Ranking The Playoff Teams
1. New England — One of the most complete squads of the Bill Belichick era — which is one of the best eras in the history of sports — the Pats have created an AFC Super Bowl road that goes through Foxboro. Belichick’s Patriots have hosted five conference championship games. They’ve won four of them. Spearheaded by Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis, the Pats have laid a course for their sixth Super Bowl appearance of the new millennium.
2. Seattle — It’s tempting to call the defending champs the odds-on favorites after they smothered their final six opponents by a combined score of 134-39, but it’s important to remember that their six-game slaughterhouse featured wins over Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley, Mark Sanchez, Shaun Hill and Colin Kaepernick (twice). It’s still an extremely impressive feat, but a receiver corps “led” by Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse is a bigger liability than anything the Patriots have to worry about.
3. Green Bay — Sporting a first-round bye and the league’s best player is a powerful combination come January. Winning a potential NFC title game in Seattle will be the trick, but the league’s most lethal offense is well positioned to claim at least one game in the postseason tournament.
4. Dallas — 2014’s most-surprising club, the Cowboys not only boast the kind of rushing attack that would be the envy of any team come playoff time, but a quarterback in Tony Romo who is playing the best football of his career. Shockingly consistent in both the way they were teams down on offense, and bend but don’t break on defense, Dallas is a deserving heavy favorite against Detroit in the Wild Card round.
5. Denver — Denver looked like a freight train to begin the season, but has resembled a high-powered fixer upper of late. Peyton Manning still has all the weapons a quarterback could ever need, but can he exploit them in the fashion we’ve grown accustomed to? Manning enters the postseason the owner of a 5:6 TD:INT ratio over his past five starts, and an arm that continues to play “Duck Hunt” instead of laser tag. Assuming they escape the Divisional Round, ducks would doom the Broncos in a mid-January jaunt to Bill Belichick’s house of horrors. Injuries at linebacker — Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan (injured reserve) — hurt the cause, as well.
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6. Pittsburgh — The Steelers have a shocking amount of holes on defense, but the 21st century’s answer to “The Triplets” on offense. The question now, of course, is Le'Veon Bell’s (hyperextended knee) health. The early signs are promising, but if they go south, the Steelers’ fortunes will dim considerably.
7. Cincinnati — There’s a lot to like about the Bengals. Andy Dalton doesn’t qualify. The Red Rifle has overseen three consecutive playoff failures for a team that can mask his deficiencies during a 16-game marathon, but not a one-game battle royale. Dalton’s Wild Card assignment — match points with Andrew Luck — is ominous. That will be doubly true if A.J. Green (concussion) isn’t ready to go. Cincy needs to ride Jeremy Hill.
8. Indianapolis — The Colts don’t have a running game, and boast only rumors of a defense. Translation? Thank god for Andrew Luck, who is the game’s brightest young star since Peyton Manning. Luck has been a bit turnover prone of late — an exceptionally big problem against a Bengals defense that intercepted more passes than it allowed to go for touchdowns — but is arguably the league’s most casual creator of big plays since Kurt Warner. Some of Indy’s tight spots have been of Luck’s making, but he has the kind of arm that could lead a dark-horse championship run.
9. Detroit — The postseason’s lowest-scoring team? The one starting Ryan Lindley. The second lowest? The one featuring Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Why the Lions can’t score points — only nine teams managed fewer in 2014 — is a mystery considering the talent on offense and the pedigree of the coaching staff. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t bode well heading into Dallas. By now you’ve likely seen this stat, but that’s because it’s never not amazing: The Lions are 0-16 in road games started by Stafford against winning teams. As Bleacher Report’s Zach Kruse calculated, Stafford was horrendous against playoff squads in 2014, posting a 4:5 TD:INT ratio, 6.0 YPA and 67.5 quarterback rating across five starts. Selective stats are made to be proven useless, but Stafford’s are too damning to be ignored.
10. Baltimore — The Ravens enter the playoffs less fearsome on defense than usual, and stuck in a three-week rut on offense. The Birds boast the talent and experience to make another postseason run, but the recent on-the-field product has not suggested a team ready to make January noise. The return of Haloti Ngata will help calm things on defense, but a Wild Card win would require Joe Flacco matching points with a red-hot Ben Roethlisberger. It’s not inconceivable, but it’s definitely not likely.
11. Carolina — This is not a shock-value ranking. The Panthers are simply better than the Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals right now, closing on a 4-0 tear and posting a +67 point differential in the process. Ron Rivera’s defense has finally gotten on track following early-season suspensions and benchings, while Cam Newton is again playing like the dual-threat dynamo who oversaw a 12-4 club in 2013. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if Carson Palmer (ACL) hadn’t gotten hurt, but since he did …
12. Arizona — … The Cardinals are the postseason’s worst team. It’s a cruel fate for a club that deserves so much better, but Bruce Arian’s Bird Gang simply isn’t winning a game — a road one, no less — with Ryan Lindley at the controls. Again, this is a team capable and deserving of so much more, but with no quarterback or running game to speak of, Arizona will need a 2000 Ravens-esque performance from its defense to escape the 2014-15 tournament without a losing record.
