Fantasy Football News

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hope for the Future: Jaguars Enter Full Re-build Mode

It's been four years since the Jacksonville Jaguars have made a playoff trip, and even longer since they've put up back-to-back winning seasons. In fact, the Jags have had just two winning seasons (2005 and 2007) since 2000.

Majority owner Wayne Weaver, who has owned the team since the very beginning when he bought the expansion franchise in 1995 after making big bucks off his shoe store chains, had a great start with Jacksonville.

He hired fiery and eccentric Tom Coughlin, then 49, to lead the newly formed franchise as a first-time head coach. Coughlin began his tenure by taking offensive tackle Tony Boselli No. 2 in that year's draft and simply building his team around the 6'7''/324 pound beast.

Boselli, five-time Pro Bowler in seven professional seasons, helped protect left-handed gunslinger Mark Brunell on their way to four playoff appearances in the franchise's first five years of existence, including two trips to the AFC Championship game in 1996 and '99.
But since the dismissal of Coughlin following the 2002 season, the Jaguars just haven't seemed to be the same. The hiring of Jack Del Rio was a great decision, but he was unable to take the Jags the distance.

The Rebuilding Process Starts...Now

It all started with the drafting of 22-year old Univ. of Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in this past April's draft, the franchise's quarterback of the future.

The Jacksonville rebuilding process took two more steps on Tuesday with Wayne Weaver firing Del Rio and selling the team to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan.

Earlier today yet another step was taken towards a fresh start as interim head coach Mel Tucker prepares for the Jags upcoming matchup with San Diego on Monday night. Tucker, who will be considered for the full-time job after he completes the remainder of the five games on the 2011 schedule, is still the team's defensive coordinator as well. Other possible candidates for the job–according to rumors–have been swirling around the 'net and includes Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Former Baltimore Ravens head coach and Super Bowl champion Brian Billick has reportedly been ruled out by ProFootballTalk.com, who quoted Billick in saying "They're looking for young and cheap, and I'm neither."
Well, there goes that idea. There's no reason for me to believe that former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher would be interested seeing as he has already repeatedly stated it will take a team 'ready to win now' for him to return to coaching. I really don't see him leaving his job with CBS to take over the hapless Jaguars in this stage of their rebuilding process.

Rob Ryan would be a great option, but I think (depending on how well his 'tryout' goes, of course) that Jacksonville will stay in-house and hand Tucker the permanent gig once the season is finished and in the books.

But only time will tell.
________

Jaguars franchise by the numbers:

Seasons: 17 (1995-present)
Head coaches: 3 (Tom coughlin and Jack Del Rio)
Starting quarterbacks: Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Blaine Gabbert
All-time regular season record: 136-131
Pro Bowlers: 20
All Pros: 4
Playoff appearances: 6 (last appearance was '07)
Playoff record: 5-6
Highest-ranked offense: 3rd (1997)
Highest-ranked defense: 1st (1999)
First draft pick in team history: OT Tony Boselli

Note: I do not own either of these images. No copyright infringement intended.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Week 12 Game Picks

Week 12 action is already well underway following the Thanksgiving day triple-header which featured a close game between Miami and Dallas, who is fighting for the NFC East crown, and the "Harbowl" between two playoff contending teams–Baltimore and San Francisco.

Sunday Nov. 27

Falcons over Vikings
Minnesota will be without Adrian Peterson and Matt Ryan is on a hot streak.

Bengals over Browns
This will make three consecutive division matchups for Cincinnati, I think it's about time they win a division game.

Panthers over Colts
Cam Newton picks up his third win as the starter of a professional team as Indy remains winless.

Texans over Jaguars
Lucky for Houston, Matt Leinart's debut as the starter will come against the 3-7 Jaguars (2-3 over last five games)
Jets over Bills
After a 4-1 start, the Bills have dropped four of its last five games, including a 35-8 defeat against the three-win Dolphins last week.

Rams over Cards
It appears as though John Skelton will start over Kevin Kolb once again today. I expect a solid day from St. Louis' defense against Skelton.

Bucs over Titans
Despite the injury, Matt Hasselbeck is expected to start for Tennessee. This worries me a bit, and after breaking out with 107 yards and a touchdown last week, I expect another big day from TB's LeGarrett Blount

Raiders over Bears
Cutler is gone, and Caleb Hanie is in for Chicago. Carson Palmer has finally found his rhythm for the Raiders and this is their chance to break away from the rest of the AFC West, with a victory over the 7-3 Bears.

Seahawks over Redskins
The Skins have now dropped six in a row, and I don't think there's any way to stop Washington's free-fall from here.
Patriots over Eagles
Despite poor pass defense, the Patriots remain one of the tougher opponents in the AFC, and with inconsistent defense from Philadelphia through 10 games, I don't think there's any stopping Belichick and Co. today.

Broncos over Chargers
I wouldn't say I'm completely sold on Tebow, but with an inconsistent Philip Rivers under center and a Denver defense that has kept Tebow in games I think the Broncos can pull this one off on the road.

Steelers over Chiefs
Attempting to keep pace with Baltimore in the North, Pittsburgh will need to effectively protect Ben Roethlisberger from KC's Tamba Hali. But with Tyler Palko making another start (despite Kyle Orton signing), I don't think the Steelers will have too much trouble putting the Chiefs away early.

Monday Nov. 28

Saints over Giants
New York is a contender in the NFC East, but New Orleans has finally hit their stride this season and is 4-0 at home.

Byes: None

Photo credit
MJD/Schaub/Johnson: Bob Levey/Getty Images
Grossman: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivals

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: A day for Giving thanks, Turkey and Football

Thanksgiving day is here, meaning it's time to give thanks for your family and friends, eat plenty of great, home-cooked food and sit back and relax while watching some NFL football.

When Thanksgiving day rolls around each year it usually means it's time for teams to get down to business and start thinking about a late-season run to the playoffs, and this season is no exception. The Packers are still streaking, riding a 16-game win streak (including playoffs) and heading in to a division matchup with the 7-3 Detroit Lions. This will be the first time in years that this game will have actual meaning.

The Lions are hungry, and I can hear them knocking on Green Bay's door. I'd absolutely love to call a Turkey Day upset of the Pack today, but I just don't see it as plausible.
The Packers have averaged 35.5 points a game this season and I don't think Matt Stafford will be able to keep up With Aaron Rodgers, even on his home turf. Green Bay puts up 30+ points on Ndamukong's Suh defense, keeping the game out of reach of Detroit. Green Bay wins 31-21 (much closer than usual, at least right?).

The second matchup of the day, Miami at Dallas (4:15 PM ET), is reminiscent of the two teams' 1993 Turkey Day classic in which Dallas defensive lineman Leon Lett botched a Miami missed field goal (blocked by Dallas), giving the Dolphins a second chance in kicking the game-winner. The second attempt was good as time expired, giving the Dolphins the 16-14 victory.

Both teams are riding three-game win streaks (Dallas 4-1 in last five), but I think Tony Romo and the Cowboys have more to lose in this one. The Dolphins began the season 0-7 and are pretty much out of playoff contention at the bottom of the AFC East. Dallas, however, has a share of the NFC East lead at 6-4 and are in the middle of a playoff race.

Dallas has recently been very successful on Thanksgiving, winning four out of the last five seasons with victories such as 24-7 in '09, 34-9 in '08, 34-3 in '07 and 38-10 in '06. I'd like to think Dallas has the edge once again this year. Matt Moore's recent success can't last forever, DeMarcus Ware should have a big day against him, in fact. Dallas 28, Miami 10.
Harbaugh Bowl

The 2011 Thanksgiving Day finale of the triple-header features two brother head coaches–Baltimore's John Harbaugh and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh.

