Stafford's quarterback rating of 85.7 was less than a point better than Teddy Bridgewater and Austin Davis, and worse than the ratings of Kyle Orton and Mark Sanchez.

The return of Ndamukong Suh will help the Lions stop DeMarco Murray, but Suh can't make Stafford play better. As has been the case all year long, Matthew Stafford will hold the Detroit Lions back.

The Pick: Dallas 34, Detroit 23

Last week: 10-6
Last week v. spread: 6-10
Season record: 163-92-1
Season record v. spread: 124-132

NFL power rankings - Postseason edition

Now that the 2014 NFL regular season has come to a close, let's take a look at the final power rankings of the year.

For the first time all season, the New England Patriots have relinquished their stranglehold on the top spot.

1. Seattle (12-4) - After dropping consecutive games in mid-October, everyone wondered what happened to the Seahawks. Seattle responded by winning nine of its next 10 games. Nothing is wrong with the champs. (Prior rank: 2)

2. New England (12-4) - Resting starters is always a risky proposition. Welcoming the Steelers to Foxborough would be an even riskier proposition, but that very well may be what it comes to next weekend. (Prior rank: 1)

3. Denver (12-4) - Are people really going to sleep on the Broncos? In their last loss, the Broncos trailed by only two points until the last of Peyton Manning's four interceptions was taken back for a touchdown. Broncos fans should root for a Colts victory, as Denver would cruise past Indianapolis into its second consecutive AFC title game. (Prior rank: 3)

4. Green Bay (12-4) - Any Packers dreams of a trip to Glendale hinge on the calf muscle of Aaron Rodgers. If Rodgers proves healthy, Green Bay will compete for that Super Bowl ticket. If not, it could be one-and-done in Titletown this winter. (Prior rank: T-7)

5. Dallas (12-4) - Nobody should doubt Dallas' ability on offense. It's the defense that raises question marks. If they can tighten up what has proven to be a fairly flexible defense, the Cowboys will have all the confidence in the world that they can win in Green Bay and in Seattle. Again. (Prior rank: T-7)

6. Pittsburgh (11-5) - The Steelers became the chic pick as a playoff dark horse until Le'Veon Bell was injured late in Pittsburgh's Week 17 victory over Cincinnati. If Bell is healthy, the Steelers will give the Broncos and Patriots everything they can handle, and maybe some things they can't. (Prior rank: 10)

7. Indianapolis (11-5) - A below-average opposing quarterback will help hide Indy's defensive shortcomings this weekend, but the Colts are in hot water after that. Every quarterback Indianapolis would play in the divisional and championship rounds has at least one Super Bowl victory. (Prior rank: 5)

8. Detroit (11-5) - Once again, Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense held Detroit back. Aaron Rodgers fell victim to injury, and the Lions promptly tied last week's de-facto NFC North championship game. Stafford just could not get the job done when his team needed him in the second half. The Lions may have hit their ceiling. (Prior rank: 6)

9. Arizona (11-5) - If Carson Palmer didn't blow out his knee, the Cardinals likely would have had home-field advantage and would have been favored to win the NFC. Instead, the dream of playing a Super Bowl home game will die at the incapable hands of Ryan Lindley. (Prior rank: 4)

10. Baltimore (10-6) - The Ravens proved how to hide a porous secondary en route to earning a playoff berth. Baltimore will need serious help at the back of its defense if the team is to have any hope of advancing through the gauntlet of quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs. (Prior rank: 11)

11. Cincinnati (10-5-1) - Andy Dalton stinks. If your quarterback stinks, your team isn't going anywhere in the postseason. There's a reason Dalton and Marvin Lewis still haven't won a playoff game together. They won't be starting this weekend, either. (Prior rank: 13)

12. Kansas City (9-7) - If the Chiefs had a competent passing attack, they may be the favorite in the AFC playoffs. Instead, they'll be watching the postseason just like you and I will be. Predicted to fall to the back of the pack, the Chiefs proved the critics wrong in 2014. (Prior rank: 12)

13. Philadelphia (10-6) - Successful teams don't rely on special teams touchdowns, but that's exactly what the Eagles did this year. Their luck ran out, and Mark Sanchez did Mark Sanchez things in December, leading the Eagles to three straight losses and out of the playoff race. (Prior rank: 9)