1. What, you were expecting something else from Joe Philbin against the Jets in Week 17?
2. If firing Jim Harbaugh is the answer, what kind of questions are you asking yourself?
3. Where have all the good young quarterbacks gone?
Philadelphia 76ers Memorial Award
The Bucs say they didn’t tank. The facts say they pulled Mike Evans at halftime, and attempted three second-half passes. Vincent Jackson was sidelined with a groin “injury” mere minutes after surpassing 1,000 yards on the season. According to the Tampa Bay Times, nearly every Bucs starter of consequence was on the pine by the fourth quarter, a period in which the Saints “stormed” back from a 20-7 deficit for a 23-20 victory. Three of five starting offensive linemen were on the bench when Josh McCown took a game-sealing safety. The Bucs didn’t accomplish many of their 2014 goals. Securing the No. 1 overall pick was an exception.
The I Wish This Were Surprising Award
Mike Wallace and Joe Philbin has always been an uneasy truce. Sunday, it fractured into a million pieces, with Wallace allegedly benching himself late in the second quarter of Miami’s (latest) season-ending loss to the Jets. Not surprisingly, Wallace’s teammates were “very displeased” with his actions, while Philbin was cagey as he tried to evade questions about the latest fiasco to occur on his watch. NFL.com’s Jeff Darlington summed up the situation — and Miami’s season — in this perfect tweet: Something wrong: Wallace ends season on bench. Ryan Tannehill ends season on ground. Dolphins end season with loss. Philbin ends season with job.
Better Late Than Never Award
Eric Decker and Michael Floyd entered the season as the WR32 and WR20, respectively, by ADP. Expectations were not met, as Decker limped into Week 17 as the WR42, while Floyd was an even-more distant WR47. Then they exploded for a combined 18/374/3. The outbursts accounted for 20.7 percent of the duo’s 1,803 in 2014 yardage, and provide hope for 2015 redemption.
Quote of the Week, from Cortland Finnegan on Geno Smith posting a perfect quarterback rating against the Dolphins: “That’s the second time, going back to last year, that Geno Smith looks like damn Joe Montana.”
Most Unbelievable Stat of the Season That You’ve Already Heard: The Chiefs’ wide receivers scored zero touchdowns in 2014. Alex Smith has the horsepower of an ox cart.
The That’s So Chargers Award: Losing to Chase Daniel one week after overcoming a 28-7 deficit on the road.
Most Absurd Moment of Week 17: Mike Wallace refusing to answer questions following Miami’s loss, instead having Brandon Gibson answer questions as … Mike Wallace.
Second Most Absurd Moment of Week 17: Dane Sanzenbacher intercepting a pass.
If I Were Drafting For 2015 Today
1. Le'Veon Bell
2. DeMarco Murray (assuming he stays with the Cowboys)
3. LeSean McCoy
5. Eddie Lacy
9. Dez Bryant
10. Odell Beckham
11. Demaryius Thomas
12. Jeremy Hill
Stats of the Week
The Cowboys went 8-0 on the road, becoming just the eighth team in NFL history to do so.
Speaking of the Cowboys, a slew of team records were set on Sunday. DeMarco Murray’s 1,845 yards rushing are more than Emmitt Smith — or any other Dallas runner — ever managed in a season, while his 392 carries are tied for seventh most in league history. Dez Bryant, meanwhile, caught his 15th and 16th touchdowns, setting another new high-water mark for one of the league’s most storied franchises.
Matt Forte caught eight passes, giving him 102 receptions, and a new NFL record for running backs. Forte closes the book on 2014 with 1,846 yards from scrimmage, nearly equaling the career-best mark (1,933) he set in 2013.
The incomparable Odell Beckham caught 12 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, bringing his season line to 91/1,305/12 even though he missed four games, and started only nine. He cleared 90 yards in each of his final nine contests, tying Michael Irvin’s NFL record. Beckham’s 1,305 yards are a record for 12 games, while his averages as a starter extrapolate to 144/2,132/16. Beckham had seven 100-yard days, and caught at least 11 passes in three of his final four games.
Via the Everett Herald’s John Boyle: The Seahawks (2,762) more than doubled their opponents’ rushing total (1,304) this season.
Kenny Britt’s 748 yards receiving may not seem remarkable to you, but represent the first 700-yard year by a Rams wideout since Torry Holt in 2008. That’s the kind of ineptitude Rams fans have been saddled with since The Greatest Show on Turf turned out the lights.
Maurice Jones-Drew signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Raiders in March. He proceeded to rush for 96 yards all season. MJD belongs in the fantasy Hall-of-Fame, but the end to his career has been hard to watch.