We are now in Week 14 of the NFL season and with 75% of the year now complete, we can start to draw some legitimate conclusions about teams, players, coaches, postseason accolades and Super Bowl chances. So here’s a look at ten things from this NFL season that we can now say, unequivocally, are facts.
1) Parody still reigns supreme in the NFL, maybe now more than ever.
While teams like Kansas City, Philadelphia and San Diego have all looked comically bad at various points this season, it appears as though there is no such thing as preordained hierarchy in the National Football League. At the risk of sounding disgustingly cliché, any team can win on ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. We saw those same lowly Kansas City Chiefs beat the New Orleans Pelica…er, Saints in the Big Easy in Week 3 (the same Saints team that handed the Falcons their only loss this season, and who many people thought could sneak into the playoffs as recently as a week ago). The Philadelphia Eagles knocked off the Baltimore Ravens early in the year and the San Diego Chargers were once 3-1 and had the Denver Broncos down 24-0 at halftime.
Conversely, we saw the New England Patriots lose at home to the (formerly 4-0) Arizona Cardinals. We’ve seen the 49ers tie one game and lose another to the sub .500 St. Louis Rams. The Jacksonville Jaguars were inches away from beating the Houston Texans. Apparently, no team is safe! There are literally 12 teams in the playoff hunt in the NFC and, if the playoffs started today, 2011′s worst team would be in the dance in the AFC.
In keeping with the theme of parody…
2) Home field advantage ain’t what it used to be.
Entering Week 14, only five teams have an above .500 record at home against the spread— the Texans, Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, & Cleveland Browns (yes, the Browns).
Sidebar: For some perspective, 10 teams were above .500 at home versus the spread in 2011, 12 teams in 2010.
What does this mean for the NFL as a whole? Well, road teams are covering far more frequently than usual this year, and since home teams are typically favored, the data suggests that, by and large, games have been more competitive in 2012 (especially considering that most spreads are in the 3-10 point range and even the very largest spreads are only about 14 points). Thus, there have been a ton of games decided by one score or less this year (On top of that, road teams in general have won 43.5% of games in 2012).
Once a game is that close, virtually anything can be the difference between winning and losing, regardless of which team is at home. A terrible call by the refs, for instance, or a fortuitous bounce of the ball, or running into your own lineman’s ass, causing a fumble, which leads to a scoop & score.
3) By switching up his quarterbacks mid-season, Jim Harbaugh is playing with fire.
After getting off to a 6-2 start heading into the bye week, all was good in the Bay Area (you know, except for the Raiders). In his last full game as the starting quarterback, on Monday Night Football, Alex Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards, 3 touchdowns, zero interceptions and had a passer rating of 157.1 (out of a possible 158.3). A bye and a concussion later though, Smith finds himself on the bench.
Yes, Colin Kaepernick shined on Monday Night three weeks later against the Bears, and his ability to hurt defenses with his legs gives the Niners a different dimension on offense. But naming him the starter in the middle of the season will likely divide the locker room on some level, regardless of what is said to media. Any team looking to make a run at the Super Bowl needs to be united in every way possible, especially when it comes to agreeing on a field general. Harbaugh is unnecessarily creating controversy amongst his players.
Suppose Kaepernick goes down with an injury this week, Smith replaces him and plays well. Then what? Suppose defenses get a little tape on Kaepernick and the youngster sputters. Then what? What if the bright lights of the playoffs are too much for him and he struggles under pressure (Smith, of course, took the 49ers to overtime of the NFC Championship game last season). Then what? It’s unlikely these are questions that Harbaugh is ready to answer.
Bill Belichick & the New England Patriots faced a similar situation with Drew Bledsoe and a young backup quarterback 2001. Going with the second-year man from Michigan over the incumbent proved to be the right move. But unless Harbaugh thinks Kaepernick is Tom Brady, he should not have made this decision. And if he does think Kaepernick is Brady, Harbaugh shouldn’t have pushed San Fran to resign Alex Smith in the first place and he shouldn’t have been waffling at every press conference the last three weeks.
Smith is going to get enough of being disrespected by this organization and house divided cannot stand. This daredevil routine that the San Francisco 49ers head coach is pulling will ultimately be the team’s undoing.
4) We’ve seen the last of Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Norv Turner in San Diego.