14. Houston (9-7) - Few players have been named an All-Pro at two positions, but J.J. Watt did just that. The uncrowned league MVP dragged the Texans through the mud and nearly earned a wildcard berth despite their pathetic quarterback situation. (Prior rank: 19)

15. San Diego (9-7) - San Diego could not overcome the rash of injuries they suffered throughout the year, costing the Chargers a victory in Kansas City and a return trip to the playoffs. San Diego's front office must work this offseason to improve the situation around Philip Rivers. (Prior rank: 14)

16. Buffalo (9-7) - An upset victory over the Packers and a 9-7 season will prove to be the high point of the 2014 season, as the Bills promptly lost their starting quarterback and their head coach. With no first-round pick and a new regime in place, 2015 may be a rocky year in Buffalo, especially if defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz takes over as head coach. (Prior rank: 15)

17. Carolina (7-8-1) - Winners of four straight, the Panthers are hearkening back to last season's form. Carolina will likely take advantage of the overmatched Ryan Lindley this weekend, but a trip to either Seattle or Green Bay awaits. Without a consistent run game, that will almost certainly spell the end for the NFC South champions. (Prior rank: 25)

18. Miami (8-8) - Like the Jim Schwartz-era Lions, Joe Philbin's Dolphins are too talented to be consistently finishing at or below the .500 mark. If the 'Fins cannot contend in 2015, the decision-makers in Miami may look to make a change at head coach in order to break through the proverbial glass ceiling. (Prior rank: 16)

19. San Francisco (8-8) - The days of finding the Niners mentioned with the league's elite may be over. After the departure of Jim Harbaugh, the quarterback situation in San Francisco is now in question, as Colin Kaepernick's place with the 49ers is rumored to be in question. San Francisco's meteoric ascent may end with an equally speedy descent. (Prior rank: 17)

20. Minnesota (7-9) - The 2015 offseason is a very important one for the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears look to be completely rebuilding their team, and the Lions have questions they need to answer. Surrounding quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with adequate targets is paramount, and could determine whether the Vikings return to the playoffs next season. (Prior rank: 21)

21. New Orleans (7-9) - Much like the 49ers, the Saints may have seen an end to their years in the Super Bowl conversation. Drew Brees will be 36 when the 2015 season begins, and the team has almost no cap space to improve upon a disastrous 2014 campaign. (Prior rank: 20)

22. St. Louis (6-10) - The Rams have the defense to contend, but their offense is about as bad as it gets. A new quarterback is a requirement, but St. Louis may also want to look into a new head coach. Jeff Fisher was brought in to bring the Rams to the next level, but the team has been stuck in neutral since Fisher's arrival. (Prior rank: 18)

23. Cleveland (7-9) - Support for first-round pick Johnny Manziel is already in question, as head coach Mike Pettine said the team would "leave no stone unturned" in finding the answer under center. Anyone with half of a clue saw this coming from a mile away. New year, same old Browns. (Prior rank: 22)

24. Atlanta (6-10) - With the season on the line, the Falcons were blown out at home by a team with no offensive line and a receiving corps led by a rookie. Now-former head coach Mike Smith somehow managed to take one of the most talented offensive units in football and drive them into the ground. Rex Ryan has been linked to Atlanta's coaching vacancy, and would bring an interesting and fresh outlook to the Falcons. (Prior rank: 23)

25. New York Giants (6-10) - It's time to start over in New York. Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and the Giants had a great run, including a pair of Super Bowl victories, but their time has come and gone. The Giants will not contend again with Coughlin and Manning at the helm. (Prior rank: 26)

26. Chicago (5-11) - The road through a team rebuild is long an arduous, but it is exactly the route the Bears are about to travel. Marc Trestman and Phil Emery are gone, and Jay Cutler may not be far behind. Could Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston fall to no. 7 in the 2015 NFL draft, directly into the Bears' lap? (Prior rank: 24)

27. Oakland (3-13) - The Raiders have been making poor decisions for years, but started the process of reversing their fortunes by drafting Rookie of the Year contender Khalil Mack. If they want to continue back to relevance, the Raiders would be wise to avoid hiring Tony Sparano as their full-time head coach. (Prior rank: 27)