Not only does this game feature the two brother's battling it out, but it's also a matchup between two of the top defenses in the league with above average signal callers (Smith has been playing that way this season, anyways) and scary rushing attacks.

The two teams are extremely even when it comes to overall talent, but I give the edge to the 9-1 49ers. Like I said in my previous post, San Francisco is the best team in the league right now. Hard-nosed defense and a top 10 rushing attack has defined the Niners all season long.

The offense has turned the ball over the least in the league, and the defense has forced the most turnovers in the league. That's what I like to call a recipe for success, and not only that but Baltimore may be without its leader on defense for the second straight week (Ray Lewis' status is still uncertain as of two hours ago).
San Fran wins 24-14, giving the younger of the two brother's the chance to bask in the glory of beating his older brother on the gridiron.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone and their families, enjoy the games!

Photo credit
Matthews and Woodson: Getty Images
Murray: Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Harbaugh brothers: midwestsportsfans.com

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Biggest Surprise of 2011: How 49ers Stack up against the NFL's Defending Champs

Heading in to September the NFC West was supposed to belong to St. Louis, who had an up-and-coming young offense led by second-year quarterback Sam Bradford and veteran running back Steven Jackson.

The Rams were one game away from a playoff berth after losing a Week 17 match-up against the Seattle Seahawks for the division title. Bradford (3,512 passing yards, 18 TD, 15 INT, 76.5 QB rating in 2010), the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, was supposed to head in to the off-season and improve his game greatly for 2011.

Then, the lockout happened.

What does he do this season? Throw just five TD passes, five interceptions, get sacked a league-high 31 times with a 1-7 record as a starter, all while battling an ankle injury. Utter disappointment in St. Louis ensues as the Rams find themselves at the very bottom of the West with a 2-8 record.

High hopes for Arizona this season as well, as All Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald finally got that quarterback he's been waiting for (since Kurt Warner's retirement at least) in multi-million dollar man Kevin Kolb. Another disappointment as he's put up a 1-7 record as starter and thrown 8 TDs and 8 INTs. He, too, has sustained an injury to his foot and missed some time (out of lineup since 10/30).

Seattle, who captured a playoff win last season as the first-ever team to win a playoff game with a losing record in the regular season (7-9), lost veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to the Tennessee Titans over the off-season and I really didn't expect much from Pete Carroll's Seahawks with an inconsistent offensive attack led by former Viking Tarvaris Jackson.
Seattle and Arizona find themselves in the middle of the pack at 4-6 and 3-7, respectively. That leaves us with one more team in the West, the San Francisco 49ers.

Much like Seattle, I didn't see much coming from the Niners in 2011 after they brought in former Stanford Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh's brother. The drafting of Colin Kaepernick in the second round of April's draft hinting towards a rebuilding process.

No one expected Alex Smith, who was labeled a "Draft bust" after five sub-par seasons as the 49ers' starting quarterback, to prove his worth in the league in 2011. But that's exactly what he has done through 10 games this season.

San Francisco's 9-1 record is the second-best in the entire NFL this season, behind only the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers (10-0). One may argue that they are in one of the weaker divisions so they have an "advantage," or "their schedule is easy." But those arguments are just excuses that San Fran's critics have been using.

Yes, the rest of San Francisco's division is only a combined 13-21, but only two of its 10 games have come against division opponents. And yes, San Francisco's opponents have put up a combined losing record of 47-53, but if you compare that to Green Bay's schedule (41-59) the Niners get the edge.

If that doesn't convince you that San Francisco isn't all that far from being the top team in the league, take a look at this:

Offense
GB: 1st in points (355), 4th in total yards (4,065), 3rd in passing yards (3,049), 1st in passing TDs (31), 21st in rushing yards (1,016), 15th in rushing TDs (8), 3rd in turnovers (10)

SF: 7th in points (256), 20th in total yards (3,225), 27th in passing yards (1,883), 21st in passing TDs (13), 6th in rushing yards (1,342), 8th in rushing TDs (9), 1st in turnovers (9)

It's obvious Green Bay has the edge in the passing games, with MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers tearing up opposing secondaries with career numbers. But the rest is much closer. San Francisco has one of the game's scariest backs, Frank Gore, who is a dual threat in both the passing and running game, and Alex Smith has thrown just four interceptions this season (least in the league).

It looks even better for San Francisco when it comes to the defense, led by LBs Patrick Willis and one of the league's top tacklers NaVorro Bowman.
Defense

GB: 15th in points allowed (212), 30th in total yards (3,918), 31st in passing yards (2,893), 24th in passing TDs (18), 12th in rushing yards (1,025), 7th in rushing TDs (6), 4th in turnovers (22)

SF: 1st in points allowed (145), 8th in total yards (3,231), 23rd in passing yards (2,492), 16th in passing TDs (14), 1st in rushing yards (739), 1st in rushing TDs (0), 1st in turnovers (26)

In all, San Francisco is by far the most dangerous defense in the entire league, not just when compared to the Packers.

Most will say the Packers are the best team in the league considering they haven't lost a game yet, but I would tell those people that the Pack may be by far the best offense in the league, but they are not the best overall team in the league.

That title will belong to the 49ers until proven otherwise. Putting up points is obviously the object of the game of football, and the Packers do that better than anyone, but stopping the opposition from getting in to the end zone is just as important. And the 49ers haven't allowed a single rusher to score in 10 games, and only 14 total touchdowns have been scored against San Francisco in 2011. So far this season, only two teams (3-7 Jaguars and 2-8 Rams) have failed to get in to the end zone at least 14 total times.

Quite a feat, I must say, and though the 49ers will face a huge obstacle tomorrow night against the 7-3 Baltimore Ravens, I think they will pass the test. Joe Flacco has been inconsistently producing, and San Fran has been playing tougher defense than Baltimore this season–shocker, I know. Not to mention future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis may not even be on the field for the Ravens this week.

Moral of the story (you heard it here first), the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers are the best OVERALL team in the league, not the 10-0 Green Bay Packers.

Photo credit
Harbaugh: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Bowman: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Possible Destinations for former Bronco Kyle Orton

Yesterday's release of Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton has garnered a lot of free agency talk around the league. And with the deadline to snag him off waivers (4 PM ET) quickly approaching, he could find a new team real soon.

Here are a few teams who may be interested, and why they would find the need to pick him up..

