2014 NFL Week 13: Patriots-Packers Analysis

Defensive highs and lows

The final boxscore paints an ugly picture, and would point to this game being closer than it really was. Yet despite yielding a gaudy 368 yards in the air and 130 on the ground, a once formidable Patriot defense did nothing if not hunker down once backed up in its own territory. Allowing a final tally of only 26 points, and most significantly forcing a currently unrivaled Packer offensive machine to a 0-4 mark in the red zone certainly represents a triumph in this aspect of the game. Greater talent and added reinforcements for the defense in 2014 no longer made the usual–giving up plenty of yards but sufficiently bottling up the opposing offense enough for Brady & Co. to leap ahead–acceptable. Yet in the context of facing a furiously hot Packers team, with perhaps the most balance and dynamism on the offensive side of the ball, forcing four field goals en route to a sub-30 point performance lifted at least some blame from the New England D. However, Aaron Rodgers’s 45-yard strike to Jordy Nelson with 14 seconds left in the half proved destructive. The lapse in late-half discipline obviously falls squarely on the pass defense, and notably disrupted the team’s progression into the second half of play. A hallmark of Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ game plan has been to finish the opening half strongly, so as to fluidly continue momentum into the second half in which the team often starts with the ball (Belichick nearly always defers possession to the second half). Yet by allowing this devastating late touchdown score–to stretch the deficit to nine–such a crucial transition could not occur. The Pats failed to carry momentum into the break, and subsequently flamed out on their first possession of the third quarter without a first down.

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Nelson (87) ran about 35 yards after his catch and gave a huge boost to Green Bay heading into halftime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rodgers’s vital adjustment 

Secondary to the much anticipated Brady vs. Rodgers showdown, the Patriot secondary (Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner) and top Packer wideouts (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) matchup was initially won by the former group. The New England cornerbacks controlled the explosive Green Bay receivers for the majority of the first half, even deterring the typical amount of targets from their quarterback. Yet Rodgers adapted to this situation, and maintained offensive efficiency, albeit with many drives culminating in mere field goals, while shifting the route of his passes to lesser known recipients. Rodgers acclimated himself perfectly, connecting with an array of new targets headed by rookie third-string WR Davante Adams, who ended the game with a career-high 121 yards. Rodgers had already led the Packers to 13 points before completing his first pass to either of his top receivers, the first to Cobb at the 11:22 mark of the second quarter. This, in turn, necessitated a change in the organization of the Patriot defense. As the game progressed into the second quarter and second half, Rodgers’s ability to sustain offensive potency diluted the defensive pressure placed on Nelson and Cobb, spreading it to other parts of receiver coverage. Consequently, the powerful duo became more freed up, ultimately attaining a combined 138 yards despite early struggles, all working towards Green Bay dictating the flow of the game.

An abandoned offensive dimension 

Encountering a porous 30th-ranked run defense, the Patriots at first seemed inclined to develop an effective rushing attack for the third consecutive game. Three running plays in the first four offensive drives indicated at least some focus on establishing this facet of the offense, especially when the first third down situation called for LeGarrette Blount instead of Brady (which resulted in a failure to convert). But even though Blount gained 58 of the team’s total 84 yards on the ground, the Patriots did not adequately exploit this potential advantage. Offensive balance has not only keyed the previous seven-game win streak, but has facilitated Brady’s mid-season renaissance. For several long stretches during offensive drives, and particularly in the first half when the team permanently fell behind, the Pats elected to exclusively pass the ball. It was as if New England felt it was already in a late fourth-quarter hole–and not in an early game situation, where it failed to devote enough patience to establish a ground attack against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.

Life after loss

Although the heavyweight tilt concluded in a loss, several factors work towards New England’s favor moving forward. Despite the aforementioned lack of a true rushing attack, a clinical job done by the opposing, future MVP quarterback, and the top receiver (Julian Edelman) hampered by injury for much of the day, the Patriots contested the game well. Losing by only five points in one of the toughest road environments proved not so much a demoralizing result, as indicated by the upbeat character of Patriot players following the game. And since New England did not necessarily play to its full capacity on Sunday, and suffered a loss but was not pummeled, such a defeat often works positively once evaluated in retrospect. For whatever reason, entering the postseason with a long win streak and long-built momentum doesn’t always bode well. If the Patriots finish the regular season powerfully, this Week 13 loss could easily serve as a blessing in disguise and stabilize this playoff-bound team’s sense of momentum.

