Monday, March 9, 2015
With the NFL scouting combine wrapping up last month, and free agency set to officially kick off Tuesday, the mock NFL drafts will be coming in waves.
As usual, my mocks will not project who teams will take, but who I believe teams should take. Unlike previous years, I am releasing early and late versions of the mock drafts. This first-round mock was taken with rankings compiled before the poking and prodding began in Indianapolis two weeks ago.
This mock would have been up early, but thanks to the grace and wonder of technology, a nearly completed mock was completely lost after shutting down my computer one night. It wasn't the best night in the history of the Online Jargon.
Let's get to the picks.
1. Tampa Bay - Jameis Winston (QB, Florida State)
Tampa Bay has done everything short of taking out a full-page ad telling the world the first overall pick will be a quarterback. The edge goes to Jameis Winston, who can process defensive coverages and make difficult throws better than Marcus Mariota. Winston must show that last season was an aberration, and that he can be the quarterback who led Florida State to the national title two seasons ago. If not, Winston's story will end with the former Seminoles signal-caller as Vince Young 2.0.
2. Tennessee - Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon)
Reports throughout the offseason indicate the Titans' decision-makers are happy to move forward with second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Recent rumors indicate Tennessee also wanted to make a run at Mark Sanchez. This is almost certainly why the Titans have been such a mess lately. Mettenberger is not the future, and neither is Sanchez. Marcus Mariota, however, may be. Mariota is one of the most efficient passers in college football history, and is exactly the type of player Tennessee can build around. Mariota will need to adjust to taking snaps under center, but it should be nothing more than an adjustment for a player with Mariota's skill set.
3. Jacksonville - Leonard Williams (DL, USC)
When you're not desperate for a quarterback, life is a lot easier. Time will tell if Blake Bortles is the answer, but in the meantime, the Jags can pay attention to the gaping holes across the remainder of the roster. Leonard Williams is a raw talent and is still the most skilled player in the draft. Williams can play all over the defensive line, and could very well be the anchor of Jacksonville's defense for years.
4. Oakland - Amari Cooper (WR, Alabama)
The last few franchise-level receivers to enter the draft have been the flashier, playmaker type, like Julio Jones and Odell Beckham, Jr. Alabama's Amari Cooper isn't that type of player. Cooper compares favorably to former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, and if Cooper can become half of the player Harrison was, Derek Carr will have his franchise receiver and primary target in a rebuilt Raiders offense,
5. Washington - Randy Gregory (DE/OLB, Nebraska)
Nebraska's Randy Gregory isn't a finished product, and he's not the best pass rusher in this year's draft. He is, however, the best option for Washington at no. 5. Brandon Scherff may end up being the pick come draft time, but with Brian Orakpo currently on the free-agent market, Washington is going to need a viable option across from Ryan Kerrigan. It will be up to Washington's coaching staff to make sure Gregory's pro career is as productive as his time in Lincoln.
6. New York Jets - Brandon Scherff (OT, Iowa)
There once was a time when New York's offensive line was one of the best in the NFL. Time has eroded New York's front five, but the draft presents the team an opportunity to reload. Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff is the latest top offensive line prospect to leave the Big Ten. Scherff's ability to play tackle or guard on the right side of the line will allow the Jets to bump either Breno Giacomini or Oday Aboushi to the bench.
Getting Shane Ray with the seventh overall pick may turn out to be a steal, and the Bears could use a break on defense. The only knock on Ray is that he's arguably undersized for his role in the NFL, but his high motor, explosiveness and versatility on the line more than makes up for a slight that really only shows up on paper. Ray's presence may also coax one more decent year out of the rapidly diminishing play of defensive end Jared Allen.
8. Atlanta - Dante Fowler, Jr. (OLB/DE, Florida)
Kroy Biermann and Malliciah Goodman are the two top outside linebackers on Atlanta's roster. Snapping up Dante Fowler, Jr. with the eighth selection may be a slight reach, but with a cupboard that bare, the position needs immediate attention. Fowler is too reliant on his physical skills at this point in his career, but much like Randy Gregory, the ability to harness those skills could make Fowler a top-level pass rusher.
