Around 10:00pm Sunday night, I texted Todd that between the Patriots, Ravens, Matt Prater, Antonio Brown, LeSean McCoy and the snow, last Sunday may have been the greatest day in NFL regular season history (minus an injury or two). It was a perfect day to stay inside during the snowstorm covering most of the nation. It was a great way to conclude the fantasy football regular season too, unless you were a ReggieBush owner. Let’s take a moment to forget the atrocities of the BCS and college football culture in general and remember what real football looks like.
1. Denver Broncos (11-2; projected 14-2): It’s going to be hard bidding farewell to the 2007 Patriots’ records of points scored and passing touchdowns. But it’s even harder to argue this team doesn’t deserve it. Denver may have had its best game of the season Sunday, with two 75+ yard rushers, a near-flawless performance by Peyton Manning (who completed 39 passes), a 64-yard field goal, and zero turnovers for the first time since Week 4. The combined record of their remaining opponents is 12-27. The one lingering concern: Wes Welker, who suffered his second concussion of the season on Sunday. But with the injury to Gronkowski and doubts about the Seahawks playing 3,000 miles away from the 12th Man, the Broncos have to be the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4; projected 11-5): The Bengals travel to Pittsburgh next Sunday night, where a win can move them considerably closer to wrapping up the division. The real question is whether Cincinnati can get some help in the AFC East to secure the two seed over New England. The Bengals have now scored 41+ points in each of their last three home games, and believe it or not, Andy Dalton has more touchdowns than Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson. But with all four losses coming on the road, homefield advantage and a bye could be a huge boost. They can’t beat the Broncos in Denver though.
3. New England Patriots (10-3; projected 11-5): I give up. What more can you say about this team? According to Pro Football Database, they have 23 injured players. In their last four games, they’ve been outscored in the first half by a margin of 57-10. You could make a convincing case that this team should be 12-1 or 7-6, depending on your perspective. The Gronkowski injury is understandably devastating, but frankly, Pats fans have been preparing for this all season. If Vereen, Edelman and Amendola can stay healthy, the offense should be OK (remember that they were 5-1 without Gronk). Their next two games – on the road against Miami and Baltimore – are tough, but the best news for New England is that there is apparently no lead over Tom Brady any opponent should feel comfortable with.
4. Indianapolis Colts (8-5; projected 9-7): The Colts have the worst record of any AFC division leader, but somehow became the first team in the league to officially clinch its division. They have one of the most dynamic young quarterbacks in all of football, don’t turn the ball over, and will likely get a home playoff game against Alex Smith. That’s the glass half-full. On the other side is a team that can’t block, can’t defend the run, hasn’t beat a team from outside its crappy division since October 20, and like the Patriots, has been terrible in the first half of late (outscored 48-15 in their last three games, with zero TDs). After Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, Indianapolis has been outscored on the season (313 to 316) and other than giveaways, ranks in the bottom half of the league in almost every meaningful statistic. Remaining home games against the Texans and Jaguars are no longer a given.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3; projected 12-4): Last week, I told everyone to stop freaking out about the Chiefs’ three-game losing streak, and the matchup with the Redskins proved the best antidote to those concerns. Kansas City now has to start thinking about going on the road – two of its final three are in Oakland and San Diego, and a home game for the playoffs seems out of reach at this point. Still, the Chiefs lead the league in turnover margin and have scored 28+ points in their last three games (in their prior 10 games, they reached 28 points only once). Key to their success will be the eventual return of Justin Houston, who could provide the defensive spark for an intriguing potential playoff run beginning in Indianapolis, who the Ravens first played in January last season.
6. Baltimore Ravens (7-6; projected 9-7): Uh oh. This looks familiar. But instead of a 4th-and-29 or Rahim Moore, this time the culprit was the Minnesota Vikings, who gave up 140 yards and three touchdowns in seven plays. Just how big was that win? A loss would have put the Ravens one game back of the Dolphins, with their next three opponents all division leaders. Instead, the Ravens control their own destiny for the AFC’s sixth wild-card spot, having now won four of its last five games. On the season, Baltimore has allowed three rushing touchdowns. They still can’t mount a consistent running game, and have technically played the league’s easiest schedule, but what team would want to play these guys in January?