28. Jacksonville (3-13) - Reports suggest Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is willing to spend some of Jacksonville's league-high salary cap space this offseason. Jacksonville will need to avoid poor free-agent investments like last season's acquisition of Toby Gerhart if the Jags hope to be anything more than a doormat once again next year. (Prior rank: 28)

29. New York Jets (4-12) - Rex Ryan and John Idzik are gone, but that's only part of the problem. New York isn't likely to be in position to draft Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, meaning Geno Smith will be under center again next season. As long as Smith is starting for the Jets, the team will be an afterthought. (Prior rank: 29)

30. Washington (4-12) - Success isn't bred when your coach and quarterback are at odds. Rumors and reports suggest a significant divide between quarterback Robert Griffin III and head coach Jay Gruden. If both are still in Washington come September, the dumpster fire that was the 2014 season will continue burning in 2015. (Prior rank: 30)

31. Tampa Bay (2-14) - I've said it before in the space: There is no excuse for Tampa Bay to be 2-14. Their quarterback conundrum will almost certainly end in early-May, when Marcus Mariota is taking with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. (Prior rank: 32)

32. Tennessee (2-14) - The last time the Titans drafted as high as they will, they took a former national championship-winning quarterback surrounded by a certain level of controversy. Will they do the same again in 2015? (Prior rank: 31)

Fastest Risers: Carolina (25th to 17th), Houston (19th to 14th), Pittsburgh (10th to 6th)
Fastest Drops: Arizona (4th to 9th), St. Louis (18th to 22nd), Philadelphia (9th to 13th)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Revisiting the 2014 NFL season

This week, we saw 2014 come to a close, reflecting upon the year that was.

The 2014 NFL season also came to a close this week, ending with a pair of winner-take-all games that turned out to be a little less competitive than most expected.

Black Monday has come and gone. Six teams will have new head coaches in 2015, and a handful of teams may sport a new starting quarterback in September. 

In the meantime, let's travel back in time to look at the very first picks of the 2014 NFL season. 

AFC Division Champions

North
Preseason pick - Baltimore
Winner - Pittsburgh

If the Ravens were healthy in the secondary, 2014 may have been different. They aren't, though, so it wasn't. Pittsburgh earned a hard-fought title after surviving a three-team dogfight that ran all the way through Week 17. MVP candidate Le'Veon Bell suffered a knee injury late in Pittsburgh's season finale, and Bell's health will go a long way in deciding how far the Steelers advance into January.

South 
Preseason pick - Indianapolis
Winner - Indianapolis

"When you're in such a pitiful division, you don't necessarily need a defense to come out on top. The Colts had better find some answers on defense and at running back, though - Houston is a quarterback away from taking control of the AFC South."

Nothing really changed from that preseason analysis of the Colts. Houston nearly made the playoffs with one of the worst quarterback rotations in recent memory. If the Texans can fix that problem this offseason, and get Jadeveon Clowney healthy, they could be the favorites in 2015.

East
Preseason pick - New England
Winner - New England

Unsurprisingly, the Patriots cruised to the AFC East championship. Somewhat surprisingly, the Bills were the team to finish second. Buffalo, however, now has no head coach, no quarterback and no first-round pick. Yikes.

West 
Preseason pick - Denver
Winner - Denver

The AFC West turned out to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. Denver controlled the division all year, but San Diego and Kansas City were only a step behind for much of the year. The Broncos have been quiet all year, but won't leave this postseason quietly.

NFC Division Champions

North
Preseason pick - Green Bay
Winner - Green Bay

I said the NFC North was a two-horse race this year, but the second horse turned out to the Lions, not the Bears. Aaron Rodgers must prove his healthiness if the Packers are to take down the Cowboys or Seahawks in the NFC playoffs.

South 
Preseason pick - New Orleans
Winner - Carolina

Nothing went right for any team in the NFC South until the Panthers turned it up to end the season. Carolina's division title makes the Panthers the first team in NFC South history to win back-to-back division championships. Can the Panthers continue their unexpected late-season run with a victory over Arizona?