9. NY Giants - Landon Collins (S, Alabama)
New York's once stout defense is old, especially in the secondary. Antrel Rolle may be the only one of New York's three free-agent safeties worth bringing back, and Rolle turns 33 this upcoming season. Landon Collins is an absolute punisher at safety, and has all the ability to step in to Rolle's starting spot. The Giants will want to add a rangy safety to complement Collins, as Collins' aggression and penchant for looking into the backfield can put him in bad positions when defending the pass.
10. St, Louis - Andrus Peat (OT, Stanford)
Signing Jake Long to be your team's long-term left tackle is a great idea in theory. The idea would be a lot better if Long would actually stay on the field with any sort of regularity. Long's injury history, and subsequent release, will likely force last year's no. 2 overall selection, Greg Robinson, from left guard to left tackle. Joe Barksdale is not the answer at right tackle. At 6'7", Andrus Peat is an absolute monster. Peat's skill set is developed enough that his presence on the Stanford offensive line forced 2014 fifth-round pick David Yankey from tackle to guard while both played in Palo Alto.
11. Minnesota - DeVante Parker (WR, Louisville)
This is a popular pick, and for good reason. During his junior year at Louisville, DeVante Parker hauled in 55 passes for 885 yards and 12 touchdowns, helping to lead the Cardinals to a 12-1 record and a no. 15 ranking in the final major polls. The man throwing Parker those passes? Current Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Parker led the Cardinals in receiving during Bridgewater's final season, and that chemistry should translate well to the receiver-starved Vikings' offense.
12. Cleveland - Kevin White (WR, West Virginia)
Once again, Cleveland's offense is a complete disaster. Specifically, the Browns likely won't have a recognizable pass-catcher, as Cameron Jordan is almost certainly leaving the team and Josh Gordon is once again suspended. Unless Cleveland spends big in free agency, the top returning receiving option will be Andrew Hawkins. Kevin White is rated by some experts as the best receiver in the 2015 draft class, and with the lack of options in Cleveland, White will almost certainly start when Cleveland opens its 2015 campaign.
13. New Orleans - Trae Waynes (CB, Michigan State)
Starting Keenan Lewis and Terrence Frederick at cornerback is a great way to give up a lot of yards through the air, and that's exactly what New Orleans did last season. Trae Waynes is the draft's top corner, a tall defensive back with the speed to hang with the league's deep threats. Waynes is a very physical corner, and will struggle to adjust to the NFL's rules early in his career, but has all the tools to develop into a long-term starter for the Saints.
14. Miami - La'el Collins (OL, LSU)
Miami's offensive line makeover is far from over. Mike Pouncey will certainly start somewhere up front, but all four remaining spots are up in the air. La'el Collins is a brute who will use his strength to overwhelm his opposition. Collins does need some work, however, and isn't the polished product required for a franchise left tackle. Collins can hone his craft on the interior of Miami's offensive line before potentially moving out to tackle down the road, much like Greg Robinson did in St. Louis.
15. San Francisco - Danny Shelton (DT, Washington)
The 49ers built their stout defense through success in the draft, and that success continues in 2015. Washington's Danny Shelton is a steal at no. 15, only falling due to the fact that his first position is a 3-4 nose tackle. Darnell Dockett will be a serviceable stop-gap, but he is not a long-term solution at nose tackle. Shelton can dominate with his speed and strength, especially impressive for someone of Shelton's size. Shelton also adds an additional threat as a proficient pass rusher.