Chicago Bears 7-3

It's likely starter Jay Cutler (surgery on fractured thumb) will miss the rest of the regular season, so if they want to make a playoff run they will need a quarterback to manage the game and minimize turnovers. As of right now that will be backup Caleb Hanie's job. Hanie took over for an injured Cutler in the NFC Championship game last winter, coming within a touchdown of taking the Bears to the Super Bowl (13/20, 153 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT). But minus that game, Hanie has just 14 career pass attempts in three seasons. Probability: 65/35
Kansas City Chiefs 4-6

Like Chicago, Kansas City has lost its starter for the season (Matt Cassel) and is in the middle of a division race in the AFC West–just two games behind the leader. This past week was the first game Kansas City was without Cassel, and Tyler Palko (25/38, 236 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT) was making his first career start in a 34-3 loss to New England. With one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league, Kansas City may need some extra help at quarterback from a proven veteran such as Orton. Probability: 70/30

Houston Texans 7-3

Houston seems an unlikely destination, although I think it would be a great move on the franchise's part. Matt Schaub was just placed on the season-ending injured reserve as the Texans hold a two game lead in the AFC South. They may not need Orton, but I'm not sure I would trust Matt Leinart with the offense at this point. It's Houston's division to lose, but picking up Orton may solidify the franchise's first playoff appearance in its history. Probability: 50/50

Miami Dolphins 3-7

Miami has won three straight games with Matt Moore under center after starting the season 0-7 and in the middle of the "Suck for Luck" campaign. Over that three-game span Moore has thrown for 200+ yards twice, and thrown six touchdowns with just one interception. They are a possible fit for Orton, but as of right now I think they will finish the season with Moore and make a move for a quarterback over the offseason. Probability: 20/80
Indianapolis Colts 0-10

There is still no timetable for Peyton Manning's return, and obviously the Colts are already out of contention for a playoff spot so I don't think Indy would want to put out the money for Orton if it's only temporarily. But if they suddenly decide they would like the 29-year old Orton to be Manning's succeeder then this would be their chance to make a move. Probability: 30/70

Arizona Cardinals 3-7

Kevin Kolb has been one of the league's most disappointing off-season signings, and he may not even be the team's starter in 2012. John Skelton has gone 2-1 as the team's starter this season, and I have a feeling he may end up getting a few more starts before the regular season is finished. Orton is a long-shot in Arizona, as well, but that doesn't necessarily rule him out of the running for Arizona's next starter. Probability: 20/80

Best fit: Chicago

It's the best fit for Orton to return to Chicago, but they already seem pretty set on Hanie replacing him.

Most likely team to sign: Kansas City

Palko is their best choice at starter according to the roster, but an Orton signing (and keeping him in-division) would make a great fit and give Kansas City's passing attack a huge boost.

This just in: Houston signed former New York Jet Kellen Clemens. Looks like Houston's 50/50 chance just went down to 10/90.


Photo credit
Cutler: Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Painter: Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Conversation with former Bronco Steve Atwater

I recently got the chance to talk with former Denver Broncos and New York Jets safety Steve Atwater about his playing career, personal accomplishments, the new NFL website schoolofthelegends.com, etc.


Atwater, known as one of the hardest-hitting defenders in league history, was selected to eight career Pro Bowls, two first-team All Pros and won two Super Bowls with the Broncos in the '90s.


Possibly most-known for his leveling of the 253 pound Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian "The Nigerian Nightmare" Okoye in a game against KC, Atwater also totaled over 1,100 tackles and 24 interceptions throughout his 11-year pro career.


It has been a huge debate over the last several years as to whether or not Atwater deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If I had a vote, I would say yes. But apparently the voters have thought differently. Here is my interview with the member of Denver's Ring of Fame...


All-out Blitz: The creation of the interactive website Schoolofthelegends.com has added a whole new way of players interacting with current and former teammates, opponents and even fans of the National Football League. Has it had a huge impact on your personal life and how you go about your daily life? And if so, how much?

Steve Atwater: It really has had a huge impact on my personal life because I'm much more engaged with the sport that I love. I keep up with all of the news, rumors, etc. and love hearing all of the differing opinions regarding player talent, coaching decisions & on the field fundamentals.


AB: What is one thing you miss about the game, and one thing you don't miss about it?

SA: I really miss hanging out with my friends in the locker room and after games. I don't miss running 100 yard dashes after practice.
AB: Your take on the changes Roger Goodell has made since taking over as commish in 2006? (i.e. crackdown on illegal hits, moving kick-offs up 5 yards, etc.)

SA: I think Roger has done a good job given the situation. His job isn't easy and he has to answer to the NFL owners and represent their best interests along with dealing with the players and their representatives. I dislike the fact that defensive players can only be fined (offensive players can't or most often aren't) in regards to tackling offenders. I agree with what he and his team are trying to do in terms of making the game safer (for offensive & defensive players), but I don't think our current solution is the final one. I don't like the kick-offs moved up - hardly anyone returns kickoffs unless it's poor weather. We may as well eliminate the kickoffs if this is the resolution.


AB: I'm sure your most memorable moment(s) throughout your playing career was winning two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, but aside from the two championships what would you say your biggest personal accomplishment was?

SW: Biggest personal accomplishment is raising my children and staying married to my wife for 21 years (and counting). On the field, my biggest accomplishment was simply making it to the NFL.


AB: Anything you regret about your days as a player?

SA: I regret not spending more time getting to really know all of my teammates and other players around the league.


Just one more thing about your 11-year career, I promise...


AB: What was it like facing off with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway every day in practice for 10 years?

SA: It was a lot of fun going against John. He made me a better safety because I knew if I could give him false reads, that many of the other quarterbacks would easily fall for them.


AB: Do you still avidly follow the NFL, and if so do you have any Super Bowl picks for this season?
SA: Yes, I do still avidly follow the NFL and the Denver Broncos in particular. Unfortunately I don't think my team will win it this year. If I had to bet (which I don't do), I would have to put my money on Green Bay. They are still playing at a very high level and getting consistent play from their QB, Aaron Rodgers.
AB: I'd love to hear your take on the Tim Tebow situation in Denver. Personally, I'm a supporter of Tebow's and am glad he's getting his shot to sink or swim as the starter, but despite his two comeback-for-the-ages against Miami and New York (Jets) I'm already questioning his inability to pass the ball. Inconsistency has been the name of Tebow's game in his five starts. Do you think he will turn in to an elite starting quarterback in this league?

SA: First off, let me tell you that I am a Tim Tebow fan. I believe he has what it takes to make it in the NFL. I definitely think he needs some work and he needs to get with a good QB coach, someone who can help him develop into the great player that I know he can be. I agree, the Detroit game was atrocious. Over the years, we've seen lots of QBs have terrible games. Do you write them off after a couple bad games? I think not. I do believe he will turn into an elite starting QB in the league.


AB: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Atwater.

Look out for more player interviews. Soon I will be posting interviews with 11-time Pro Bowler Larry Allen and former linebacker Dwayne Rudd.

(Note: I do not own the image above, and the video was found on youtube)

Best of the Best: Top Week 11 Performances

New England's rampant 34-point game closes out what was another solid slate of games this past weekend. Lets take a look back at some of the better performances that made up the 11th week of the season.

Criteria: To make this list of top performances, the performer must either put up a great stat-line or make a couple of huge plays to lead his team to victory. As in, the player may not have been playing for a team that lost this past weekend. Crazy stat-line, or crazy antics, will land yourself on this list for Week 11 action..

Tim Tebow, DEN–9/20, 104 yards, 8 carries, 68 yards, 1 TD

The stat-line was ugly. Heck, the first three quarters of play were pretty ugly for Tebow and his Broncos. Denver's offense had just one third-down conversion before the final drive of the game and Denver's defense certainly kept them in the game. But Tebow's 95-yard drive, capped by a 20-yard run proved his gutsiness and that he has leadership skills.

Now, of course, people are still going to doubt his throwing ability. Why wouldn't they? He has completed just 44.8 % of his passes this season. But for now, Tebow has turned the Broncos around to a playoff contending team in the West. And for that, he gets a spot on the Top Performances list.

Matthew Stafford, DET–28/36, 335 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs

Tebow's last-second antics got him on this list, but Stafford is a different story. His five touchdown tosses in Detroit's 49-35 triumph over Carolina gets him on the list. He spread the ball around, throwing each touchdown to a different player, none of which were named Calvin Johnson. Shocking, right?