The Eagles have died a slow and very painful death this season. Mike Vick has battled injuries all year (shocker) and LeSean McCoy was concussed three weeks ago. Five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peter was ruled out before the year even started, DeSean Jackson is done with a rib injury, they just cut Jason Babin out of nowhere, Nnamdi Asomugha is constantly getting cooked and they seem to be firing an assistant coach or executive on almost a weekly basis.
Given the fact that Andy Reid has gone through an extremely difficult year personally, it’s nice to see Eagles brass give him until the end of this season before a change is made.
The Chargers, on the other hand, can’t make a move fast enough. Nothing has gone right for this team since Week 9 and they have now dropped 8 of 10 games. You knew their season was over when they gagged away the previously mentioned 24-0 halftime lead against Denver and was outscored 35-0 in the second half at home. The self-implosion of Philip Rivers has been astonishing enough, but the Chargers must dump Norv and general manager A.J. Smith if they’re going to move forward next season.
5) RG3 or Andrew Luck? Answer: It doesn’t matter.
HHSR does not have a nationally-televised show where we are forced to fill up 21 minutes of airtime with meaningless sports banter. Someday, but not right now. If we did, maybe we too would then spend ample amounts of time debating the merits of rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and whether or not the Indianapolis Colts made a mistake in choosing Luck over Griffin. This is probably why certain TV shows on certain networks with unimaginative producers force this debate (and others) down the collective gullet of the viewing public, with little regard for logic or tolerance (as if the performances of both QBs each Sunday, regardless of the outcome, is going to somehow validate the argument for one player over the other).
There is no real rivalry between the Luck and RG3. They never squared off in college. They only played each other in the pros during the preseason. RG3 harbors no hurt feelings towards the Colts for passing on him (not publicly anyway) and there is no blood rivalry between the Redskins and the Colts.
So who’s better?
SPOILER ALERT: Right now, it doesn’t matter. Both players are thriving and are deserving of the Rookie of the Year award. Both the Colts and Redskins are quite pleased with how things have worked out to this point and both players should be future All-Pros in the NFL. Both men are smart, and they’re seemingly wholesome dudes who will flourish as the future faces of this league.
So please, let’s put a moratorium on this debate for at least two or three years. Yeah, go ahead and pick one. Fine, I’d gladly take the other on my team any day.
6) Some of the NFL’s “elite” teams are total frauds.
Yes, we are talking about pretty good football teams and it’s not like they cannot turn the corner between now and the playoffs, but in order to be truly considered a contender, you must demonstrate your mental and physical toughness against worth opponents at some point during the season.
HHSR’s preseason Super Bowl pick, the Chicago Bears, is absolutely one of those teams that have yet to do this. While they currently sport a very respectable 8-4 record and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, the Monsters of the Midway are void of a quality win on their resumé. They took L’s from their four toughest opponents to date (Green Bay, Seattle, San Francisco and Houston) and their best win was against the Colts in Week 1, which doesn’t really count since it was Luck’s first game and was before the Colts knew what they had this season.
Sidebar: The Bears are still a Wild-Card team as of right now and are back flying under the radar after a hot start. So really, they’re right on schedule with where we predicted, but they still must prove they can get it done against legit competition sooner or later.
The same can be said about the 11-1 Atlanta Falcons. They have had one of the easiest schedules to this point and hold only one victory over a team that is currently above .500 (Denver), with four of their victories coming in games they probably should have lost. Add to that the Falcons recent playoff failures and guys like Tony Gonzalez should be more understanding of the hesitancy people have about Atlanta’s Super Bowl chances.
Another team that fits this criteria is everybody’s new favorite team, the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are good and are certainly capable of making noise in January. But as of now, calling them an “elite” team is a bit of a stretch. It would be like calling Jadakiss an “elite” emcee. Yes he’s dope, very dope even. But does he have a classic record under his belt? Has he done anything to distinguish himself from the pack? It would be hard to say that he has to this point.
Denver has ripped off eight straight wins, but only one was against a team with a winning record (Cincinnati). Their best win this season came in Week 1 against the Steelers, a team that has been wildly inconsistent this year. The Broncos were beaten handily by the Texans, Falcons and Patriots (by a touchdown on average, and the margin is only that close thanks to some junk time points by Denver). It also helps that they play in the AFC West, by far the league’s worst division. While the Broncos appear to be peaking, it’s hard to consider them better than either the Texans or Patriots, two teams they would have to get past in order to make it to Peyton’s hometown in February.