16. Houston - T.J. Clemmings (OT, Pittsburgh)
T.J. Clemmings is fairly new to football, cutting his teeth in basketball before making the switch the gridiron. That should sound familiar to Texans fans, as current left tackle Duane Brown traveled the same road to the NFL. Clemmings may be raw, but so was Brown when Brown entered the league in 2008. Brown has since played in three Pro Bowls and is a constant in Houston's trenches. Clemmings has a similar ceiling, and can learn the road to professional success from Brown, who traveled the same road seven years ago.
It's been a long time since the Chargers had a running back they could count on. The running back position has depreciated considerably over the past few years, but Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is certainly worth a first-round pick. Gordon tallied 2,587 rushing yards last season (the second-most in Division I FBS history), averaging 7.5 yards per carry while scoring 29 touchdowns. Gordon's critics will say that he isn't an asset in the passing game, but Gordon proved himself to be a commodity in a pass-catching role limited by Wisconsin's offensive game plan.
18. Kansas City - Ereck Flowers (OT, Miami)
Kansas City had one of the worst offensive lines in football last season - 27th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus - and while the Chiefs badly need help at wide receiver, there isn't a receiver worth taking at no. 18. Flowers can play on either side of the line, which will benefit the tackle-starved Chiefs. 2013 top overall pick Eric Fisher has been disappointing, showing no signs of the promise he brought to the league two years ago.
19. Cleveland (via Buffalo) - Arik Armstead (DE, Oregon)
Billy Winn and Desmond Bryant, Cleveland's starting defensive ends, played a big part in a Browns defense that couldn't stop a nose from running. Oregon's Arik Armstead is a monster at 6'7'" and 292 pounds, and possesses the skill to play defensive end in both a 3-4 and 4-3 set. Armstead is exceptionally strong, but unlike the next two men to come off the board, Armstead relies too much on his strength in the passing game. Armstead won't set the world on fire immediately, but he has the skills to start right away in Cleveland.
20. Philadelphia - Vic Beasley (OLB, Clemson)
Outside linebacker wasn't a pressing need for the Eagles until Trent Cole was released. Connor Barwin is the only starting-quality outside linebacker on the roster after Cole's release and the likely departure of Brandon Graham. Vic Beasley is a rangy, athletic pass-rushing specialist who has the physical tools to grow into a three-down linebacker. Beasley will need to refine his skills at the next level, but can be a presence on the edge from day one, thanks to his speed and athleticism.
21. Cincinnati - Alvin Dupree (DE, Kentucky)
Cincinnati's pass rush was downright pathetic in 2014, tallying the least amount of sacks in the NFL. Alvin Dupree, a Kentucky product who played college football only 85 miles from Cincinnati, is the SEC's all-time leader in sacks. Dupree is versatile and athletic, much like Vic Beasley. Like Beasley, Dupree is going to have to refine his pass-rushing skills and break away from the reliance on his exceptional athleticism.
22. Pittsburgh - Marcus Peters (CB, Washington)
Former Washington cornerback Marcus Peters was dismissed from the Huskies football team after multiple clashes with the coaching staff. That sort of petulant behavior doesn't generally go over well in Pittsburgh, but Mike Tomlin may be the type of coach to keep Peters in line. Peters has the size, speed and range to excel at the next level, and may be worth the risk for a Steelers team stripped down to nothing in the secondary.
23. Detroit - Malcom Brown (DT, Texas)
Ndamukong Suh will be playing in Miami next season, and Nick Fairley is far from a sure thing to return to the Motor City. Needless to say, the Lions need some help at defensive tackle. Malcom Brown has the size of a 3-4 nose tackle, but has the skill set that allows him to play multiple positions in multiple defensive fronts. Drafting Brown and re-signing Fairley would help soften the blow of losing Suh, one of the league's best defensive players.
The Cardinals have a significant problem at linebacker, much like the Lions have a significant problem at defensive tackle. Shaq Thompson can't play all four positions at once, but he's as versatile of a linebacker as teams will find in the 2015 draft class. Thompson will have to add size to his 228-pound frame, but he made plays all over the field in college, and is the type of player Arizona's front seven could use.