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

Brady (right) and the Patriots have likely faced their toughest opposing quarterback in Rodgers (left) this last Sunday. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

2014 NFL Season Opener: Patriots-Dolphins Analysis

Patriots On Offense

After a very promising first 30 minutes of action, the course of the offense’s performance throughout the contest could only be described as a tale of two halves. Firstly, the response to a Miami punt-block and subsequent opening-game touchdown was very resounding. Notably, the impact of mercurial star tight end Rob Gronkowski–severely hampered by injury in the previous season–became evident long before his TD grab at the 8:37 mark in the second quarter. Despite a few years away from his true breakout campaign, Gronk nevertheless garnered plenty of attention from Dolphin pass coverage, opening up valuable space for the other recipients of Tom Brady’s darts (which turned wobbly later on in the contest) in the first half of the game. Beneficiaries namely included Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, and even Shane Vereen out of the backfield, as well as the rushing attack to a lesser but still considerable extent. After utilizing short to medium passes for progress downfield for most of the first half, Brady finally slung a deep ball with 11:31 left in the second quarter, a pass with just enough air under it to neatly fall in the hands of Edelman. This explosive play–of which the Pats had few and far between–jumpstarted what would ultimately turn into the team’s second touchdown drive, but Brady mysteriously chose not to challenge Miami’s secondary in the remaining relevant junctures in the game (before the insurmountable deficit towards the end).

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Wake (91) forced fumbles on both of his sacks of Brady (12). (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Yet a 17 unanswered point-streak and 10-point advantage constructed in the first half figured insignificantly in the final outcome, as in the latter 30 minutes of play, the Fins defensive effort–particularly the overwhelming pass rush–drowned out any rapport Brady built with his receiver corps in the first 30. Furiously-pressing defensive end Cameron Wake and company grabbed a stranglehold on the battle at the line of scrimmage, but it was the now-punchless and helpless Patriots offensive line that harshly disrupted the rhythm of both Brady and the entire offense more so. The key to countering the New England attack has always centered on the amount of time Brady has to throw the ball, so one can only speculate how Logan Mankins (freshly and inexplicably shipped to Tampa Bay weeks prior to the season’s start) could have mitigated the Fins’ QB pressure. As a result of the line’s instability, Brady had much poorer placement on several of his throws in a half that his offense was brutally shut out, a reaction to a pressurized pocket that the Patriots can only hope to be anomalous for him with respect to the remainder of the season.

Patriots On Defense

The final Dolphin touchdown drive was the unequivocal coup de grace, but beforehand, it would be unreasonable to think that the Patriots defense should shoulder the responsibility for the first two times Miami crossed the goal line. A shocking blocked punt 75 seconds into the game saw the Fins start their first drive 15 yards away from seven points, and a strip-sack by the aforementioned, terrorizing edge-rusher Wake gifted QB Ryan Tannehill and his offense the ball at the opposing 34-yard line (9:14 mark in the third quarter). Both of these momentous plays gave the recently-augmented Patriots D horrible positioning–an aspect of the game the unit simply cannot control.

Perhaps one cause for concern pertains to the eerie similarity of this year’s defensive squad–supposedly a revamped one that would get the team over the proverbial hump, and possibly rank among the league’s finest–to those in the recent past: once again, the tendency on this side of the pigskin is yielding plenty of yardage but clamping down effectively once backed up in its own half of the field, and limiting the opposition to field goal tries while opportunistically manufacturing turnovers (in fact occurring on two consecutive Miami drives in the second half). This of course can prove effective when coupled with an excellent offensive personnel, but the Pats defensive group appears capable of much more, and should aid rather than burden an aging leader of the offense in Tom Brady on the other side of the ball.