Speaking of the Texans…
7) The Houston Texans are NOT one of those teams.
If we’ve learned anything from watching the New York Giants dismantle the 49ers, or even the SEC Championship Game, it’s that football games are still won and lost in the trenches. Right now, no AFC team is better in the trenches on both sides of the ball than Houston. They do just about everything efficiently and they can beat you on the ground or through the air. Their team is also led by a serious MVP candidate (more on this later).
Houston already has quality wins over Denver, Chicago and (whatever you make of) Baltimore. They have a chance to add the Patriots and Colts to that list as well. This team is totally capable of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in two months. You can’t honestly say that about too many other squads right now.
8) We are witnessing the one of the greatest race for Comeback Player of Year of all-time.
It isn’t every year that debates surrounding the Chad Pennington Comeback Player of the Year Award are at the forefront of the news around the NFL. But the race between Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson is one that we can only hope results in co-winners. Manning missed an entire season after four neck surgeries AND changed teams, yet he hasn’t missed a beat. Meanwhile, AD tore up multiple knee ligaments on Christmas Eve 2011, yet he hasn’t even missed a single game!
Entering play this week, Manning was tied for second in the NFL in TD passes, was second in completion percentage and was ninth in passing yards. Manning also has his team in the playoffs. Peterson, meanwhile, is only leading the NFL in rushing (over 300 yards ahead of the next man, Marshawn Lynch) and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He also has a NFL-high 17 runs of 20 or more yards.
So which is more impressive? It’s really in the eye of the beholder, and again, both deserve to win. The fact that Manning changed teams in the middle of his comeback gives him a boost, but Peterson came back so fast, it isn’t even a “comeback”, because he LITERALLY never left!
If that wasn’t enough…
9) The race for NFL Most Valuable Player Award is still completely up for grabs.
Matt Ryan was probably the leader at the quarter mark of the season, but he’s fallen off as of late. The same could be said about Eli Manning at the halfway point. RG3 has also drawn attention from some noteworthy observers (Michael Wilbon & T.I. Yep, you heard me) at various points this season.
Now, at the three-quarter mark of the season, Peyton Manning is receiving tons of attention for the prospect of winning his record-extending fifth AP NFL MVP award. While it’s obvious Peyton does deserve serious consideration, why exactly is he in poll position?
Consider, for a moment, the Broncos marshmallow division and schedule to this point; also consider the fact that Manning may not even win the Chad Pennington Comeback Player of the Year Award, and it would be completely justified if he didn’t. While Peyton’s impact on the Mile-High City has elevated them to a different plateau within the AFC, the Broncos were already a playoff team before he got there. Lastly, his stats aren’t even markedly better than some of his challengers, most notably, his old friend Tom Brady.
Coming into this week:
Manning: 68% completions, 3,502 passing yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs, (currently) 104.0 passer rating, 9-3 team record.
Brady: 65% completions, 3,537 passing yards, 25 TDs, 4 INTs, 102.6 passer rating, 9-3 team record.
It’s debatable who has the numerical edge this season, yet Tom Terrific is getting very little MVP buzz by comparison. Brady’s Patriots also beat Manning’s Broncos by double-digits earlier in the year. Since QBs are judged on winning first and foremost, this should serve as some sort of tie-breaker. And when you take into account the numerous injuries Brady has dealt with on his offensive line and in his receiving core all year, should Peyton really be the MVP over Brady?
Frankly, we’ve seen better MVP seasons from both men and neither of them, nor any other offensive player, has cemented himself as THE guy for 2012. Which is why as of right now, J.J. Watt should be the NFL MVP.
Watt has been the driving defensive force behind the 11-1 Texans. Houston ranks sixth in total defense and is fourth in fewest points allowed this season. Watt’s 16.5 sacks are second in the league and his 15 defensed passes, which is an INSANE number for a defensive end, ranks sixth in the NFL. No other non-defensive back is even in the top 40! The next highest defensive lineman is tied for 64! Watt’s strategy of batting down passes at the line of scrimmage has rubbed off on his teammates, as Houston leads the league (by far) with 91 pass breakups.
In a year where no offensive player has firmly seized the MVP award, J.J. Watt should be the leading candidate to be the first defensive player to win it since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
Watt for MVP is certainly an opinion, but the fluidity of this race is an absolute fact entering the final four games of the regular season.
10) Fantasy football is awesome, yet somehow, it still sucks…At The Same Damn Time!
Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.