East
Preseason pick - Philadelphia
Winner - Dallas

Dallas started hot, faded, and then turned into one of the league's hottest teams. The Eagles relied too heavily on Mark Sanchez and an incredibly lucky, and equally unsustainable, run of turnovers and special-teams touchdowns. The Cowboys head into January as one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs.

West 
Preseason pick - Seattle
Winner - Seattle

For much of the season, the league's toughest divisions belonged to the Arizona Cardinals. A rash of injuries hit Arizona hard at the worst possible time, as the Seahawks found their stride and won their last six games. The Cardinals are touchdown underdogs in Charlotte this weekend, but will need to have production from the quarterback position if they hope to return to their lofty status atop the NFL.

Wildcard Teams

AFC
Preseason picks - Miami and Houston
Winners - Cincinnati and Baltimore

The AFC North runners-up both finished with 10 wins, narrowly edging out a quartet of 9-7 AFC teams, including Houston. Miami hung tough, but faded down the stretch, finishing 8-8.

NFC
Preseason picks - San Francisco and Chicago
Winners - Arizona and Detroit

Yikes. The less said about this pick, the better.

Super Bowl XLIX

Preseason pick - Seattle over New England

For the first time since 2009, both of my preseason Super Bowl picks are in the playoffs. Four months of football hasn't changed my mind a bit on this one.

Postseason Awards

NFL MVP: Preseason pick - Drew Brees

In all likelihood, Aaron Rodgers will win the league Most Valuable Player award for the second time in his career. The correct pick, however, is Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, who nearly carried the Texans to the playoffs despite the stark absence of talent found around him.

Offensive Player of the Year: Preseason pick - Peyton Manning

This race probably comes down to Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, with Rodgers the apparent favorite. DeMarco Murray may have an argument, but it wouldn't be enough to top Brady and Rodgers.

Defensive Player of the Year: Preseason pick - J.J. Watt

Watt, and it isn't close. Like the Heisman, the NFL MVP award is a quarterback's award, which is why Watt won't become the first defensive player to win the MVP since Lawrence Taylor did so in 1986.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Preseason pick - Brandin Cooks

Odell Beckham, Jr. finished tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns, tied for ninth in receptions and 10th in receiving yards, and he did it in 12 games. His 108 yards per game led the league. Beckham will run away with this award.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Preseason pick - Aaron Donald

It's a three-way race between Donald, Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosley. Donald looks like the leader, but all three look likely to become future leaders for the Rams, Raiders and Ravens, respectively.

Coach of the Year: Preseason pick - Bill O'Brien

Few teams were ravaged by injury as badly as the Arizona Cardinals. Despite the outbreak of injuries, Bruce Arians willed his team to an 11-5 record, Arizona's second consecutive 10-win campaign under Arians. No coach has done more with less this season.

Comeback Player of the Year: Preseason pick - Julio Jones

After a series of serious injuries in 2013, the future was muddy for Rob Gronkowski. After a slow start, Gronkowski returned to his All-Pro form, finishing tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns and 15th in overall receiving yards.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

NFL picks - Week 17

We've reached the end of the line.

Sixteen games remain in the 2014 NFL regular season schedule, but there is still plenty to be decided. Only two of the 12 playoff seeds have been locked up - New England and Indianapolis will be the nos. 1 and 4 seeds in the AFC, respectively - and two more playoffs spots are up for grabs.

Thanks to nfl-forecast.com, a wonderful website for advanced-metrics geeks like me, this weekend has been made simple by way of a percentage-based breakdown of the most likely playoff field.

Denver (97 percent) is the most likely no. 2 seed in AFC, joining the Patriots atop the conference. The AFC's most likely wildcard matchups will see the no. 3 seed Steelers take on the no. 6 seed Ravens, while the fifth-seeded Bengals travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts.

Things are much more up in the air in the NFC. Four teams have a shot at the top seed, but Seattle (83 percent) is the most likely winner of home-field advantage, with Green Bay (56 percent) the likely no. 2 seed. Third-seeded Dallas would host no. 6 Detroit, while the fifth-seeded Cardinals would travel to Charlotte to take on the Panthers.