Miami Dolphins (7-6; projected 8-8): The Dolphins were also 7-6 in 2009 and 2010 before dropping their last three games. And while road wins against cold weather teams like the Jets and Steelers are undeniably impressive, Miami still needs a signature win to be taken seriously (other than their fluky two-point OT win over the Bengals). They will get their opportunity this weekend against the Patriots, who they can still technically overtake in the AFC East should the Gronkowski injury prove as catastrophic as some predict. Unlikely, but still. Ryan Tannehill has been impressive though (over 60% completions and 84 QB rating in his last six games), and the Dolphins do finish the year with the Bills and Jets – unlike the Ravens, who conclude with the Patriots and Bengals.
San Diego Chargers (6-7; projected 8-8): Too little, too late? If San Diego has any chance at the wild card, they must win in Denver Thursday night (intriguingly, the Chargers have won three of its past four and five of its past seven games in Denver). Should they do that, things could get real interesting, with their final two contests at home against the Raiders and Chiefs. The Chargers still cannot be trusted in close games (2-6 in games decided by eight points or less) and are fourth-worst in the league at creating turnovers. But at least they can move the ball downfield, which is more than you can say about the Ravens and Dolphins.
New York Jets (6-7; projected 8-8): Something tells me not to completely count out the Jets and their third-worst offense in football. Once upon a time, a rookie QB named Mark Sanchez threw for 12 touchdowns in a season (along with 20 interceptions) and the Jets came within a game of the Super Bowl. Geno Smith’s numbers are eerily similar (9 TDs and 20 Ints), as is the Jets’ potential to screw everything up in the playoff race should they beat the Dolphins in Miami Week 17. Or maybe I’ve just been burned by this team too many times.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8; projected 6-10): Hey, maybe if they didn’t play football with sidelines.
New England 27, Baltimore 24
Indianapolis 20, Kansas City 12
Denver 49, Indianapolis 28
Cincinnati 21, New England 18
Denver 34, Cincinnati 16
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-2; projected 13-3): Injuries to K.J. Wright and Max Unger have to be mildly disturbing to Seahawk fans, but the good news is that with a win this week, they can wrap up the NFC’s 1 seed and rest their players the remainder of the regular season. The 49ers win over Seattle was more symbolic than significant – it didn’t really affect the standings except to illustrate that the Seahawks may be vulnerable to good running games on the road. By that logic, this limits the teams that can foreseeably beat them to the Broncos and Chiefs . . . in Super Bowl XVIII.
2. New Orleans Saints (10-3; projected 12-4): The Saints are posers in the way they look unbeatable at home (7-0, 23+ points in each game) and mediocre on the road (3-3, only one 400 yard game). They absolutely cannot be trusted to go into Seattle and win the NFC Championship. Still, they are terrific to watch in the confines of the Superdome, treating the much-vaunted Panthers defense like it was a JV squad. On paper, the Saints are in the top six both in total offense and defense, but other stats (such as only two takeaways through their last six games) show the kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic that won’t get it done in the playoffs unless your name is the New York Giants.
3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-5; projected 10-6): Amid the insanity of last Sunday’s games was the stunning development that NICK FOLES THREW AN INTERCEPTION! The Eagles probably can’t beat the Seahawks with their 3rd worst defense in the league, but they are 5-1 on the road and currently have the NFC’s top rated passer and leading runningback. Despite the Cowboys’ loss, the Eagles’ ultimate fate may still come down to Sunday night Week 17 in Dallas, but after seeing what Josh McCown did to that secondary, Chip Kelly shouldn’t lose too much sleep.