The play of Darrelle Revis:

However much buzz surrounded the matchup between the newly-minted Patriot Revis and a rebound season waiting-to-happen in WR Mike Wallace, and how the former would stay true to his character, establish his suffocating “island” in the secondary, and cruelly render the latter ineffectual, it just didn’t happen. Wallace, in his second year as a Dolphin, ended up with a flashy stat line of seven receptions for 81 yards and a score. On a few of his catches, Wallace did shed Revis off himself along the progression of his route, but the result of this WR-CB clash was more of Revis not living up to his billing than anything else. It may just be part of an acclimation process to a new defensive structure, and it’s worth noting many regard his opposition as one of the swiftest in the league, but Revis often failed to stick with his marker, granting Wallace more freedom than one would expect in this contest.

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Moreno (28) torched the Pats run defense on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Miami’s game-sealing drive:

Critical third-down conversions would ultimately put the Dolphins ahead 30-20 in the fourth quarter–as part of a drive in which 6:01 elapsed, and that clinched their opening-season victory–but even more notably, the drive highlighted the influential play of Miami’s run game. Knowshon Moreno paved the way with an overpowering 134 yards on 24 carries, and along with another 59 yards on the ground from Lamar Miller, the Fins rushing attack dictated tempo throughout 60 minutes of play, a notion that materialized only in retrospect of the entire game’s action. By instituting a formidable ground game that continually ruptured through the Pats’ unit hovering around the line of scrimmage, Moreno and Miller attracted increased defensive attention to create two important by-products: shifting New England’s focus off Tannehill and thus giving him more comfort in the pocket, and decreasing the number of opportunities for the Pats offense by simply keeping it off the field.The Dolphin offensive line deserves much praise as well in this area, and in addition to allowing more time for its quarterback to throw, perhaps has begun the process of proving its many detractors wrong.

The Burden of Being a Brown: Johnny Football’s Next Big Task

Manziel (right) was relieved to finally hear his name called at the 1st round of the draft on Thursday.

Manziel (right) was relieved to finally hear his name called at the 1st round of the draft on Thursday. (Craig Ruttle/AP Photo)

Was the social media explosion of a welcome party meant as a way to usher in Johnny Manziel to his life as a Cleveland Brown? Or rather was it the events concerning two members of a depleted receiver corps that surpassed within 24 hours of Manziel’s selection, news that star Josh Gordon could face a season-long suspension after failing another drug test and that Nate Burleson fractured his left arm? Either way, intentional or not, the franchise was quick to show the adversity, hardship, and short-lived optimism that comes with being a Brown–without yet having played a single game on the gridiron.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that a franchise-changing figure like Manziel fell into Cleveland’s lap not once, or twice, but at three different points in the 1st round of the 2014 draft, and that by the greatest strokes of luck, this downtrodden Browns franchise managed to receive one more chance to reel Manziel in towards the latter stages of the round. Manziel’s draft stock fluctuated highly before he even entered his name in the draft,  but to think that the polarizing quarterback could drop so deep would be ludicrous. Cleveland was evidently not sold on Manziel as a top-pick draftee. But if the franchise agreed on selecting Manziel in the unlikely scenario of his availability in the 20’s-pick range of the draft, then the manifestation of this situation–coming after several quarterback-needy teams passed on the Aggie–seems as a result of pure good fortune, a term rarely associated with the Browns.

Then comes speculation of how, or whether, Johnny Manziel fits in the Browns organization. Considering that a litany of quarterbacks have entered Cleveland with promise and subsequently departed in disgrace, and that the franchise has failed to see the light of the postseason in 12 years, the arrival of a high-profile, spotlight-attracting, and flashy-personified player like Manziel simply electrifies not only the team, but the city as well. Yet the attention Manziel garnered during his time at College Station, and has already brought to Cleveland, is justified: the QB achieved a Heisman Trophy in his college tenure, and totaled 7,820 passing yards with 63 TD passes as well as 2,169 rushing yards with 30 TD runs, in addition to several spectacular performances on the biggest stages, all within two years of play. Thus, the aura of stardom Manziel carries with him is anything but a facade–even though off-the-field peculiarities cause the football world to raise a collective eyebrow.