NFL.com, on the other hand, indicates a dead heat in two of the more important Week 17 games, giving the Falcons and Panthers an equal shot at claiming the NFC South, while doing the same for Detroit and Green Bay in their de-facto NFC North title game.

If this weekend is anything like last season's final slate, we're in for some surprises. Heading into Week 17 last year, the Chargers had only a 15.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. As we all know, San Diego earned the AFC's final wildcard spot and proceeded to dominate the Bengals in a 27-10 wildcard round victory.

If you're looking to root for a longshot to root for this weekend, the teams to follow will be San Diego (28 percent chance), Houston (20 percent) and Kansas City (eight percent), though all three will need some help from some unlikely sources.

For the first time in ages, one of my favorite teams will be facing the Green Bay Packers with something of consequence on the line. Since this doesn't really happen that often - Baltimore only plays the Packers once every four years, and the Lions are usually eliminated by now - I broke down Sunday's Lions-Packers clash in a way I never have before.

Let's get to the picks.

New England (12-3) over Buffalo (8-7) 
Line: New England -3.5
Spread pick: New England

Resting starters when your team already has home-field advantage isn't smart, and Bill Belichick likely knows that. The varsity Patriots will take the field Sunday, earning a hard-fought victory over one of the best defensive units in football.

Chicago (5-10) over Minnesota (6-9)
Line: Minnesota -6.5
Spread pick: Chicago

This will be the last time we see the Chicago Bears as we currently know them. In true Jay Cutler form, Cutler will burn the Vikings' defense in a game that means absolutely nothing. With rumors suggesting a complete overhaul in the Windy City, Cutler may be playing his last game in navy and orange.

Baltimore (9-6) over Cleveland (7-8) 
Line: Baltimore -8.5
Spread pick: Cleveland

The Ravens have done nothing in the last two weeks to justify the line in this game. Baltimore's front seven should have little problem controlling Cleveland's free-falling offense, but the same could have been said about Houston's offense last week. The Ravens get the win they need, but still need help from the Chiefs.

Dallas (11-4) over Washington (4-11)
Line: Dallas -6.5
Spread pick: Dallas

Revenge and a possible first-round bye will certainly be on the minds of Dallas' players and coaches this Sunday. Washington tallied an improbable 20-17 overtime victory over the Cowboys in Week 8, but with so much to play for, the season finale will not provide a second shocker, this time in our nation's capital.

Indianapolis (10-5) over Tennessee (2-13)
Line: Indianapolis -7.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

Last week was a disaster for the Colts. The entire season has been a disaster for the Titans. Andrew Luck and the Colts can, and should, use this game as a tune-up before next weekend's wildcard match-up, likely against the AFC North runners-up.

San Diego (9-6) over Kansas City (8-7)
Line: Kansas City -2.5
Spread pick: San Diego

This was shaping up to be a good week for the Chiefs until perennial game-manager Alex Smith was ruled out of Sunday's contest with a ruptured spleen. Kansas City has been stumbling badly of late, losing four of its last five games. San Diego will make it five-of-six en route to a second consecutive wildcard berth.

Miami (8-7) over New York Jets (3-12)
Line: Miami -5.5
Spread pick: Miami

Maybe the Jets can change their team nickname to the Lame Ducks for one weekend, since just about everyone of consequence on the New York sideline won't be returning next season.

New Orleans (6-9) over Tampa Bay (2-13)
Line: New Orleans -3.5
Spread pick: New Orleans

If the Saints can't leave Tampa with a victory, it might be time to blow up the team as we know it and start fresh. Thanks to a disastrous salary cap situation, the Saints will likely look very similar in 2015.

New York Giants (6-9) over Philadelphia (9-6)
Line: New York -2.5
Spread pick: New York

Nothing the Eagles have done in 2014 tells me they're a good team. They'll prove it again Sunday with a loss to the plebeian Giants, losing their fourth straight to end the 2014 campaign.

Houston (8-7) over Jacksonville (3-12) 
Line: Houston -9.5
Spread pick: Houston

Poor Blake Bortles. Jacksonville's Swiss-cheese offensive line has surrendered a staggering 66 sacks thus far this year, easily the worst in the league. Uncrowned league MVP J.J. Watt is going to have a field day hanging out in the Jacksonville backfield.