25. Carolina - D.J. Humphries (OT, Florida)
Carolina's offensive line was a mess before last season, and the front office didn't do much of anything to correct the issue. Winning the NFC South pushed the Panthers from the top 10 to the back of the draft, but the team is still in position to acquire some help up front in the form of D.J. Humphries. The former Florida Gator saw some of the country's best pass rushers on a weekly basis while playing in the SEC, something that will certainly help his transition to the pros. Humphries must become more consistent with his blocking techniques to become a top-level tackle in the NFL.
26. Baltimore - Jaelen Strong (WR, Arizona State)
Wide receiver was a liability before Torrey Smith confirmed he will not be returning to Baltimore this spring. With the recent troubles former Ravens players have had with the law, the popular pick - Missouri wideout Dorial Green-Beckham - won't find himself anywhere near Baltimore. Jaelen Strong isn't a sexy pick, but the completeness of his game will bring Joe Flacco some much-needed help on the perimeter. Strong must improve his route running, but can learn his trade from the experienced Steve Smith.
27. Dallas - Todd Gurley (RB, Georgia)
DeMarco Murray is all but gone, and while it seems likely that Adrian Peterson will be traded, he won't be traded to Dallas. Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar are nothing more than change-of-pace backs, but Todd Gurley is an all-around force. Questions surround Gurley's recovery from a torn ACL suffered last season, and justifiably so. However, if Gurley can return to form, he can become one of the league's top runners thanks to Dallas' excellent offensive line.
28. Denver - Cameron Erving (C, Florida State)
Will Montgomery, already 32 years old, was brought in from Washington last season to add depth to the offensive line. Montgomery was serviceable, but hardly great, ranking 15th among centers, according to Pro Football Focus. Cameron Erving, who came to Tallahassee as a defensive lineman, was a key member of a Florida State offensive line full of blue-chip recruits. He won't be elite from day one, but Erving's rapid development points to a bright future for the former Seminoles star.
29. Indianapolis - Eddie Goldman (DT, Florida State)
A successful 3-4 defense has an effective anchor at defensive tackle. Josh Chapman, the best option Indy currently has, isn't an effective anchor. Eddie Goldman is a big man capable of making opposing linemen look foolish. Goldman is as strong as they come, using his elite strength to disrupt offenses in the middle. The Colts need help on defense, and the addition of Goldman is a great place to start.
30. Green Bay - Eric Kendricks (ILB, UCLA)
The re-signing of Randall Cobb now allows the Packers to focus all efforts on improving a very average defense. Green Bay's starters at inside linebacker - A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones - were both released. Even if Hawk does return to Green Bay, the position needs to be addressed immediately. Eric Kendricks is an instinctive player who can play multiple linebacker positions. Scouts compare Kendricks favorably to his older brother, Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who has been a starter in Philadelphia since entering the league in 2012.
When your team's leading receiver in the Super Bowl didn't have an NFL reception prior to the game, it's time to address the position. Dorial Green-Beckham has the talent of a top-five prospect, but off-the-field concerns drove him off the gridiron for the entire 2014 season, dropping his stock considerably. Pete Carroll has created a secure, healthy team environment in Seattle, which is precisely the type of team Green-Beckham needs to succeed.
32. New England - Jordan Phillips (DT, Oklahoma)
There is a very large hole, both literally and figuratively, in the middle of New England's defense after Vince Wilfork's release. Jordan Phillips has the tools to become Bill Belichick's next Wilfork. Phillips has the prototypical size for a 3-4 nose tackle, using his above-average athleticism to make a difference in the middle. Phillips is just the type of player Belichick would draft, assuming the Patriots don't trade down for more picks, as they so often do.
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is already in the discussion as to who is the best quarterback in NFL history. Brady is an astounding 20-8 in the postseason, comfortably the most wins in NFL playoff history for one quarterback. Three Super Bowl rings and countless instances of statistical excellence gives Brady one of the best quarterback resumes the league has ever seen.