4. Chicago Bears (7-6; projected 9-7): The Bears are back! In eclipsing the 40 point mark for the third time this season, Marc Trestman and his west coast offense (and utter lack of defense) have given Chicago its quirkiest season since 1995. The Josh McCown-Jay Cutler debate may have staunch defenders on both sides (Cutler wasn’t exactly putting up bad numbers before his injury), but it’s clear that what McCown is doing (13 TDs, 1 Int) is something special and vaguely Kurt Warner-esque. Like a 1961 Cheval Blanc, he's peaking at the right time. A trip to Philadelphia and a home finale against the Packers still loom large.
5. Carolina Panthers (9-4; projected 11-5): The Panthers are clearly a talented team that deserves a playoff appearance for the first time since 2008, but like Kansas City, they have a hard time playing from behind. Cam Newton looked overly cautious Sunday night in the Superdome, and the Panthers seemed to lack the intensity needed to go on the road and win a big game – something that as a wild card team, they will need to do several times potentially. Fortunately, Geno Smith comes to Charlotte this Sunday, leaving many wondering if it is possible for a team to finish a game with negative points scored.
6. San Francisco 49ers (9-4; projected 11-5): It’s hard to believe, but the 49ers not only have a difficult path to postseason berth, but will need to root for the Seahawks to beat the Cardinals in two weeks for any form of breathing room (the season finale at Arizona should be a doozy). The running game came back to life on Sunday, with Frank Gore putting the team on his back and getting a much-needed win over Seattle – even if the win really was just to save face after their Week 2 annihilation. Michael Crabtree getting healthier each week is a good sign for San Francisco’s passing attack, which ranks dead last in football. It’s odd to think of both Super Bowl teams from last year being 6 seeds – but it’s not surprising that no one wants to play them.
Arizona Cardinals (8-5; projected 10-6): The Cardinals are hoping to avoid joining the ranks of the 2010 Giants, 2010 Buccaneers, and 2008 Patriots as recent teams eclipsing 10 wins, but somehow missing the postseason. The bad news is that Tyrann Mathieu will miss the rest of the season, but the good news is that they look better each week. Carson Palmer completed 84 percent of his passing Sunday – including 12 for 12 on passes targeting Larry Fitzgerald – and John Abraham and Karlos Dansby have provided a fearsome veteran linebacking combination. Next Sunday’s game at Tennessee is a virtual must-win before they go to Seattle and host the 49ers in Phoenix (where they are 6-1) to close out the season.
Detroit Lions (7-6; projected 8-8): A month ago, the Lions stood alone atop the ranks of the NFC North with Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers out indefinitely. Today, the Lions are a team in the midst of a freefall – incapable of holding on to the ball, stopping opponents, or mounting a consistent running game. Like the Cowboys, the talent is there – meaning they can never be truly counted out – but the execution simply is not. A season sweep of the Bears still means Detroit controls its own destiny, but I’m not sure why anyone would put their confidence in this team at the moment.
Green Bay Packers (6-6-1; projected 8-7-1): As long as the Packers never have to play in November ever again, they should be fine. Aaron Rodgers’ return should ignite an offense that’s been left for dead by bad quarterbacking (no, as it turns out, Matt Flynn isn’t all that good) and a pretty lousy secondary. They need help, but don’t think they’ve forgotten about GoldenGate and would be one of the few teams that would love a trip to Seattle in January.
Dallas Cowboys (7-6; projected 9-7): In Las Vegas, the Cowboys are 50-1 to win the Super Bowl. I’d still put $10 on them. But then again, I don’t typically leave Vegas with very much money in hand.
San Francisco 24, Philadelphia 21
Carolina 31, Chicago 24
Seattle 19, San Francisco 10
New Orleans 35, Carolina 24
Seattle 38, New Orleans 13
SUPER BOWL XLVIII PREDICTION:
Denver 41, Seattle 32
Thoughts? Disagreements? Sick of sad Patriots pictures? Excited for the epic fantasy football playoff matchup between me and Terry (aka Frass Canyon vs. Engine 5)? Let me know below.