Atlanta (6-9) over Carolina (6-8-1)
Line: Atlanta -3.5
Spread pick: Atlanta

Statistics haven't looked too kindly upon the Falcons all season, and they won't again in the de-facto NFC South title game. Some teams play outside of the statistical shadow they cast, and Atlanta is one of those teams. Carolina has no run game, no consistent receivers, their quarterback is as banged up as he's ever been, and the Panthers have eked out victories over the dregs of the NFL over the past two weeks. The Georgia Dome will be hot Sunday afternoon, and the Falcons will have the, um, honor of hosting the NFC West runners-up next weekend.

Denver (11-4) over Oakland (3-12) 
Line: Denver -14.5
Spread pick: Denver

It's best not to think about games like this. Denver wins going away, locking up the no. 2 seed in the AFC.

Seattle (11-4) over St. Louis (6-9)
Line: Seattle -12.5
Spread pick: Seattle

The Rams just became one of the most popular teams in the NFL, as every Cowboys, Lions and Packers fan just jumped on the St. Louis bandwagon. It won't matter, though. Shaun Hill won't lead a team into Seattle and leave with a victory. The road to the Super Bowl runs through Seattle ... again.

San Francisco (7-8) over Arizona (11-4) 
Line: San Francisco -5.5
Spread pick: San Francisco

Jim Harbaugh's career as 49ers head coach comes to a close Sunday. Despite the tire fire the Niners have been throughout the second half of the season, they still rank fifth in overall defense and defensive DVOA. Even if the locker room has quit on Harbaugh, San Francisco's defense will be too strong for whichever also-ran the Cardinals start under center.

Pittsburgh (10-5) over Cincinnati (10-4-1)
Line: Pittsburgh -2.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

The Bengals received a lot of credit for knocking off Peyton Manning and the Broncos in prime time last week, but that loss sits on Manning's shoulders, not Cincinnati's. Andy Dalton was predictably deplorable, throwing 146 yards - less than half of Manning's total - in Monday night's victory. Ben Roethlisberger could throw four picks and it still wouldn't be enough for the Bengals to lose, because Le'Veon Bell is more than capable of breaking down Cincinnati's 23rd-ranked rush defense. Pittsburgh wins by double digits, sending the Bengals to another wildcard loss in Indianapolis next weekend.

And now ... the main event.

Detroit (11-4) at Green Bay (11-4) 
Line: Green Bay -7.5
Spread pick: Detroit

The last time my either of my favorite teams (that's the Ravens and Lions, for those unacquainted) played the Packers with anything of consequence on the line, I was ... not alive?

Being a Lions fan is a hard thing to do. Your team is loaded with talent, yet constantly under-performs. Each fan base of your three division rivals considers your team the laughing stock of the division. Your team has won exactly one playoff game since its 1957 NFL championship victory.

Packers fans, especially, don't let Lions fans forget about history. I was six years old the last time Detroit won at Lambeau Field. The Packers have won nine NFL championships, and a boatload of playoff games, since Detroit's last title. Year after year, the Lions choke down the stretch.

History, however, isn't taking the field on Sunday.

Local and national media alike have made the Packers into a home-field juggernaut. Green Bay is one of only three NFL teams unbeaten at home. Three of Green Bay's seven home victories, however, have come by a touchdown or less, including wins over the 6-9 Falcons and the 3-11 Jets.

The Packers have feasted upon inferior opposition. Three of Green Bay's four blowout home victories have come against pass defenses ranked 18th or worse in pass defense DVOA. None of Green Bay's seven home triumphs have come against a team with a pass defense ranked in the top 10 of pass defense DVOA. Over the course of their entire season, the Packers are 0-3 against teams with a top 10 DVOA pass defense, scoring an average of 12 points per game.

There are five lines as high or higher than this one. None of those five underdogs will finish with a winning record, much less make the playoffs. At worst, the Lions will finish six games above .500 with a guaranteed playoff game next weekend. Making Detroit 7.5-point underdogs is laughable.

Detroit's defense ranks first in DVOA, second overall, and fifth in pass DVOA. The Lions also rank first in rush defense DVOA and overall rush defense. It will be that defense that determines the NFC North championship.

