NFL: Playoff March

By: S. Davis

Everyone in the NFL has played at least nine games which tells a pretty clear story about the their playoff chances once January rolls around (unless said team plays in the NFC South). What a difference three weeks makes, because if you recall, about that amount of time ago the world was kicking dirt on the Pittsburgh Steelers and singing the praises of the Dallas Cowboys.

Look closer, what’s there to see?

The Steelers are looking like a strong contender while the Cowboys’ annual swoon is happening in late-October/November instead of December. Since the ‘Boys have dumped water off their sinking ship – after escaping London with a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars – they’ve kept the buzzards at bay, at least for a week while also finding a way to keep Tony Romo alive. In what world are back fractures safe?

Let’s start by looking at the teams that are scouting for next season:

Oakland Raiders (0-9), Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9), Tennessee Titans (2-7), NY Jets (2-8), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8)

I think Rex Ryan is going to be fantastic on television next year. It boggles my mind in this era of football how a defensive HEAD coach can have no concept of an offensive philosophy. Bill Belichick, John Fox and Mike Tomlin are all known as defensive head coaches but grasp the idea of coaching offense. (I know that having Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger help with scoring points but you get where I’m going. Offensive coordinators are vital as well but the head coach has fingerprints everywhere on his team.)

Belichick was known as a “defensive savant” and is also known as an “offensive genius.” Now I’m not here to wax-poetic about football coaches but you get the point. Just because you’re good at one thing DOES not mean you cannot add to your repertoire. Players are asked to adapt, grow and expand their knowledge, right? Why in the hell do coaches get a free pass?

The gas-bag that is Ryan all but ruined a good quarterback named Mark Sanchez, almost ending his career just by association. Coaches and their egos make me just as sick as the media who fawn over them. By all accounts Ryan is intelligent so I hope whenever he gets a top job again he will learn – especially in this passing era – that offense isn’t an unsolved mystery, it actually can win you games. Rushing for two yards and a cloud of dust no longer is the blueprint for sustainable success in the league.

Still Too Early
There are some really good teams clustered together that I have no clear opinion of – it’s still too early to tell who they are. Better play can elevate them into the elite group or they can have their partners plan their vacations next month while the front-office evaluates their draft boards.

Cleveland (6-3), New Orleans (4-5), San Francisco (5-4), Cincinnati (5-3-1), Baltimore (6-4), Buffalo (5-4), Miami (5-4), San Diego (5-4)

We have to pump the brakes when discussing the Browns because, well, they are still the Browns. Yes, they are leading their division – and they have looked strong but are we sure they won’t dive over their last seven games? Exactly.

I’m not buying stock in either the Saints or the 49ers but at least the team representing Santa Clara has a true – and proven – identity over the last few seasons. Oops, my fault we know the Saints mode of operation as well: unpredictable. When the Saints are solid, defensively, they are a tough team to defeat (remember I picked them to hoist the trophy) but they are relatively easy to plan for these days. Playing in the NFC South is the only reason they’re division leaders. As for the 49ers, when they run the ball and limit Colin Kaepernick’s responsibilities they are a tough team for anyone lining up against them.

Yes, the Bengals are slotted into a wild card if the postseason started today but they’re too inconsistent to trust for more than one or two games – which is a problem when the NFL schedule mandates each team compete in 16 games per year, ditto for the Ravens.

How the Bills, Dolphins and Chargers close the season intrigues me. Unfortunately the Panthers (3-6-1) and Falcons (3-6) are still alive in the playoff hunt in the NFC South. I love how it’s fair game to beat the drums about Cam Newton’s “regression” when his receiving corps was taken from him, his offensive line isn’t as stout and his running backs are rarely on the field. Evaluate!

Man, I wish all playoff seeding went by record, first, and then division winner, secondly. Basically all division winners should still be guaranteed playoff berths but should NOT host a game if the wild card posts a better record over the regular season.

Contending
Teams still in the hunt.

Arizona (8-1), Detroit (7-2), Philadelphia (7-2), Dallas (7-3), Green Bay (6-3), Kansas City (6-3), Pittsburgh (6-4)

The Cardinals are almost a definite playoff contender at this point – and I feel they’ll win one of the wild card spots, at least when factoring the Carson Palmer injury – but you just never know how things will break. With nine games in the books, they could play as poorly over the last two months as they played well in the first two.

For some reason I think the Lions might possibly lose four of their next five games – @ ARI, @ NE, CHI, TB, MIN – and just, you know, be the…Lions again. Color me a skeptic until they clear the next five going 4-1 or 3-2. As for the Packers, well Aaron Rodgers is great but all too often, recently, he’s been tasked with carrying a weak defensive unit. I’m not confident in them until they win a game where Rodgers has a below average outing – and the defense must lead the way.

With Nick Foles’ collarbone injury, the Sanchez resurrection begins – and while I believe he’ll keep them right at the top of the NFC East – you just never know how much of the Jets experience still lingers. He was a confident player coming into the league – and during his first two-and-a-half years – before the bottom fell out and his management stopped trying to acquire talent for the offensive side of the ball. Unlike, most of the world it seems, I was not surprised that he led the way in dominating the Panthers last night. Who’s the person in the Saints organization that decided Darren Sproles was expendable?

Jason Garrett is going to have to will a way for his team to make the passing attack respectable so they can run as effectively as they have while getting Romo back in one piece. The ‘Boys ripped through the Jaguars and, thankfully, Romo is still able to stand upright.

So the mighty Chargers that everyone was tripping over have lost three in a row while the Chiefs, who were left for dead at the beginning of the season, have won the same number of games consecutively. I didn’t understand the hype for the bolts just like I didn’t get why the national media felt Andy Reid’s squad wouldn’t qualify for the postseason…before a single game was even contested.

Of course I thought the Steelers would beat the Jets a few days ago; what was I thinking?

Playing For The Trophy
You understand what this group is about.

New England (7-2), Denver (7-2), Seattle (6-3), Indianapolis (6-3)

Seattle is not as good as they were last season because their lack of a pass rush puts their secondary in jeopardy because they now are forced to cover for three-to-five more seconds than they’re able to. League rules make it damn near impossible to blanket receivers for more than eight seconds. All that said they are still able to impose themselves physically on every level of their defense – and although they are a pedestrian offense right now Russell Wilson rarely makes a crippling decision with the ball.

When the world was kicking dirt on the Patriots, well, I was laughing. Why would anyone jump to a rash conclusion just because a crazed Chiefs team took them apart in Week 4? Stay off the ledge, media guys. Regardless of their recent resurgence, Belichick the general manager has wasted Brady’s last few years and he should be judged more harshly for it.

As much as I hate to say it as a fan of Manning, his team will get eliminated in either the AFC Divisional weekend or the AFC Championship (which could be in Massachusetts). A lot is asked of Andrew Luck and that raises a good deal of doubt about whether he’s leading a good team or carrying a terrible one. I think they’re actually good because two of their three losses were by a combined 10 points – and the other loss was a 51-34 blowout by the Steelers. It seems that Trent Richardson is not a good running back, anymore,  which puts more on the plate of Luck. If the Lombardi trophy went to Indiana when the season wrapped, I would not say it was inconceivable.

We only have two FULL months of football left – which makes me sad – so please enjoy it.

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