Kevin Smith added 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground, but if it wasn't for Stafford's video game-like stat line the Panthers (put up 35 points) would have won the game.

LeSean McCoy, PHI–23 carries, 113 yards

He didn't manage to get in to the end zone for the Eagles on Sunday night, but he was a huge reason why the Eagles pulled out an upset of the New York Giants. Granted the defense stopped Eli Manning and the G-Men's offense to just 10 points, but without the help of McCoy's productiveness in the run game, it would have been awfully tough for Philly to finish off those scoring drives. Vince Young, filling in for the injured Michael Vick, threw three picks. If McCoy is ineffective, Philadelphia may not have been able to overcome those mistakes and put together those three scoring drives.

McCoy's production seemed to have overshadowed VY's mistakes in the passing game.
Torrey Smith, BAL–6 Rec., 165 yards, 1 TD

Two weeks after his game-winning touchdown reception against division rival Pittsburgh, the rookie out of the University of Maryland went out and set a personal-best with six receptions and 165 yards. It was his second 100-yard game of his short career, and his 38-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter ended up being the deciding score in Baltimore's 31-24 victory over rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's Bengals.

Chris Clemons, SEA–5 tackles (3 solo), 3 sacks, 1 PD

Seattle dominated the St. Louis Rams on Sunday afternoon, defeating them 24-7 and dropping them to 2-8. The offense gained 289 yards and three touchdowns on offense, but it was the defense that stopped St. Louis in its tracks. Clemons led the team with five tackles and sacked second-year quarterback Sam Bradford on three separate occasions. Great defensive effort from the Seahawks, who improved to 4-6.

Jason Babin, PHI–3 solo tackles, 1 sack, 1 FR, 2 PD

Babin's game-clinching sack and strip of New York quarterback Eli Manning was the biggest play the Eagles' defense had all day, with the exception of maybe linebacker Jamar Chaney's interception and 14-yard return of a Manning pass. He played tough football all game and was finally able to make the game-changing play on New York's final drive to complete the NFC East upset, 17-10.
Von Miller, DEN–10 tackles (9 solo), 1.5 sacks, 3 TFL, 1 PD

I believe I stated this in an earlier post, but Miller is in the middle of the running for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award at this point in the season, and he may very well be the favorite. Miller was the biggest play-maker on the field when New York had the ball, and he ran sideline-to-sideline making tackles all game. His 1.5 sacks on the night puts him at fifth in the entire league through 11 weeks of play. Not to mention he hit Mark Sanchez a total of four times throughout the game, and it's not like he really blitzed too often.

Tramon Williams, GB–9 tackles (7 solo), 2 PD, 2 INTs

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a spectacular game once again, but that's nothing out of the usual. It was, to be honest, the GB cornerback Williams who won the game for the Pack this time. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman had a decent outing (342 yards, 2 TDs), but his two interceptions, both picked off by Williams, kept the Bucs out of the win column.

Williams was the game's leading tackler with 9, and his two INTs sealed a 9-point victory, improving Green Bay to 10-0 on the season.

Honorable mentions: Matt Moore, Kevin Smith, Jordy Nelson, Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Willis, Kyle Arrington, Bernard Pollard


Photo credit
T. Smith: AP Photo/Gail Burton
Babin: Al Bello/Getty Images

MNF: Patriots blow-out Kansas City, Brady says "wish we played better"

This seems to be a recurring theme in New England.

The New England Patriots' offense blows an opponent out of the water and quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are quoted as saying "we didn't play to our potential" in the post-game interview–or press conference.

Almost as if they were expecting perfection. Not a bad way to approach each week, to say the least.

Albeit, the offense did start a bit shaky, running 12 plays for just 33 yards and being shut out in the first quarter of play. Brady was sacked and stripped of the ball to end New England's third drive early in the second quarter, and was sacked two more times the following drive (three total throughout the game).

But it's the NFL we're talking about. Can't every offense go out every drive and play perfect football. On its fifth drive of the game, New England went out and produced a six-play, 85-yard scoring drive which was capped by a 52-yard strike down the center of the field to tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The rest was a piece of cake for the 7-3 Patriots.
The offense produced 34 points on 380 total yards with just the early Brady fumble being its only turnover of the game. Kansas City scored first on an opening quarter field goal off the foot of Ryan Succop, but that's the only points the Chiefs managed against New England's 31st ranked pass defense.

For Kansas City Monday night was certainly a learning experience. Former Pittsburgh Panther south paw, Tyler Palko, was making his first career NFL start. Before tonight, the lefty had just 13 career pass attempts in the league. He has had minimal experience with four different NFL teams, a UFL team and a CFL team.

Though he fared fairly well early on, filling in for the injured Matt Cassel who is expected to miss the remainder of the season, he ended the game with three picks and had just one scoring drive to show from it.

The three interceptions make his first impression rather weak (though one was deflected off a receiver's hands), but I think it's tough to pin the 34-3 loss solely on the shoulders of Palko. Not only was this his first start, but he was also forced in to throwing the ball 38 times (completed 25 passes for 236 yards). He received minimal help from the running game, who collectively ran for 126 yards but the Chiefs should have relied more heavily on the rushing attack.

Pinning nearly 40 pass attempts on a guy with as little experience as Palko seemed like a foolish thing to do, even if they were up against a weak pass defense. New England brought the pressure all game, sacking Palko three times, deflecting five passes and getting hits on Palko nine separate times. He was rattled and you could obviously tell the pressure was getting to his head.
At 4-6, the Chiefs are just two games behind the first place Raiders and Broncos in the AFC West division, and if head coach Todd Haley expects to make an attempt at the playoffs down the stretch, they will need to get more production out of the running game.

This will be tough to do without Pro Bowl back Jamaal Charles on the field (lost Charles to injury in Week 2), but giving play-maker Dexter McCluster more touches could quickly take the pressure off Palko.

Kansas City has a tough road ahead (PIT, CHI, NYJ, GB, OAK, DEN), in fact it appears they could have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league, but this will give Palko much needed experience down the road.

Photo credit
Belichick: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Palko: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Friday, November 18, 2011

Week 11 Game Predictions

The Broncos pulled within a half a game with a win over Rex Ryan's Jets on Thursday night, giving new meaning to Oakland's match-up with the Vikings on Sunday. Here are the rest of my game picks for Week 11's action (I had picked the Jets to beat the Broncos).

Sunday November 20

Ravens over Bengals
Rookie Andy Dalton has fared really well early on, but playing two of the game's top defenses in back-to-back weeks is bound to take a toll on such an inexperienced quarterback.

Jaguars over Browns
Peyton Hillis' 211 rushing yards and two TDs so far this season has proved that the "Madden curse" has struck again. Colt McCoy has been a disappointment thus far as well.

Lions over Panthers
Ndamukong Suh must be salivating over this match-up with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. And I would expect the Stafford-Megatron connection to be brought back up against Carolina's secondary this week.

Packers over Bucs
Josh Freeman was expected to breakout with Tampa this season, but I haven't seen much to prove this through 10 weeks of play. Green Bay will improve to 10-0.