The Lions will surely take a page from the playbook Buffalo used to shut down Green Bay's offense two weeks ago. If they execute that gameplan, Lambeau Field will be a quiet place on Sunday afternoon. If not, the Lambeau losing streak will extend to 24 games.

Like my Super Bowl XLVII post, I won't be making an official pick in this space. I will lock in my pick on ESPN's Pigskin Pick'em shortly before kickoff, but to post an unbiased pick in this space is nearly impossible.

My heart would make me pick the Lions. Of course it would. If I pick the Packers, however, it would almost certainly prove to be an attempt to reverse-jinx Detroit into winning the NFC North. So, in the interest of bias, I am abstaining on this one.

Though, if you've talked to me, in person, during the last week, you'll probably know my pick.

Last week: 9-7
Last week v. spread: 6-10
Season record: 153-86-1
Season record v. spread: 118-122

Saturday, December 20, 2014

NFL picks - Week 16

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Christmas is great and all, but we're entering the final two weeks of the season, when de-facto playoff games begin, home-field advantage and first-round byes are on the line. On top of all of that, it's Ryan Leaf Week!

Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh can clinch playoff spots with a victory this weekend, while the Cowboys, Packers, Ravens, Saints and Seahawks can all clinch a berth in the postseason with a win and a little help.

Home-field advantage can theoretically be clinched in both leagues as well. If Arizona beats Seattle Sunday night, the Cardinals sew up home-field advantage in the NFC. The Patriots can do the same in the AFC with a victory over the Jets and a Denver loss to Cincinnati Monday night.

Our final weekend of football before the holidays will be an entertaining one, likely only to be supplanted in value by next weekend's season finale.

Let's get to the picks.

Jacksonville (2-12) over Tennessee (2-12)
Line: Jacksonville -3.5
Spread pick: Jacksonville

After back-to-back losses to the Jaguars and Jets, Tennessee may prove to be the league's worst team. There will almost certainly be a new quarterback under center in Nashville next season - will it be Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston or Jay Cutler?

Philadelphia (9-5) over Washington (3-11)
Line: Philadelphia -8.5
Spread pick: Philadelphia

The raw numbers actually look fairly kindly upon Washington's defense, but the so-called eye test can contradict raw stats as well as anything. There is no evidence pointing toward Washington's ability to beat Philadelphia. Saturday's late-afternoon kickoff will support that lack of evidence.

San Diego (8-6) over San Francisco (7-7)
Line: San Francisco -2.5
Spread pick: San Diego

Philip Rivers is hurt. Keenan Allen is out. The Chargers are about as bad as a team can be at running the football. This game is being played in San Francisco. (Well, Santa Clara, but close enough.) With all that being said, San Diego is playing for its playoff life, and the Niners look like a bunch of zombies. Reports this weekend have San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh weighing his next coaching opportunity, which goes to show how little these final two games mean to Harbaugh.

New Orleans (6-8) over Atlanta (5-9) 
Line: New Orleans -6.5
Spread pick: New Orleans

The Falcons have a little bit of an issue with defending the pass. That will be a significant problem Sunday against New Orleans' third-ranked passing attack. Atlanta's charade as a contender in the NFC South race comes to an end in New Orleans Sunday afternoon.

Detroit (10-4) over Chicago (5-9)
Line: Detroit -6.5
Spread pick: Chicago

At this point, there are only a couple of teams the Bears could actually beat. A 10-4 division leader with the league's top defense shouldn't be one of them ... but Chicago is going to give Detroit everything the Lions can handle. It will be close, but Matt Prater's right foot will send the Detroit home a winner, setting up the de-facto NFC North title game at Lambeau Field next weekend.

Carolina (5-8-1) over Cleveland (7-7)
Line: Carolina -4.5
Spread pick: Carolina

After the Panthers beat the Browns, can we all agree to stop saying "Johnny Football" and just call Cleveland's rookie quarterback by his given name? Johnny Manziel is not the answer in Cleveland. One game may not prove Manziel's worth in this league, but his sub-par play last week, coupled with the immaturity shown since training camp, supports the notions that the former Heisman Trophy winner is not built to play in the NFL.