Moving to the actual football field, and beyond the stimulative effect only his presence and name will have on the franchise, Manziel will undoubtedly have plenty of freedom to operate in the Browns offense, which really has no identity or specific scheme to speak of. A couple of months ago Cleveland hired Kyle Shanahan as the new offensive coordinator, his last coaching stop being with the Redskins that concluded with the firing of both him and his father, Mike Shanahan. While his offensive tactics appeared incompatible with a very similar dynamic, dual-threat quarterback to Johnny Football–Robert Griffin III–Shanahan has stated, even before the draft, that he felt confident about Manziel’s NFL prospects, and that his style will translate to the next level. Moreover, Shanahan said he enjoyed his pre-draft time with Manziel, and perhaps most important to allaying any doubt with respect to his rapport with the young QB, said that he is willing to be flexible with Manziel at the quarterback position.

Another factor that could prove beneficial to Manziel in his time as a Brown is the proverbial “chip on his shoulder”. This characteristic of the QB has been made all to well-known to the football world, but in truth works to Manziel’s favor, and now even to a greater degree following his free fall to the 22nd slot. Manziel will of course direct his focus to solely bettering his own team, but surely the uncomfortable and distasteful experience he had amid his slide to the 22nd pick will stick with him throughout his NFL career; in what has become a matter of habit, Manziel will go out to prove his doubters wrong, and especially show the organizations that passed on him the horrendous mistake they made.

On top of all this, Manziel will work to revive his quarterbacking mystique at the next level with mindset of having a top-tier defense–further bolstered, ironically, by an 8th-pick Justin Gilbert selection Manziel surely believed was his rightful placement–fit to bail him out and grant him plentiful chances to succeed. Thus, Manziel can afford some mistakes in his first NFL year, and the backlash to any points of his mediocrity or disappointment will be minimized.

Nevertheless, Johnny Manziel received his first taste of the toils that come with the Browns territory shortly after being introduced to the franchise. Not only will Manziel enter a situation filled with new faces following a team overhaul, but he will likely take his first snap without the team’s best player in Josh Gordon, burdening Manziel with difficulty from the onset of his career. But if there’s anyone that can help shed the Browns’ history-filled record of misfortune and misery, and start to put a halt to this tradition of grief, Johnny Manziel has the looks and the feel of the hero Cleveland needs, and therefore, if all goes as planned, making his selection at the 22nd slot one of the best the team will have ever made.

Patriots Offseason 2014: Thoughts

In the early parts of the 2014 offseason, it appears that the New England Patriots will let more key players go, such as Aqib Talib and eventually Vince Wilfork, than they will retain, such as Julian Edelman. Yet in these decisions, and also by adding two new faces to the secondary, the Patriots brass have handled the offseason period fairly well for the time being.

Parting ways with two defensive anchors in an already mediocre unit seems questionable in theory. But allowing Talib to sign with the Denver Broncos and eventually releasing Wilfork after his refusal to restructure his contract only makes financial sense. Perhaps these moves can now give leverage to Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick in either pursuing offensive weapons for Tom Brady or bolstering the defense.

And while New England has not yet acted on the potential loss of Wilfork, it responded within days to not resigning Talib by inking Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to two- and three-year contracts, respectively. The additions of these two former Pro Bowlers–and for Browner after he serves a 4-game suspension at start the season–will certainly shore up a usually suspect pass defense, and can help fill the void created by Talib’s departure. Furthermore, these signings reveal a proactive approach to the offseason by the Patriots front office, one that if continued for the rest of the offseason could pay dividends.

On that point, the Patriots cannot let up now: bringing Julian Edelman back on board was the right move, but beyond that, plenty of work has yet to be done if the Pats want to make the most of their championship window. It starts by maintaining their aggression with this free agency period, and continues into the upcoming draft, which holds several enticing offensive options.