Dolphins over Bills
Buffalo's hopeful season has crashed and burned, riding a two-game losing streak (5-4). Something leads me to believe that Miami's sudden hot streak (two consecutive victories after an 0-7 start) will continue against Ryan Fitzpatrick's Bills.
Vikings over Raiders
Carson Palmer's Raiders are fighting to keep its half game division lead over Denver, but I think rookie Christian Ponder will bounce back after Monday night's devastating loss...note: his only poor performances of the season came against the 9-0 Packers.

Cowboys over Skins
With Philadelphia's struggles continuing, Tony Romo and his 'Boys get the perfect opportunity to make a late-season playoff run. At 5-4, a victory here over Washington (five-game losing streak) would put them in great position.

Niners over Cardinals
Kevin Kolb is by far the biggest off-season mistake, and he may not even be in the lineup Sunday against the one-loss Niners. Frank Gore and the Niners will once again put up a solid scoring day against Arizona's defense.

Seahawks over Rams
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has shown some promise at times this season, though this may be the game with the least importance out of all the games being played this week.

Titans over Falcons
Yes, I'm calling the upset. Tennessee has the momentum after a crushing victory over Carolina last week as they battle it out with Houston for the AFC South division. It may be tough for Atlanta to bounce back from a devastating loss to New Orleans last week.
Bears over Chargers
With Matt Forte on the field, Chicago doesn't need much help from signal caller Jay Culter (he attempted just 19 passes in the team's 37-13 victory over Detroit last week). Chicago is one of the top three teams in the NFC right now, riding a four-game win streak.

Giants over Eagles
It's Week 11 and we've all already ruled Philadelphia (3-6; tied with Washington for third/last in the NFC East) out of playoff contention. A loss here would confirm it. Eli is looking for the knockout punch on Mike Vick.

Monday November 21

Patriots over Chiefs
First Jamaal Charles, now quarterback Matt Cassel. How many more season-ending injuries to star players can Kansas City handle in one season? Kansas City, despite a weaker division, will not be making a playoff run in the West and New England shouldn't have much trouble as long as the offensive line can contain Tamba Hali.

Byes: Texans, Colts, Saints, Steelers

Photo credit
Dolphins Dansby&Taylor: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Damian Williams: AP Photo/Bob Leverone

Broncos stun Jets: Tebow Orchestrates 95-yard Game-winning Drive

Tim Tebow does it again, improving his career record to 5-3 as the starter over the past two seasons.

Down by three points, Tebow (9 for 20, 104 yards passing) leads his Broncos on a 12-play, 95-yard scoring drive in just under five minutes, capping it off with a 20-yard rushing touchdown. The touchdown was the third rushing touchdown of the season for the south paw (ninth of his career).

The 17-13 victory, bringing Denver up to .500 with a 5-5 record, was not all pretty however. Before the final drive Tebow had completed just six passes on 15 attempts for 69 yards. The offense had converted just one third down on 11 tries, and he was his normal, inaccurate self.

What makes Tebow and Denver work so well is that he can finish games. He put the team on his back and accounted for 92 of the 95 yards on that fateful drive.
The critics will still be swarming Tebow with every chance they get. In fact, I myself am not quite sold on him being a successful NFL quarterback in the future. He has done everything he can to win games for the Broncos, and he has done just that, but to be a successful quarterback in this league you need to be able to efficiently pass the ball.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding his accuracy and throwing mechanics, and normally that is quite evident in the first three quarters. Eight pass attempts (last week's win vs. Kansas City) is not going to cut it against most teams in the NFL.

There's no doubt that I support Tebow being the starter in Denver, his impact has been obvious early on–Denver is 1-4 without Tebow and 4-1 with him under center. But he will need to start playing consistent football for a full 60 minutes, and not just the final couple of drives. He has pulled this off in the last five minutes twice now, but how much longer can he go on this way?

The exciting part about this situation is that Denver is now only a half game behind the first place Oakland Raiders. The only way Denver will be able to make a late run to the playoffs in the final stretch is if Tebow shows up for a full four quarters.
One final note: Denver's defense showed up to play tonight as well. Everyone seems to be making a huge deal about Tebow's game-winning drive, but without Andre Goodman's interception of Mark Sanchez, and his 26-yard TD return, they would not have even been in position to win this game.

Rookie linebacker Von Miller puts up a great performance all across the board, recording 10 tackles (9 solo), 1.5 sacks. 3 tackles for a loss, 1 pass deflection and four hits on the quarterback. His 1.5 sacks broke him in to the top five in the league's sack leaders, tying New York (Giants) defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul for third. Miller has me convinced that he is one of the most deserving of the Defensive Rookie of the Year awards, and possibly even a Pro Bowl vote.

Photo credit
Tebow: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Miller: Ron Chenoy--U.S. Presswire

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hester Already Lock for Hall of Fame?

There's a couple of problems with the National Football League nowadays that I think are fixable, but the biggest one by far is the lack of recognition of special teams.

Commissioner Roger Goodell made a rule change this season that moved the kickoff up five yards, impacting kick returners greatly. It hasn't completely ruled out the kick return game, but there's been a huge difference between the 2010 regular season and this regular season.

Last season the Atlanta Falcons were the team with the lowest total kick returns, at 46. Through 10 weeks in 2011, the leader in kick returns is the New York Jets who have only returned 34 kicks. The touchdown totals have taken a huge hit as well, going from 23 in an entire season down to just six in 10 weeks. The NFL is on pace for less than 12 this season.

That's why it's great to see a guy like Devin Hester come back to life the last two seasons after going two years without getting in to the end zone.

Hester, 28, has already solidified his name in the record books in just his sixth professional season with the Chicago Bears. Though most of his big play impact has come in the punt return game, which has not had a rule change, Hester is still one of the few bright spots left in the special teams game.
The three-time Pro Bowler and All Pro holds the record for most punt return touchdowns (12 on just 193 career returns). What makes it an even more remarkable feat is the fact that Eric Metcalf, whose 10 PR TDs is second most all-time, returned 351 punts over 13 seasons in the league. Brian Mitchell, third all-time in the category, has returned 463 over 14 seasons (only 9 career PR TDs).

It's not only the touchdown totals that has Hester turning heads and causing opposing special teams coaches shaking in their shoes, but it's the amount of time he has accomplished all of this. Punters are advised to kick away from Hester the Great, yet somehow the ball always ends up in his hands, and eventually in the end zone for six points.

A discussion has recently come up on NFL.com in which writers debated whether or not he is a lock for Canton, OH at this stage in his career. While you could argue that he hasn't played long enough for him to be a lock, you could use that same argument to prove why he should already be a lock.

Special teams play a huge role in the game, whether or not you would like to admit that, so why shouldn't one of the scariest return men in the history of the league be inducted in to the Hall just because he isn't on offense for every snap.

Cleveland's Josh Cribbs and Seattle's Leon Washington, both active, are ahead of Hester on the KR touchdown list with eight and seven respectively. But Hester already has one this season and is bound to pass at least one of them at some point in his career as he currently sits at five.

Once again, Cribbs (323 KR attempts) and Washington (203) have reached the end zone more often, but Hester has achieved nearly as much on less attempts (131) and even has a better return average than Washington.

Want some physical evidence? Here's one of Hester's many highlight reels found on youtube.com.



Photo credit
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Video credit goes to youtube.com

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Year of the Quarterback: Rookie QBs

I think it's safe to say that so far 2011 has been the "Year of the Rookie."

There are numerous young players to step up and perform for his respective team in a time of need. Four quarterbacks were taken in the first round, all of which were taken within the first 12 picks of the draft. Of those four, three have started at least three starts through Week 10 of the season.