The Seahawks, however, counter with a defensive unit that looks to lay its claim to the best defense ever. The 2013 Seahawks defense led the league in points allowed, yards allowed and takeaways, a feat no team had accomplished since the hallowed 1985 Chicago Bears defense. Although Seattle didn't lead the league in takeaways this year, the Seahawks once again set the bar for points and yards allowed.
Will Tom Brady win his fourth ring and stake his claim as the best to ever play the quarterback position, or will the Seahawks be the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions, all the while solidifying their argument as the best defense of all-time?
For the final time this season, let's get to the pick.
Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots (14-4) v. Seattle Seahawks (14-4)
Line: New England -1
For the third time in 10 seasons, and for the second year in a row, the top teams from the AFC and NFC will meet to determine the NFL championship.
This is familiar territory for the defending champions. Seattle entered last year's Super Bowl against Denver as slight underdogs against one of the most revered quarterbacks in league history. Super Bowl XLVIII was Seattle's game before most viewers could blink, as the Seahawks took the lead seven seconds into the game. A 22-0 halftime lead led to a lopsided 43-8 victory for Seattle.
Don't expect another blowout this year.
The Case for New England
As it so often does, New England's success begins with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Despite the black cloud hanging over Brady and Belichick, their partnership is one of the most prolific in NFL history. Brady's 20 wins is the most in NFL history, and his .714 playoff win percentage is third among active NFL quarterbacks. Belichick tallied playoff victory number 21 in the AFC Championship, breaking Tom Landy's NFL record.
History certainly won't help New England win another championship, especially against the Seahawks. A balanced attack, and a defense better than Foxborough has seen in some time, will.
Although New England ranked 13th in defensive yards per game, the Patriots finished ninth in points allowed 11th in defensive DVOA. These rankings may not jump off the page, but an above-average defense with a typical New England offensive attack is a very dangerous thing.
The Patriots are a better version of the Packers, and the Packers nearly took down the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field two weeks ago. Belichick will certainly take Green Bay's blueprint and apply it to Sunday's match-up with Seattle. If New England can find similar success early on, the chasm in coaching between Belichick and Mike McCarthy will allow the Patriots to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to New England.
The Case for Seattle
Last year, it was defense, defense, defense. This year, it's balance, balance, balance.
The success of Seattle's defense is well-documented. Their claim as the best in NFL history is as good as any team can make. It is Seattle's offense, however, that can lead the Seahawks to a second consecutive Super Bowl title.
Seattle's offense ranked fifth in offensive DVOA, ninth in yards per game - four spots higher than New England - and 10th in points per game. Seattle had the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL and ranked fourth in plus/minus. The NFC Championship Game was the exception, not the rule. Long story short, the Seahawks take care of the football.
With the league's best rushing attack, and an innate ability to take care of the football, the Seahawks have the offense to perfectly complement their elite defense. If Seattle can successfully execute its game plan on a week-to-week basis, they can beat any team in the league.
This year, I won't use a cliche to wrap up my Super Bowl pick. Instead, I will hearken back to my NFL preview, where I predicted Seattle and New England would meet in Glendale. I've stuck to my guns throughout the playoffs, so there's no reason to stop now.
The Pick: Seattle 24, New England 20
A lot is being made of Belichick motivating the Patriots into an "us against the world" mentality. The Patriots can have the best mindset possible when taking the field Sunday night, but plans often change when your opponent punches you in the mouth. Seattle has the secondary to match up with New England's varying offensive schemes. The Seahawks also have the pass rush to make Brady uncomfortable.
Another blowout in unlikely, but like last year, it will be Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and company celebrating when the final whistle blows on the 2014 NFL season.
Last week: 2-0
Last week v. spread: 2-0
Playoff record: 9-1
Playoff record v. spread: 8-2
Season record: 172-93-1
Season record v. spread: 132-134
Sunday, January 18, 2015
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
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
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
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
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.