Super Bowl XLVIII- Thoughts & Prediction

Manning (left) and Wilson, guided their teams to conference championships, and now will look to win the Super Bowl. (Photo left by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images, photo right by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Manning (left) and Wilson, guided their teams to conference championships, and now will look to win the Super Bowl. (Photo left by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images, photo right by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Whether it be his last game or notfuture hall-of-fame quarterback Peyton Manning will view Sunday’s prime-time matchup against the Seahawks as perhaps his last chance at another Super Bowl. Interestingly enough, this drive to cap an illustrious football career mirrors that of another NFL legend in last year’s big game: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. While Lewis had already affirmed that he would retire at season’s end, the way in which he valiantly pushed his team through the playoffs and to the Super Bowl creates a parallel to what the NFL world might be unknowingly witnessing in the present with Manning and the Broncos. 

So although Seattle appears as the better and more complete team–just how the San Francisco 49ers seemed a year ago–Denver might have an even greater force going for it, as Baltimore did in last year’s game: the sheer determination of a living legend who could possibly be seeking to “go out on top”.

Furthermore, Manning will possess the clear advantage in what has become the key aspect of nearly every NFL contest: the quarterback battle. Manning’s performance up to this point in the season has been greater than that of any quarterback in NFL history, which of course includes opposing gunslinger Russell Wilson. And since Manning plays a position at which experience is most crucial and valuable (which he undoubtedly has plenty of), one can presume that he will continue his unmatched level of quarterbacking efficiency right into the Super Bowl.

Though the Seahawks might begin the game looking as the stronger squad, the acclimation process for Manning and his offense is bound to gradually develop. Once he settles into a stage where he’s been two other times, Manning’s air attack will dictate the course of the game. But while the Broncos offense will accumulate loads of yardage, it will not necessarily all lead to touchdowns. Thus, look for Denver kicker Matt Prater–owner of the longest field-goal make and one of the best at his position–to have plenty of kicking opportunities and ultimately provide the definitive edge in this Super Bowl clash.

Prediction: Denver 26 Seattle 24 

NFL- 2014 Playoff Predictions

Note: While I would pick Denver over Seattle for Super Bowl XLVIII if I take into account this past season’s results, I will hold true to the most meaningful preseason prediction I made four months ago for the following playoff picks–my one for the super bowl.

AFC Wild Card

Kansas City @ Indianapolis 

The Colts will be riding their momentum into this matchup, having swept their last three contests and looking more refined as whole now than at any other point this season; the key will be for the run defense (ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed) to control the explosive Jamal Charles.

San Diego @ Cincinnati 

The Bengals are simply a different, more composed squad on their home turf; Cincinnati won all their games at Paul Brown Stadium this season by an average of 18 points. And if I’ve learned anything about the San Diego Chargers in the last decade, it’s that they’re nothing better than a mirage of a successful NFL franchise.

NFC Wild Card

New Orleans @ Philadelphia

I’ve wavered on this matchup more than any other on wild card weekend, but since weather might not make as big an impact as expected, I’ll side with Drew Brees tearing through a horrid Eagles pass defense (ranked 32nd in the league) to determine the game rather than Philly running back LeSean McCoy doing the same against a poor Saints run defense.

San Francisco @ Green Bay

The Packers as a whole play at another level come playoff time, but defensive woes will be too much of a problem as Colin Kaepernick & Co. is progressively regaining its dynamic style of play.

AFC Divisional

Indianapolis @ Denver

Cincinnati @ New England

The divisional round in the AFC will feature the conference’s powerhouses avenging earlier, away-game losses; in both matchups, the mentality of playing either at home or away will prove a decisive factor.

NFC Divisional

New Orleans @ Seattle 

San Francisco @ Carolina

It seems appropriate that the best teams from the best NFC divisions (South and West) make up the conference’s divisional round. And to continue this trend, the teams from the better division–the NFC West–will advance to the championship.

AFC Conference

New England @ Denver

Getting revenge for regular season losses away from home turf continues to be a theme in the AFC postseason, as the Broncos, in this case, when they get another shot against the Patriots at Sports Authority field; the combined effect of injuries to starters over the span of the season, and the resulting lack of reliable players, will finally lead to New England’s downfall.