Green Bay (10-4) over Tampa Bay (2-12)
Line: Green Bay -10.5
Spread pick: Green Bay

The Packers are 2-2 in their last four road games, taking those two victories by only three points apiece. Projecting Green Bay's road points-per-game average across the entire season, the Packers would have scored as many points as the Bears have to this point in 2014. Thanks to last week's loss, the Packers will have to travel away from the friendly confines of Lambeau Field this January. They'll have to improve their worth on the road if a trip to Glendale is in Green Bay's future.

Pittsburgh (9-5) over Kansas City (8-6)
Line: Pittsburgh -3.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

Both of these teams have top-tier running backs capable of taking over the game. There are, however, two main differences between the Steelers and Chiefs: Pittsburgh can defend the run, and they can throw the ball. Kansas City's pass defense ranks second in the league, but the Steelers will jump on the back of Le'Veon Bell and clinch a berth in the postseason.

Miami (7-7) over Minnesota (6-8)
Line: Miami -6.5
Spread pick: Miami

Advanced metrics don't favor the 6-8 Vikings, but they sure do love the 7-7 Dolphins. Miami has faced a tough road all season, but the Dolphins can be had with a balanced offensive attack. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater will struggle against Miami's fourth-ranked pass defense, and Matt Asiata will not prove to be enough to lead Minnesota to victory.

New England (11-3) over New York Jets (3-11)
Line: New England -10.5
Spread pick: New England

The line on this game cannot be high enough. Although the Jets once again have a stout run defense, the rest of their team is a tire fire. Tom Brady should have an easy time picking apart New York's porous pass defense en route to an easy victory.

Baltimore (9-5) over Houston (7-7)
Line: Baltimore -4.5
Spread pick: Baltimore

Unless J.J. Watt is planning to play quarterback this Sunday, Houston's offense isn't going to have a very good day. The way to beat Baltimore is through the air, and Houston's 25th-ranked pass offense isn't built to do so. The Texans are a running team, but Baltimore's defense strength is stopping the run. The Ravens will have a little extra motivation Sunday when looking to bring former Texans head coach, and current offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak a victory in his return to Houston.

St. Louis (6-8) over New York Giants (5-9)
Line: St. Louis -5.5
Spread pick: St. Louis

The best team the Giants have beaten all year is Houston, and that was back in September. St. Louis has been all over the place this year, especially early on, but that defense keeps the Rams in games. It will win them another one this weekend.

Buffalo (8-6) over Oakland (2-12)
Line: Buffalo -5.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

The Bills cannot suffer a letdown after last week's victory over Green Bay. Oakland can play tough, but Buffalo can, and will, handle the Raiders. The return of C.J. Spiller should add a new wrinkle to Buffalo's offense, further taking the pressure off the susceptible shoulders of Kyle Orton.

Indianapolis (10-4) over Dallas (10-4)
Line: Dallas -2.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

Each team has an X-factor on their offense, but only one team's crucial cog is healthy. Andrew Luck has been a man possessed this season, and while DeMarco Murray was on pace to break the single-season rushing record for most of the season, his left hand is broken. Murray is predominantly right-handed, but nobody knows how effective he'll be on Sunday. That's not the type of question mark you want going into a game as big as this.

Seattle (10-4) over Arizona (11-3)
Line: Seattle -7.5
Spread pick: Seattle

Yes, most people are picking the Seahawks to go to Arizona and beat the Cardinals ... but it's for good reason. No team in the NFC is playing as well as Seattle is, and the Cardinals are forced into starting Ryan Lindley against the league's best defense. That isn't exactly a recipe for success.

Denver (11-3) over Cincinnati (9-4-1)
Line: Denver -3.5
Spread pick: Denver

This game comes down to one match-up: Peyton Manning versus Andy Dalton. Though they won't be competing directly against one another, it's the quarterback who oftentimes decides important games. Manning's playoff record isn't pristine, suggesting Manning-led teams can be had in big games, but Dalton wilts under the slightest pressure, and will do so again Monday night.

Last week: 12-4
Last week v. spread: 11-5
Season record: 144-79-1
Season record v. spread: 112-112