Cam Newton (Carolina), Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville) and Christian Ponder (Vikings) are current starters while Jake Locker (Tennessee) remains on the bench behind veteran Matt Hasselbeck.

Gabbert (1,025 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT, 63.6 QBR in eight starts) took over in Week 2 after veteran David Garrard was suddenly released and Week 1 starts, Luke McCown was benched due to poor performance. Gabbert, however, has yet to show me he deserves consideration for ROY, but he is still Jacksonville's quarterback of the future.

Ponder (744 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT, 69.8 QBR in three starts) took over as the starter in Week 7 against the Packers, replacing veteran Donovan McNabb. His first career start was rather impressive considering the circumstances. He was thrown out there with little experience and threw for 219 yards and 2 TD passes, coming within six points of upsetting the still-undefeated, and defending champion, Green Bay Packers.
His numbers since then have been less than impressive, but his last start was against, yet again, the Packers. His 1-2 record is the result of playing the top team in the league twice. Carolina's Cam Newton–whom Ponder defeated on Oct. 30–is the lone quarterback who I have in the running for OROY.

Starter from the day he was drafted, Newton has had quite a few naysayers, and so far he has silenced every single one of them. The No. 1 overall pick by Carolina, Newton has led the Panthers to a 2-7 record, but that doesn't tell the entire story.

Carolina's defense has taken some hits early, losing center piece Jon Beason for the season very early. They have allowed the third-most points this season, behind only Indianapolis and Minnesota and have struggled against the run (1,238 yards, 12 TDs).

As for his supporting cast on offense, Newton's legs are the most dangerous on the field, not former Pro Bowlers DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. What was once the top rushing duo in the game just a few seasons ago is now almost a non-threat, combining for just three touchdowns on the year. Newton, however, is just two touchdowns shy of tying Michael Vick's record for most rushing TDs by a quarterback in a single-season (9).
His 374 yards on the ground is second-most on the team, putting up an average of 5.3 yards per carry. I do believe that it is actually the play-calling that has thrown off Carolina's rhythm. They are relying too heavily on the rookie signal-caller as he has attempted 30 or more passes in all but one game this season, and 40 or more in three different games. The one time he had under 30 pass attempts? A 33-20 victory over the Washington Redskins.

If he has any haters left after his first nine starts of the season, I would like to think that they at least understand that he is responsible for Carolina's two wins and cannot be solely to blame for the team's seven losses. Once Carolina has a healthy defense back, and they run the ball a little more often–taking pressure off Newton–the Panthers will at least be contenders in the South.

Newton is, by far, the best quarterback of this rookie class and could even be in consideration for Offensive Rookie of the Year. If not, then there's no doubt he's the most valuable asset on this team.

Photo credit
Ponder: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Newton: Brian A. Westerholt/Getty Images

With Scaub out, is Houston's Season in Jeopardy?

More bad news coming from Houston this week. One-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub suffered a foot injury in Sunday's 37-9 beating of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was reported that yesterday he will be out "indefinitely." Which basically means he could be missing the rest of the season with a significant right foot injury.

According to an LA Times article posted last night, head coach Gary Kubiak stated he suffered the injury on a quarterback sneak late in the second quarter. He remained in the game, but only threw 15 total passes throughout the 60 minutes of game time.

Because of this, Houston's run game got quite a bit of looks. Three Texan running backs–starter Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward–each saw double-digit carries as Houston dominated the game clock. Each of the three backs got in to the end zone as well, and as a team they carried the ball 44 times for 185 yards.
With Schaub's (2,479 yards, 61%, 15 TD, 6 INT, 96.8 QBR this season) 2011 future uncertain, it looks as if Matt Leinart will return to starting quarterback role for at least the next several weeks.

Andre Johnson hasn't been on the field since suffering a significant injury against Pittsburgh in Week 4, and Houston's fifth-ranked defense has already taken a couple hits this season. All Pro DE/LB Mario Williams has been lost for the season, free safety Danieal Manning has been out of the lineup since the team's Oct. 23 matchup with Tennessee.

Veteran wideouts Derrick Mason and Kevin Walter will need to step up and lead this team if they want to stay atop the AFC South.

Luckily Indianapolis has lost Peyton Manning, or else Houston may not have a shot at the division title. But at 7-3, the Texans are in great position to snag a playoff spot by fending off the 5-4 Titans. Heading in to the bye this week, Houston has a manageable six-game schedule to finish off the regular season. Match-ups with Jacksonville (Week 12), Indianapolis (Week 16) and Tennessee (Week 17) gives Houston the chance to win out in the division, who are already 3-0 within the South.
If Matt Leinart can manage the game, hand the ball to Houston's three-headed monster at RB and limit turnovers, I really think the fourth-best scoring defense will finish the job for him. This could be Leinart's last shot at proving he belongs in the NFL as a starter. If he messes this one up, he'll be a backup for the rest of his career.

So to answer the question in the title of the article, I really do not think Houston's season is done. It's their division to lose at this point, and with a two-game lead over Tennessee and a semi-easy remaining schedule, I'd be shocked if Houston didn't make its first playoff appearance in franchise history.

Leinart has an extra week of preparation, and maybe by that time Andre Johnson will return to the field. One would hope, at least.

Photo credit
Ward: AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
Leinart (from preseason): Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Monday, November 14, 2011

No. 2 in NFC: Saints or Niners?

With a victory over divisional rival Minnesota tonight, the Green Bay Packers would improve to 9-0 on the season and further itself from the rest of the NFC.

With a loss, the Packers would fall to 8-1 and still be considered the top team in not only the NFC, but the entire National Football League.

Sounds like a win-win situation for Most Valuable Player favorite Aaron Rodgers and his Packers.

But one of the things I've been trying to figure out for the past couple of weeks is who is the No. 2 team in the conference. 
San Francisco would have the same record (8-1) as the Packers should they lose tonight. Chicago and Detroit, both in Green Bay's division, currently stand at 6-3 after Chicago's 37-13 shellacking of Detroit yesterday afternoon. New Orleans (7-3) is riding a two-game win streak after victories over division counterparts Tampa Bay and Atlanta. And New York sits atop the NFC East, falling to 6-3 on the season with a 27-20 loss to San Fran yesterday.

We now have five candidates for the No. 2 spot after yesterday's slate of games, but I think we can eliminate two teams on the spot: New York and Detroit.

New York leads its division, but it's a rather weak division. The second-place Cowboys are 5-4, two games ahead of Philadelphia and Washington (both are 3-6). Eli Manning and his Giants captured a huge victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots two weeks ago, but fell to a key matchup with the Niners yesterday, therefore putting them behind the Niners in the Chase for No. 2, as I'm calling it.

As for the Lions, they split the season series with Chicago (W 24-13, L 37-13) but have dropped three of its last four games and, like New York, also fell to the mighty Niners earlier in the season. Matthew Stafford has outperformed Chicago's Jay Cutler by far but the Bears get the nod when it comes to supporting cast.

That leaves me with just three options for one slot: San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago.
San Francisco has the best record among the three, New Orleans is leading a tough division over Atlanta and Tampa, and Chicago is on a four-game winning streak.

San Francisco being in the weakest division in the league (second-place Seattle and Arizona are 3-6), but they have had just one game against a division opponent so far this season–a 33-17 victory over Seattle. With a 6-1 record against NFC teams, a fluke 27-24 loss to Dallas being the lone loss, Jim Harbaugh's squad has been resilient and Alex Smith is finally proving why he was the top pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

New Orleans is 7-3 overall and 3-1 against NFC South teams, but they are just 3-3 on the road. If they expect to make a Super Bowl run they will need to step up on the defensive side of the ball as well. San Fran is No. 1 in scoring defense and has allowed 20+ points just three times this season.