NFC Conference

San Francisco @ Seattle

The Arizona Cardinals poked a hole in the Seahawks’ home supremacy, and if there’s any other team that can outlast Seattle at home–and has the ample familiarity with the Hawks to help in doing so–it’s the 49ers.

Super Bowl XLVIII

Denver vs. San Francisco 

The power generated from a hot streak going into the playoffs (a common theme for successful wild card teams), the gradual improvement of health for the team’s key players, and the developed chemistry between QB Colin Kaepernick and his targets: it all comes together for the Niners, who avenge a loss at this stage a year ago. The vaunted San Fran defense–albeit exposed at times this season–will come in full force, a necessity for stopping presumable MVP Peyton Manning.

The Significance of Arizona’s Victory Over Seattle

Palmer (3) played effectively when it mattered most. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Palmer (3) played effectively when it mattered most. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

I have long been a harsh critic of the Arizona Cardinals, but what they did today by going up to Seattle and beating the Seahawks 17-10 is simply incredible–a resounding victory marking the greatest in the franchise’s history since a playoff win nearly four years ago.

Over the past two years, Seattle’s status of near-invincibility has grown from on its home field, to seemingly away from it in light of its dominating 2013 campaign. Prior to Sunday’s tilt against division rival Arizona, the Seahawks triumphed in their last 14 contests at CenturyLink Field (dating back to the onset of 2012 season), as well as sporting a 23-7 home record during head coach Pete Carroll’s tenure in the northwest. Rookie and now sophomore sensation Russell Wilson had not only yet to lose at home in the NFL, but also extended this streak into his college career, last tasting defeat at home exactly 1,177 days ago.

With all of that well-established before attempting to keep their slim playoff hopes alive–and seeking to avenge a 58-0 embarrassment of a loss at the same locale a year back–the Arizona Cardinals proceeded to shock the NFL world in thoroughly outplaying Seattle on its home turf.

At times on Sunday, the Cards appeared on track to regress to their old ways of squandering a potential victory, and never making the leap to a team worth legitimately considering. In three red zone attempts (one of which coming from the most fortuitous of events: a recovery on a unforced kickoff fumble) the Cardinals failed to convert for a touchdown on any. When Seattle snatched a 10-9 lead on Wilson’s 11-yard strike to Zach Miller (oddly enough a native Arizonan) with 7:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, Arizona seemed headed for a devastating finish, after having arduously built up a lead out of field goals over a span of three quarters.

Floyd reels in the go-ahead score. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Floyd reels in the go-ahead score. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

But Carson Palmer responded emphatically, and in doing so atoned for a miserable four-interception, sub-.500 CMP% performance beforehand. The Cardinals quarterback lead his team on the ensuing possession 80 yards down the field–a reaction to a pressurized situation highly uncommon for signal-callers visiting Seattle–and pushed the Cards ahead 17-10 on a 31-yard touchdown bomb to receiver Michael Floyd, topped by a two-point conversion run by Rashard Mendenhall. The score rendered the once-raucous “12th man” practically mute, sending shockwaves throughout the nation as well. When linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted a Russell Wilson pass on the Seahawks’ next drive, the momentous and perhaps franchise-altering win was sealed.

Yet despite the most unprecedented of victories at Seattle, the Cardinals are still not in control of their own destiny. To reach the playoffs, Arizona would need to beat San Francisco–which becomes considerably more manageable being at home in Glendale–as well as hope for either the 49ers (tomorrow against the Falcons) or the Saints (next Sunday against the Bucs) to lose, both results unlikely because of significantly inferior opponents.

Nevertheless, even if the Cardinals miss out on the postseason for a fourth consecutive season, it would not diminish the job Bruce Arians has done in his first year as head coach of this team. I, for one, was not entirely on board with firing Ken Whisenhunt, and even less content with hiring Arians over former defensive coordinator Ray Horton. But as the 2013 season progressed, and the Cards developed a sense of rhythm under the helmsmanship of Arians, the organization’s bold decision back in January was clearly vindicated. Arians has extracted the best out the offense passed down to him, while allowing the defense to retain its efficiency of 2012, and has began to construct a winning culture–all in a season the Cardinals can surely build upon moving forward.