Overall, New Orleans and San Francisco are close in talent and production, but the 49ers get the edge. One of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, Jim Harbaugh has proven that it sometimes pays large dividends to hire a top college coach. Only sometimes though, of course.

Photo credit
Rodgers: Denis Poroy/AP Photo
Willis: AP Photo

Friday, November 11, 2011

Week 10 Preview

Can you believe we've reached Week 10 of the regular season already? Time flies when you're having fun, right?

I may not get to update the blog too much before Sunday's games get underway, so I've decided to post my picks a little earlier than usual.

Thursday Nov. 10

Raiders 24, Chargers 17 (picked Chargers)

Sunday Nov. 13

Falcons over Saints
Atlanta is riding a three-game winning streak (4-1 over last five games), and is just a half game out of first behind New Orleans in the South.
Panthers over Titans
At 2-6 Carolina is at the bottom of the NFC South, but rookie Cam Newton has done all he can to help the Panthers win and I think it will be enough this week.

Steelers over Bengals
I think Pittsburgh's defense, age and all, will be too much for rookie signal caller Andy Dalton to handle.

Rams over Browns
Cleveland will be in some trouble without Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty on the field running the ball.

Bills over Cowboys
Big day running the ball for Fred Jackson, I'm predicting.

Jaguars over Colts
Poor Curtis Painter, and poor Indianapolis. I almost feel sorry for them.

Chiefs over Broncos
Denver is still trying to get the quarterback situation figured out for 2011 and beyond. Should be an interesting matchup in the West.

Skins over 'Phins
Here's John Beck's chance to show Miami what they missed out on...he still may be in for a rough day though.

Eagles over Cardinals
Homecoming game for Kevin Kolb (if he even gets to play). Whether it's Kolb or John Skelton under center, I don't think it's gonna make a huge difference for Arizona at this point.

Texans over Buccaneers
Houston's run game looks as strong as ever with the dynamic duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Look out, Tampa.

Ravens over Seahawks
Baltimore's defense shouldn't have any trouble containing Seattle passing attack with Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis lurking in the shadows.

Lions over Bears
Fresh off the bye week, Detroit should be rejuvenated and ready for a second half playoff push in the North.
Giants over Niners
This may be one of the best games of the weekend, and Eli Manning has been on fire this season. Even without Bradshaw, don't be surprised if he gets help from the running game (Brandon Jacobs).

Jets over Patrtiots
Believe it or not, Rex Ryan's Jets have the Pats' number and New England has already dropped two straight. Momentum has sided with the Jets on this one.

Monday Nov. 14

Packers over Vikings
Green Bay is still undefeated, and despite Minnesota coming within a touchdown of defeating Aaron Rodgers the first time around, I don't think this matchup will be all that close.

Bye weeks: none

Photo credit
Ryan: Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Jacobs: Nick Laham/Getty Images

McFadden-less Raiders put it to Rivers and the Bolts on TNF

Just a mere two days after listing San Diego as a potential AFC contender, and division counterpart Oakland Raiders under the category of pretender, I am forced to eat my words.

I quote myself as saying (in the previously written article): still mourning the loss of owner Al Davis, not quite ready to take the next step with Carson Palmer under center.

Oops.

Not only did second-string running back Michael Bush step up and perform in place of the injured Darren McFadden, but Carson Palmer finally broke through with an outstanding performance in his third appearance in an Oakland uniform.

After being semi-retired for a portion of the season, the Raiders acquired the former Pro Bowl signal caller Palmer to fill the void Jason Campbell left after being placed on the injured reserve. Palmer's season-best 299 yards and two touchdown tosses–both to rookie wideout Denarius Moore–helped lead Oakland to a 24-17 victory.
Palmer turned the ball over twice, one interception and one lost fumble, but Bush bailed him out with a season-best 157 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Oakland's defense did its part as well, as former Cleveland Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley sacked San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers four times. As a unit, Oakland hit Rivers a total of six times with seven tackles for a loss, 10 put-downs and two turnovers.

Palmer's Raiders struggled on third downs (4/10), but dominated across the board in every other category. A few key mistakes here and there (seven penalties called against them), but Oakland's performance overall was great. Snapping a two-game losing skid, Oakland has evened its division record to 2-2 on the season.

All of a sudden Oakland has sole possession of first place in the AFC West, though it's only by a half game over Kansas City. With match-ups against the likes of Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit and one more showdown with San Diego in Week 17, it appears as though Palmer and the Raiders will have to keep up the pace to make a late playoff push.

Despite the rough play from Philip Rivers, you cannot count out the Chargers. You can't forget that the Chargers usually play its best ball in the final month of the season–December.

The West is far from won. Buckle up, it's about to get wild!

Photo credit
Bush: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Separating the Pretenders from the Contenders

By the time Week 9 is in the books, we usually start to figure out which teams will be making strong runs down the stretch, and who will be sitting at home in January/February.

With eight games remaining for most of these teams (minus the few that have already had their bye week), this could all change, of course. But for the most part, it would surely be tough for teams such as Indianapolis, Carolina, St. Louis and Minnesota to turn their misfortunes around.

This past weekend has left us with skepticism concerning a few teams. Ahem, I'm talking to you, Pennsylvania teams! Others have continued to impress and have yet to skip a beat in 2011.

Contenders:

Green Bay Packers

Do I really need to expand on this? The only team still undefeated despite a 30th overall defense and a 22nd-ranked run game. Most Valuable Player favorite Aaron Rodgers continued his tear against San Diego, throwing for 247 yards and four touchdowns, including two TD tosses in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach of Philip Rivers. They could make a run for 16-0.

New York Giants

Eli Manning continues to pull through and show he belongs in the talks of "elite quarterbacks in the NFL" by defeating future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and his New England Patriots. His TD toss with :15 to play in regulation gave the G-Men the lead for good, and allowed Tom Coughlin's Giants to improve to 6-2, extending its NFC East lead.

Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco showed up to play against Pittsburgh on Sunday night, and put together a 92-yard game-winning drive in which he threw a touchdown to rookie Torrey Smith with :08 to play. The drive put Flacco at 300 yards on the dot, and left him just three pass attempts shy of reaching 50 in one game for just the second time in his career. Flacco has finally stepped his game up and showed he has what it takes to put the team on his back and carry them, putting together two come-from-behind victories in back-to-back weeks.

San Francisco 49ers

You may argue that the Niners are in the weakest division in the league, and you would be correct in arguing that. But at 7-1, the Niners have done nothing but impress me, and only one of its eight games this season have been against a division opponent. A 4-0 road record is sure to impress even the strongest of critics, and Alex Smith is finally showing signs as to why he was picked first overall in the 2005 draft, putting up a 10/2 TD-to INT ratio with a 97.3 rating on the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers

All the loss to Baltimore shows is that Pittsburgh is no longer 'top dawg' in the AFC North. That doesn't, however, rule out the fact that Pittsburgh are still contenders and could still capture the division title despite being swept by Baltimore. Once Dick LeBeau's defense gets veteran James Farrior and AFC sack leader LaMarr Woodley back in the lineup and healthy, the defense should start forcing more turnovers and giving Ben Roethlisberger better field position on scoring drives. Don't forget, Pittsburgh had a great offensive day against Baltimore's defense, but Flacco just straight-up outperformed him that same night.