NFL Week 15 Thoughts: Patriots in Peril, Bears Have Hope, and Seahawks Somehow Look Even Better

A Patriot Predicament 

It’s hard to know what to make of the New England Patriots right now.

Having sustained so many crushing losses–whether literally in terms of highly-controversial game finishes, or in the form of injuries to an already unreliable roster–would only point to a designation of this season as “not their year”. Yet after compensating for the early-season absence of Rob Gronkowski, and then somehow managing to mitigate the damages from season-ending injuries to Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, it began to feel more like it was in fact New England’s “year”, simply because the team overcame so much adversity. Perhaps this unprecedented display of fortitude and adaptability could only bode well and be a harbinger of greater things to come.

But in light of failing to complete a comeback against division rivals Miami this Sunday, might the wheels be finally falling off of this resilient Patriot team? Home-field advantage seemed a necessity for postseason success, and when the Denver Broncos assumably take care of business against the likes of Houston and Oakland, New England could find the road to the Super Bowl much more strenuous, and even impossible, to accomplish.

Importance of starting Cutler 

Marc Trestman may have made the biggest decision of his tenure in Chicago on Sunday. And not only did it pay off in the short-term, but the long-term impact will prove even more beneficial.

When first considering the debate over the rightful starter of the Chicago Bears–a now healthy Jay Cutler or an upstart Josh McCown–one would be disposed to choosing the latter: the Bears have been desperately seeking a sense of momentum and lasting efficiency, and who would better provide that than McCown (13 TDs and averaging 250+ passing yards in 7 games played) who has played a key part in keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive.

Nevertheless, in tabbing Cutler as the starting quarterback–the position Cutler held before his ankle injury–head coach Trestman affirmed a key team philosophy: an injury would not make a player lose his job, therefore sending a message to his players to not fear of playing with a “reckless abandon”. Trestman laid down the precedent of prizing playing with an unmitigated passion for the game and laying it all on the line above all, albeit a chance of resulting in injury.

Cutler shook off some rust in the early-going in Cleveland, throwing for three touchdowns with 265 yards in the air, and maintaining the Bears well within the race for the NFC North crown by helping record the win. Barring another injury, Cutler may be on the path back to quarterbacking stability, backup hero Josh McCown even remained in high spirits/content with Cutler as the starter, and Marc Trestman positively influenced his team. The Bears will now need to win out and hope that the Detroit Lions lose in the next fourteen days, but even if this doesn’t occur, only good will come out of this past week’s events.

Seahawks make a statement

For all the hubbub about Seattle’s rise to the top of the NFL’s pecking order, the one knock on the team has been there supposedly inconsistent and faulty performance away from the confines of CenturyLink field. After all, the Seahawks’ only two losses this year came in contests away from home in Indianapolis and San Francisco. And prior to facing the New York Giants for their final away game of their regular season, their average margin of victory for away game wins was 9.6 points (take out the 33-10 anomaly of a win at Atlanta and you have 6.25 points)–a stark contrast from the average of 18.67 points that the Seahawks beat their opponents by at home.

Anyways, the Giants seemingly posed a threat to the visiting Seahawks on Sunday, having won five of their last eight, three of which coming at home, and thus carrying a semblance of momentum. But MetLife Stadium felt like home for Seattle, drubbing New York to the tune of 23-0, and in doing so dispelling doubts of their away-game ability to some degree. Not only did Seattle shut out the home team, but they dominated the Giants in every aspect of the game: the Hawks ran more plays (67-53), possessed the ball longer (33:58-26:02), had more first downs (21-12), totaled more offensive yards (327-181), and won the turnover battle (5-1).

And that’s as if the Seahawks needed to prove any more skeptics wrong.

Or as if a win on Sunday was necessary to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which they would have had a great chance to do, even if they didn’t beat the Giants, with season-ending home games against Arizona and St. Louis.

Or as if Seattle even needed this display of away-game success–one more victory in the regular season, and the only foreseeable “true” away game the Hawks would face in the 2013-14 season would be on February 2nd…in MetLife Stadium, again.

Kuechly at Forefront of Panthers’ Turnaround

As part of an underwhelming Panthers team, you couldn’t really make much out of Luke Kuechly winning the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2012. But just one season later, as the undeniable leader and anchor of Carolina’s defense, Kuechly has played an integral part in his team’s transformation–accentuated by the Panthers’ 10-9 victory over the 49ers on Sunday.

Kuechly sacks Kaepernick in the 4th quarter. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Kuechly sacks Kaepernick in the 4th quarter. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The ninth-overall pick in the 2013 draft may not be posting nearly the same gaudy defensive numbers as in his rookie year (an astounding 164 combined tackles), but he remains the Carolina’s chief defensive asset at the linebacker position. Building around Kuechly, the Panthers’ D has improved from among the most porous and unstable in 2012, to ranking at the top in this current season. The run defense–where Kuechly makes his impact felt most–best epitomizes the unprecedented defensive turnaround: the Carolina defense has allowed an average 79.1 rushing yards per contest, 2nd-best in the entire league.

And so, the Panthers entered Candlestick Park on Sunday expected to fulfill the script of being exposed at the hands of the vaunted San Francisco 49ers–only it didn’t happen. The Niners held the lead for almost two quarters of play, but the Panthers’ defense were actually winning the key battles, holding San Fran to only three field goals. The Carolina offense did its part before the half, converting for a touchdown shortly after the two-minute warning, as well as helped to tack on a pivotal three points in the fourth-quarter. A Colin Kaepernick interception then sealed the shocking away-game victory at the 0:23 mark.

In by far the best win of the season, the Panthers held fast to their style of football: a grind-out defensive battle, in which the victorious team eclipsed the single-digit scoring mark by one point, with only one player totaling more than 100 yards (Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, throwing for 169 yards). And who was at the center of this effort? Second-year standout Luke Kuechly, notching 11 solo tackles, along with an important late-game sack. No player had a bigger role in two, decisive aspects of his team’s defensive performance:

  • limiting the best rushing attack (averaging 153 YPG) in the NFL to nearly 50 yards below their game average (105 yards on Sunday)
  • holding the 49ers to 18 points under their season average (from 27 PPG to 9 on Sunday)

While the Panthers continue trying to harness the potential firepower on the offensive side of the football, it’s comforting to know that their defense has evolved into one of the best in the league, anchored by none other than Luke Kuechly. Furthermore, by proving that they can contend with the NFL elite, and with at least four more potential wins on their schedule, the Panthers appear destined for postseason action–a notion inconceivable at the start of the year.

National Football League 2013- Predictions

AFC North

  1. Cincinnati (3)
  2. Baltimore (5)
  3. Pittsburgh
  4. Cleveland

AFC South

  1. Houston (4)
  2. Indianapolis (6)
  3. Tennessee
  4. Jacksonville

AFC East

  1. New England (2)
  2. Buffalo
  3. Miami
  4. New York

AFC West

  1. Denver (1)
  2. Kansas City
  3. San Diego
  4. Oakland

NFC North

  1. Green Bay (2)
  2. Detroit
  3. Chicago
  4. Minnesota

NFC South

  1. Atlanta (4)
  2. New Orleans (6)
  3. Tampa Bay
  4.  Carolina

NFC East

  1. Washington (3)
  2. New York
  3. Dallas
  4. Philadelphia

NFC West

  1. San Francisco (1)
  2. Seattle (5)
  3. St. Louis
  4. Arizona


Wild Card Round


  • Cincinnati over Indianapolis
  • Houston over Baltimore


  • Washington over New Orleans
  • Seattle over Atlanta

Divisional Round


  • Denver over Houston
  • New England over Cincinnati


  • San Francisco over Seattle
  • Washington over Green Bay

Championship Round


  • Denver over New England


  • San Francisco over Washington

Super Bowl XLVIII

San Francisco over Denver