Houston Texans

The emergence of Houston's fearful running game is likely the key to Houston's 6-3 record. Well, that and the fact that the rest of the AFC South's competition looks to be a bit weak this season. Without Andre Johnson for the past five games, Houston's offense has put up 20 or more points on the scoreboard four out of those five games. If anything, I think it's Mario Williams' injury that has had the most impact on this team. Regardless, Houston will be a dangerous team down the stretch this season.

Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford has emerged as a rising star, finally looking healthy this season. But it isn't Stafford, or even one of the game's best wideouts Calvin Johnson (11 Rec. TDs this season) who has stolen the show. Rather it's fiery (or whiny? you decide) head coach Jim Schwartz and second-year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh who has captured NFL headlines this fall with questionable play-style. Suh has already deemed the title as a dirty player by some of his peers and teams and fans alike have enjoyed rooting against the dirty defense. Either way, the 6-2 Lions will be in the middle of the wild card hunt. It's just too bad they have to share the same division as Green Bay.

Pretenders:

Buffalo Bills

Maybe it was just time for New York to breakout, or maybe Buffalo is just not ready to make a playoff run. I'm not sure which was the case this past weekend, but I don't think Buffalo's turnover tear will continue much longer (leads league with 20 forced turnovers). Fitzpatrick struggled to get anything going against the Jets all game, throwing two picks and was kept under 200 yards passing. The defense couldn't keep the Jet offense off the field and allowed the inconsistent Mark Sanchez to have a field day, completing 20 of 28 passes for 230 yards and a score. This doesn't quite look like a team ready to take the next step in to the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs

Matt Cassel has a couple of solid targets on the offensive side of the ball–Pro Bowl wideout Dwayne Bowe and breakout rookie Jonathan Baldwin–but the loss of running back Jamaal Charles will eventually catch up with this young team. Last season they relied on him carrying the ball 230 times for well over 1,400 yards. He only produced five rushing TDs, but added three through the air. Cassel no longer has Charles coming out of the backfield, and Kansas City is in the bottom five in rushing TDs. Having a formidable rushing attack is crucial in a late-season playoff push.
Philadelphia Eagles

Normally, I would say with a team of this caliber there is no way they are ruled out. But after last night's crushing loss to Chicago, Philly fell to 3-5 and third place in the East. To get to 10 wins, which is a respectable win total for a wild card berth, Andy Reid's Eagles would have to go 7-1 in the second half of the season. Possible? Yes. Plausible? Not quite. Eli's G-Men look well on their way to a 12-win season and division title. As for the wild card, Philly is competing with teams such as Detroit (6-2), Chicago (5-3), Atlanta (5-3), Tampa Bay (4-4) and Dallas (4-4). It will be a tough second half for Michael Vick in the city of Brotherly Love.

Dallas Cowboys

Tony Romo has earned the title as a "choke artist" over the past few seasons in Dallas, and after falling to Philadelphia last week by the score of 34-7, I don't see this team going far in to December as a contender. Although the emergence of running back DeMarco Murray has been refreshing the last couple of weeks, the Cowboys will have a tough second half just like the Eagles. Dallas' last four games in order: New York Giants, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and New York again. Good luck, Mr. Romo.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

At the beginning of the season I had Tampa Bay as one of my teams to beat down in the South, but since then the tides have turned. Rather than seeing a more matured Josh Freeman, he seems to be in the same, young form as last season, throwing 10 interceptions through Tampa Bay's first half of the season. Injuries have depleted the Bucs' rushing attack and age on the defensive side of the ball may have slowed them a bit. Either way, I still think the 48-3 defeat to the Niners is haunting the Bucs. If they didn't have to compete with the likes of New Orleans and Atlanta within their division, I probably wouldn't have listed them as a pretender.

Additional: 


TItans (4-4)--mediocrity from CJ2K has been slowing down Tennessee as of late.


Raiders (4-4)--still mourning the loss of owner Al Davis, not quite ready to take the next step with Carson Palmer under center.


Redskins (3-5)--there is still a huge quarterback concern in D.C.


Browns (3-5)--still love Colt McCoy, but Peyton Hillis has been a huge distraction.


Broncos (3-5)--To Tebow, or not to Tebow?

Still need to see more...

Cincinnati Bengals: Rookie Andy Dalton has really impressed me this season, and his 6-2 record has Cincy tied with Baltimore for the division lead. But I think we have to see how he fares against Baltimore and Pittsburgh before we fully judge his rookie campaign.

Chicago Bears: Chicago has some impressive victories over Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia on its resume, but there's still skepticism there with losses to New Orleans and two division foes Green Bay and Detroit.
Atlanta Falcons: How does Atlanta back up a 13-3 record and an early playoff exit in 2010? With a rocky 5-3 start, of course. A three-game win streak (Carolina, Detroit, Indianapolis) has me leaning towards contenders though.

New York Jets: If only Rex Ryan would learn to shut his damn mouth. New York sitting at 5-3 after eight games wouldn't be such a bad thing if the head coach would just stop all this "we're going to win the Super Bowl" talk. It gets old after you repeat it each season, Rex.

New England Patriots: Two straight losses from Bill Belichick's Patriots doesn't seem right. Against contenders such as Pittsburgh and New York (Giants) makes it seem a little more respectable, but it also appears as though defenses have finally figured out the perfect formula for disrupting Brady's rhythm. It only took three Super Bowl victories for it to be figured out..

San Diego Chargers: Rivers made a crucial mistake at the end of the overtime loss to Kansas City, and a tough game against defending champion Packers this past week has put them at 4-4. I don't think we'll figure the Chargers out until December rolls around, like usual.

The Rest...


Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6): Currently in the rebuilding process with rookie Blaine Gabbert doing the quarterbacking. I think Jack Del Rio's days may be numbered, it's time for a change.

Carolina Panthers (2-6): Rookie Cam Newton has done all he can to win games for Carolina, but the defense has taken too many hits to overcome in 2011. Newton has done nothing but impress, though, like I said.

Minnesota Vikings (2-6): Adrian Peterson has done nothing but produce top-notch quality for half a decade now.

Seattle Seahawks (2-6): Had an impressive 36-25 win over the Giants, but have since been on a three-game skid. Time to draft a franchise quarterback in April's draft?

Arizona Cardinals (2-6): Kevin Kolb, so far, has shown he was not worth the money. They actually beat St. Louis, 19-13, this past weekend without Kolb under center. Rather John Skelton subbed in and took over duties with Kolb out with an injury.
Hall of Shame

St. Louis Rams (1-7): St. Louis' lone win was apparently a fluke. A 31-21 victory over Drew Brees' Saints two weeks ago. Running back Steven Jackson had a solid game, but Sam Bradford has been battling injury and missed a few games. It may take a couple more seasons for Bradford to truly blossom as an NFL starter.

Miami Dolphins (1-7): Finally winless no more, Miami captured win No. 1 of the season on Sunday against Kansas City, 31-3. One of the reasons I have KC listed as a pretender.

Indianapolis Colts (0-9): This is why, aside from Rodgers, I wanna name Peyton Manning as my first half MVP. One player made a 9-win difference. If Manning was in the lineup you know for a fact they would have at least 7 or 8 wins at this point in the season. Come on, Curtis Painter!

Photo credit
Smith: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Chiefs: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Ryan/Peppers: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Peterson: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin