Posted Tuesday, January 13, 2015 07:39 PM
Posted Monday, January 12, 2015 02:18 PM
by Michael Stewart
Another weekend, another round of playoffs and another dismal set for yours truly. I refrained from doing a buyer's remorse piece for the playoffs because, well, I'd never done one before. But it feels like the best way to talk about all four games without making you guys click around on four different articles. So here we go, with a 1-3 ATS record to boot. At least I got Dallas-Green Bay right. Kill me now and put me out of my misery! Ok, maybe in three weeks.
Dallas Cowboys +5.5 over GREEN BAY PACKERS (Packers win 26-21)
There are a lot of one liners that came out of that Dez Bryant play, but my favourite was one of my own: "Penalty - Number 81, reaching for the goal line. Automatic turnover on downs." I've had two days to go over this play and by all accounts, that was damn catch. I know that the rule is in place and how it's dissected, but haven't we hit a tipping point here with replay and being overanalytical about whether or not a play is a play is actually ruining the game, instead of making it better? I mean, how many awesome touchdowns were overruled this year where the runner/receiver was called back to the one-yard line? Too many. That's how many.
We got to this point for the simple reason that refs kept blowing calls, but now they're sucking the fun out of the game AND blowing calls. Now you have to wait while 97 guys comb over every frame of a play for 30 minutes while watching replay before you know if a play happened or not. It sucks. I truly hate it.
It's even worse when the rules are antiquated or just plain stupid. Any ref is held to the guidelines handed to them, but the specific rule that nullified a potential, game winning touchdown for Dez and gave the ball back to Green Bay, should have been abolished when the same rule reared its gruesome mug with Calvin Johnson against the Bears. If that play wasn't a catch, then Oregon's last touchdown on Monday night wasn't a damn touchdown.
One of the elements we love about watching sports is how it reflects life. You have hardships, glory, overcoming the odds...all the fun storylines and narratives that allow people like me to have jobs, and fans like us to enjoy the games beyond the athletic feats that they present to us. We've tried our best to completely take the "life isn't fair" element out of sports, but now we've gone too far. Not only do constant reviews completely disrupt the flow of a game, they also don't allow refs or players any leeway when they should.
How about reviewing a roughing the passer call, and quadruple checking to see if a player has initiated a tackling motion before the ball is snapped, keeping in mind that you have to position your head in a certain way to make a safe tackle so you might not see the very tip of a football leaving a quarterback's fingertips? If we're going to get so bogged down with this replay garbage, then apply it to every single play.
Football has been a drag to watch this year because touchdowns aren't touchdowns, catches aren't catches and turnovers aren't turnovers anymore. In an effort to shield refs from making mistakes, we've made the game worse. Even more, we're still getting everything wrong! This kind of stuff has to end. Football can be one of the great sports in the world, but it's probably a warning sign that you need eight refs to police the game. Non fans sometimes ask me if American football is really as complicated as it looks and my reply is always, "The game is so complicated and counter intuitive that you need eight refs on the field, one of which who has a microphone so he can explain rules to fans, and then you have two announcers who have a consultant to further explain the rules and nobody can ever agree on anything." Sounds like a terrible time to me.
Even if you're a Green Bay Packers fan, there's no way that you can endorse that play as a non-catch. Even Brady sort-of admitted that the tuck rule was stupid in his post game interview, smirking like a person who just got away with murder. Maybe you think that it's vindication for the Fail Mary that happened in a somewhat meaningless game in 2012. Even still, that was with replacement refs who didn't have any idea how to do their damn job (which only further illustrates how impossible it is to find good refs these days). You can almost certainly argue that Aaron Rodgers marches back after that score and wins the game anyways, but you shouldn't really dispute facts with hypotheticals if you're trying to argue things. Cowboys fans could just as easily say that that touchdown would've snapped the mental makeup of the Packers in to little pieces. We'll never know.
I said on Friday that the game would end in heartbreak, and that was 100% the case for Dallas. None of it should fall on Tony Romo's shoulders. He had an exceptional game, leaning on Murray for the most part, and killing the Packers whenever he had an opportunity to throw. He ended the game with a near-perfect 143.6 rating, reflecting a 2014 season of brilliance on his part. I hope Dallas keeps the band together (Dez and DeMarco are free agents and Jones wants Adrian Peterson) so that Romo can make one more, glorious run. Very few quarterbacks remaining in the NFL deserve a real shot as much as he does. At the very least, Dallas has found a winning formula.
They also showed Seattle - or at least reminded them - how to beat Green Bay. Have a running back that can do it all? Well then give him the ball. Murray was the most productive back in the league this year, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn't think that MarShawn Lynch is the best at his position. Right now, Seattle is a -7.5 favourite over Green Bay. There are a lot of good reasons why, which I'll get to later in the week. I need to calm down and stop taking the refs' stupidity out on Green Bay before I get to the NFC Championship.
Seattle Seahawks -11.5 over Carolina Panthers (Seahawks win 31-17)
I backed Cam Newton and the Panthers in that game, it by god it was right there. That pick-six absolutely murdered myself, and half the betting community because we had split action on this game. Maybe Cam shouldn't have thrown that ball. Either way, the end score of 31-17 doesn't really reflect how close that matchup actually was.
There's no point in venturing a conversation about Carolina because they had so much work to do. Right now, we know they're good enough to hang in the playoffs as long as Cam Newton is healthy. If they add the right pieces, while the rest of the division eats itself alive, there's no reason to think they won't three-peat as NFC South champs. They gave the Seahawks as good of a battle as anyone they've faced.
As for Seattle....well what can you say? Russell Wilson doesn't make mistakes. Ever. Lynch was held in check but made the Panthers pay for it physically. And that defence showed up and created big plays when the team needed them most. There is, however, one quality I absolutely love about these Seahawks that nobody else really talks about. They're resilient.
I said it about Ohio State over Oregon on Monday too. The Buckeyes had been routinely punched in the mouth by their own conference, and never stopped moving forward no matter how much they were bleeding. Oregon had never had that type of game, outside of Michigan State in Week 2. You need to possess the heart of a champion to become one, and that's what the Buckeyes and Seattle have in common outside of fantastic coaching.
There's no doubt that Seattle is probably the best, overall team in the playoffs right now and they'll be favoured as such in the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl futures board. They're an easy team to dissect and over analyze, but when the heat gets cranked up, Seattle responds by scorching you at the worst/best possible time.
Everyone should be scared of them. As if they weren't already.
Baltimore Ravens +7.0 over New England Patriots (Patriots win 35-31)
Basically, my entire column on Friday was designed to sing the praises of Joe Flacco and then I went against him because...well I'm not really sure why. What he showed in the that game with 292 yards and 4 touchdowns was unreal. He put the Patriots on their butts twice. Against any other opponent, that would've been good enough. That was the vindicating performance that Flacco needed to justify his glory run in 2012 and his massive contract. I hope that everyone sees in him what I saw, aside from his sociopathic, calm behaviour in tight situations.
It was also a relief for Brady, who had a massive, 367 yard, three touchdown effort of his own (with one, awful pick). The easy thing to say about the Patriots coming back from two 14-point deficits on Saturday is that they have resolve, but this franchise is different. They always have resolve. It's what the dynasty was built on. The difference this year is that they have the energy to tap in to that resolve. Think back to their lifeless performance in the 2013 AFC Championship game. That squad had simply run out of steam. This one seems like it's feasting off a bottomless pit of steam.
The one element missing from New England's boxscore is a running game, which tallied just 14 yards against Baltimore. A lot of that was because they only attempted the run 13 times, while Brady heaved 50 passes. That's pretty much it. The defence was getting bombarded by Flacco and steamrolled by Forsett. I'm not sure if Luck can play any better in AFC Championship than Flacco did, and I know for a fact that Boom Herron isn't going to get rolling like Forsett did.
Either way, the Patriots have climaxed in to Final Boss mode. There is no better way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of your last championship than by winning another one.
Indianapolis Colts +7.5 over Denver Broncos (Colts win 24-13)
Was this game more of Andrew Luck being phenomenal, or Peyton Manning and the Broncos looking like they have nothing? It's come out afterward that Manning had a torn quad muscle which would actually explain a lot. The way that the Colts played defence, with tons of underneath coverage on safeties on short leashes, suggests that Pagano at least suspected that Manning wasn't near 100%. He was willing to get burned to find out, but by the end of the first few drives, the Colts knew that Manning wasn't healthy. That's when they started going after him.
It was an ugly game for Denver, one that ended Jon Fox's career as their head coach and threw in to question Peyton's greatness yet again. I'm not going to get in to it. If you don't think he's awesome, I understand your point of view but I'm not all the way there. But then again, I'm someone who still loves Brett Favre. My points might be invalid.
Fox's firing may have had something to do with the Broncos losing, or failing to tell Manning that they weren't going to force him to throw the ball 45 times on a wounded leg. C.J. Anderson was having a big game with 18 carries for 80 yards (4.4 YPC), but as the game trudged on, he touched the ball less. There was a ghostly feeling about this Denver team, as if they knew they weren't going to win.
I'm not protecting Manning, but I also don't truly believe the game was all on him. A defence that acquired Talib and Ware this offseason was supposed to be lights out, especially with Von Miller playing a full season, but none of those guys even seemed like they were doing anything in the game. The Broncos had zero sacks on Sunday and frankly that front seven has been abysmal all year without too many people noticing.
I don't know if Manning will retire. He probably won't. He still has a big payday waiting for him in 2015, and from what I hear about money, you can never have too much. Besides, Manning is still very capable. He shut down somewhere through the second half, but we know now. Maybe that's why Fox got fired; as if he forced Manning to play, or didn't look out for his best interests, when the injury initially occurred. I'm just guessing at this point. All I know for sure is that Denver has a lot to do this offseason, and we'll finally see what Jon Elway can do. The Broncos need him more than ever right now.
In the wake of Manning's demise, Luck rises yet again. Reaching the conference championship in just his third year is a monumental achievement given his surroundings (again, this team isn't very good). Kaepernick and Wilson have done so already as well, but neither have literally put a team on their shoulders and willed them through the playoffs. Kap was driving a team that might as well have been a Corvette, while Wilson is in the seat of a Porsche. At best, Luck is driving a 2012 Ford Taurus. I don't even know if they make those things anymore.
I could spend a ton of time and word count here talking about how deficient Luck's team is. It's easy to discuss the fact that he's played Brady and Belichik three times already, and gotten murdered every single time. But we had our opinions about Luck heading in to this game as well. I'm not sure if his force of will isn't so immense that it could rival Brady's own determination on Sunday.
And like you, I'm dying to find out.
Now gimme some Ric Flair! WHOOOO!
Posted Saturday, January 10, 2015 04:23 PM
by Michael Stewart
I am still completely recovering from another horrible weekend at the book. It's killing me so badly on an emotional level that I can't even figure out if I'm actually hungover by all the whisky I inhaled over the course of those four games. So I'm taking a little NFL break while I gather my thoughts in to a more succinct wrap-up, style piece (where I lament a murderous pick-six and The Catch That Wasn't) and turning my attention to a realm that's been much kinder to me this year.
Save me, college football. Please. I'm begging you.
There's so many reasons to love this national championship matchup to death. First of all, it wouldn't have happened had the BCS Computers made the decision for us. Second, it's a terrific contrast of styles between a team everyone loves, and a storied program that A LOT of people don't like very much. Third, it's a game for an actual college football national championship! Rejoice, friends! The NCAA finally did something right.
Oregon and Ohio State meet tonight in Texas to decide the top dog in all of college football. At a combined 19-9 ATS, you can imagine that the gambling universe is very split on this one because a lot of people bet on football at this level with their hearts. These two teams were rewarding backers hand over fist this season, while other schools like Alabama and FSU were leaving dead bank accounts in their wake. So who do you like?
On one side, you have Ohio State, a team that has been waiting many, many years to get back to the national title scene after the Pryor/Tressel debacle. With the arrival of Urban Meyer, the school made an instant turnaround with an undefeated run in 2012, a five-point loss to Tajh Boyd and Clemson in the Orange Bowl in 2013 and now this. Along the way, Urban Meyer dug up a guy named Cardale Jones who has played for ten minutes as a starter and totally endeared himself to everyone in the country.
But the Buckeyes are far more than Jones, and it's obvious that Meyer has created a relatively safe system that requires his quarterbacks to be nothing more than great athletes. It's why he got so much out of guys like Alex Smith (who turned in to the first overall pick in his draft), Tim Tebow at Florida, Braxton Miller and now Jones. Meyer's blueprint doesn't demand the quarterback to stretch himself beyond what he's capable of, and it's easily malleable to all sorts of different types of players. Jones is a BIG dude, and he can run like a stampeding hippo when he wants to. So while a lot of people will focus on Jones' solid performance against Alabama - 237 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT with 43 yards on 17 carries as well - there really isn't any need to. Meyer insulates his quarterbacks by putting them in to a position to succeed.
The real gem of the Buckeyes is their defence, which picked off Alabama three times two weeks ago while holding down the fort until the bittersweet end. Nothing about this defence jumps out at people because they're a chameleon in that regard. Each week, they transition schemes so well that you can't actually tell what their defensive identity is, which is fun because that is their identity. OSU adapts so brilliantly to their opponents that it's almost hard to really see.
Statistically, Ohio State doesn't "feel" elite. They gave up 333.4 total yards per game with a balanced approach to limiting the run and the pass, while only allowing 22.1 points against. These are really strong numbers, but they don't grab you in the same way that Oregon's 509.7 yards of offence per game does. And that's why there are many backers here who aren't even giving the Buckeyes the time of day. That's a big mistake.
The other reason is the simple fact that Ohio State is from the Big Ten, but I routinely try to argue that theirs is a conference of guts and gravel. We always talk about how there's no conference like the SEC, because there isn't, but the history of the Big Ten schools makes all of them blood rivals with each other. These schools beat the literal crap out of each other every weekend down the stretch. It's so obvious that they hate each other, and that type of atmosphere either churns you up and spits you out...or it makes you something far greater.
Ohio State Buckeyes (13-1) vs. Oregon Ducks (13-1)
Monday, January 12th ---- AT&T Stadium --- 8:30pm EST
College Football Championship Game Line: Oregon -6.0 (73.5)
Grinding and surviving the Big Ten is a far more difficult task on a yearly basis compared to the cake walk the Pac-12 became this year. Stanford fell apart. USC was inconsistent. Arizona was up and down, as was Arizona State. UCLA never got their act together. Out of the ashes rose the Oregon Ducks who decimated this conference while validating their only loss of the season against Arizona in a Pac-12 title game was about as gruesome as they get.
I'm not detracting from Oregon at all. You know how incredible they are. We've all been hearing it for years, and I'm a huge fan of what the school does from all angles. I'm a Ducks supporter is what I'm saying. But even the most avid fan of the Ducks knows that their team hasn't been tested against mettle the same way that Ohio State has, and when it comes to pressure cookers on grand stages, those kinds of tests are important.
Oregon had some big games this year. The comeback win over Michigan State was awesome, but after that they really didn't have a team to be that scared of for weeks. They stumbled against Washington State, lost to Arizona, then tightened the bootstraps and got to stomping fools. I don't even need to tell you the point differential Oregon boasted down the stretch after that weird loss to Arizona. Let's just say it was a billion because that's what it felt like.
It's undeniable that cakewalking your season for the most part allows you to fine tune all the nitty gritty things about your offence that you feel you need to. Nobody could touch Oregon in the Pac-12 because nobody was actually that good, and Oregon is clearly one of the best programs in the country. Even their game against FSU wasn't much of a challenge, and we all saw that game coming from a mile away. The Seminoles were on the verge of collapsing. The Ducks just gave them a shove, and off they went in to the abyss.
The situation against Ohio State is very different and we can talk for hours about this stat or that trend, but the fact of the matter remains that the Buckeyes have walked through fire and brimstone to get to this point. It's been somewhat of a pleasure cruise for the Oregon Ducks. Obviously I'm colouring the narrative here a certain way to illustrate my point. Keep in mind that I do understand that Ohio State had some layups and that the Ducks are an exceptional, offensive team. But you get my drift here.
You can bet on Oregon with complete confidence here, but I love everything I've seen out of Ohio State. When the bell is rung, this team always responds. They ended the Alabama dynasty right before our very eyes. They're about to prevent Oregon from ever tasting glory. From the banished barrens of college football purgatory to a national title game in three seasons under Urban Meyer? I mean, are you kidding me?
As I alluded to, I think that Meyer can rejigger this defence to mitigate the Oregon offence while using Jones et al in a clock killing offence that prevents Mariota and the Ducks from falling in to an offensive rhythm. One thing I know about the Ohio State Buckeyes is that when they get punched in the face, they stare at you and hit you even harder. Oregon did that once this entire season (against Michigan State) and the fact that they lolly-gagged their way through a softer schedule makes me feel like they lack a certain edge. You need those kinds of x-factors to win a game of this caliber.
Ohio State has these jagged, bulky edges to them that are confidence inducing, and Urban Meyer at the helm simply instills more confidence. After the way he undressed Nick Saban in the semi-finals, I have very few doubts he has an impactful plan for Oregon tonight. Those smooth Ducks are about to get sanded down, and this time there won't be a comeback.
National Championship Free Pick - Ohio State +6.0 (UNDER)
Posted Saturday, January 10, 2015 03:56 AM
by Michael Stewart
I really wanted to wait until after the Saturday games were over to write this, but I had to be honest with myself. I'm going to be pretty blasted by the time that happens and typing sentences probably won't be my strongest suit. I may or not be enjoying a libation as I type these sentences. Let's get on with it, shall we?
Dallas Cowboys +5.5 over GREEN BAY PACKERS (1:05pm EST)
I hashed out a lot of what I was thinking about this matchup in my Thursday article, which you can find by clicking on my name and scrolling through my archives. By the way, that's not me trying to lure you away or being too stupid to type in a hyperlink. It's literally impossible to use this engine to create a hyperlink, and pasting a link in the middle of an article is messy.
Also (probably) messy: betting on Tony Romo in the playoffs! Last week's headache against the Lions was just that, so I'm not going to dive too much in to it. Dallas got lucky with some bad calls, but Detroit was also terrible in that game. People need to stop whining all the time, especially when the Lions put themselves on the road by being a major disappointment for much of the season. Screw Detroit is what I'm saying.
In any case, let's get back to a great game featuring two of the most storied franchises in history. One's probably the most beloved team in all of football. The other is the Dallas Cowboys.
It's easy to point fingers at Tony Romo, Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones. That's what we've been doing for a decade so it feels almost instinctive to continue to do so. The Cowgirls are just going to get on their knees and blow another game, right? (I'd ask you to excuse my language but you're here to gamble so I assume this kind of tone is ok with degenerates).
Yet Dallas posted an overly ambitious 47.3 points per game average in their last four games of the regular season, which is incredible when you couple it with the paltry 19.8 points allowed by the defence in those games. Yes, one of those matchups was against Chicago but the other three opponents were Indy and two NFC East rivals from Philly and Washy...er Washington. There was no way a +27.8 point differential was going to hold up in the rigours of the playoffs, but one thing became certain to me. When Dallas is absolutely rolling on offence, they're virtually unstoppable.
A lot of that has to with their ability to get the offence off the field after scoring. This is a big play offence masquerading as a buffet of balanced attacking options. And that's exactly where a mechanic like Tony Romo can really get to work. Yes I just used the word "mechanic". Say what you will, but the guy posted the best quarterback rating of any passer this entire season. I'm going to give credit where I think it's due.
The major difference between the 2014 Cowboys and other iterations in the past 8 seasons under Romo is the presence of a run game, but it's also important to understand just how crucial those painful development years were. Defences could always drop back against Romo because the Cowboys have never been a strong running team no matter what you try to convince me of. Romo would sling, gun, force and lob every attempt he could to try and squeeze a pass in to an airtight window. The results were horrifying...but there were lessons learned.
The byproduct of all those years forcing the pigskin in to tight windows has actually made Romo a bit more of a visual artist in the way he sees the field. Imagine trying to find two receivers between five guys. Now imagine if two of those defenders aren't there anymore. That is a very basic (and almost dumb) way to explain it, but that's what's happened to defences against the Cowboys. They can't drop back defensive ends and linebackers in short zone coverage as frequently as they used to. Incidentally, that's where Romo usually gets picked off.
All this is a result of DeMarco Murray's explosive breakout season. Murray led the league in rushing and basically everything that had to do with carrying a football because he was fed like an elephant at a zoo that isn't trying to lose said elephant to PETA for being too skinny (oh god, the booze is taking hold! actually it might have when I called Romo a "mechanic" and a "visual artist" earlier...). The end results were positive for the Cowboys and Murray, but they also had a very obvious trickle down effect for Romo.
Romo attempted the fewest passes per game (20.3) since his debut in 2006 because he had Murray to lean on. It's a luxury he's never really had, and boy did he make the most of it. Even with fewer attempts per game, Romo still finished 4th in the NFL with 34 touchdowns and was ranked 23rd in interceptions with just 9 through 15 games, tying Brady and Roethlisberger (as well as Kirk Cousins and Austin Davis). It's less about opportunity by volume and more about maximizing opportunity.
You combine all of this together and you begin to understand that this Romo is the best we've ever seen. Yes, even better than the one who threw 4,903 yards in 2012. Romo has less pressure to lead the offence with Murray by his side, and can zip lasers to his receivers with less guys clogging up the passing lanes when he opts to throw. Toss in Romo's patented Fastest Release In The League along with reduced coverage and you have a recipe for success.
So why don't teams just lean away from Murray and put more guys in coverage? For the simple reason that Murray and this awesome offensive line can beat you single handedly. The Packers already give up the 23rd most rushing yards against and while Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are great, there's no telling if they can stop Terrence "Nothing But Touchdowns" Williams ad Dez Bryant one-on-one. Green Bay is going to be scrambling to make the right decision here so they don't get burned.
That's why you can't just bet against Romo in the playoffs with neanderthal thinking like "Gurgh Romo bad in playoff game grunt". Sure, he could have a meltdown. But so can anyone! It's infuriatingly stupid to discredit a quarterback's ability to grow when it's so obvious that Romo has done just that under the guidance of Jason Garrett. Believe me, I'm just as amazed as you are. I thought, like everyone, that Jerry Jones would be cleaning house at this time of year instead of cleaning out room in his trophy cabinet.
Speaking of meltdowns, you're probably wondering when I was going to start talking about Rodgers. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but I have my reservations about him in the playoffs. If you're going to hold your hands up to your throat when asked about Romo in the playoffs, you have to do the same with Aaron Rodgers. Yes, he won a Super Bowl but that was four seasons ago. He's lost every, single, opening playoff game of his career outside of the his 2010 run and a 2011 matchup against Joe Freaking Webb of the Vikings. You can't tell me with any sort of conviction that Rodgers is "clutch" with a playoff record like that.
The thing is that Green Bay is absolutely loaded to the teeth with talent. Their offensive line is not great, but Jordy and Cobb form the best receiving duo in the league. Eddie Lacy has really blossomed this year, but needs a ton of open space to really get rolling. When he does, he's like a rhino on PCP, but trolling him with a spy so he doesn't catch passes is the key there. The Cowboys were one of the best teams against the rush overall this year, ranking 8th with 103.3 yards against. I'm not completely sure Lacy will be that much of a factor.
Of course, the rushing ranking is a little bit of a misnomer because the passing defence was so suspect. But all that being said, the secondary has played a lot better in the last five weeks. There's no way around pretending that Green Bay isn't going to get in to the endzone. That's not my issue. The same can easily be said about Dallas.
Listen, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Dallas is flat out better than Green Bay or that Tony Romo is due because neither statements are true. You know how dangerous Green Bay is, but you may not have fully appreciated how and why Dallas is an equal threat. The Dallas defence is a problem, but the Cowboys beat you by destroying you on the scoreboard. Green Bay's notoriously frustrating "bend but don't break" mentality on defence will get them in to a lot of trouble here.
What I am trying to convince you non-believers is that this game will be close. Besides, with 5.5 points on the spread, it's almost too perfect. This game is either going to end in an earth shattering upset by Dallas, or heartbreak at the last minute for Tony Romo. Even the biggest Romo haters out there have to admit that those are the only two outcomes here, because Dallas's offensive fire power is simply too unrelenting to be denied throughout the whole day. Besides, we all know that Romo's big games almost always add to his narrative.
I'd be shocked, stunned and flabbergasted if Dallas beat Green Bay but I will more than happily support them as moderate underdogs on the road in hostile conditions. This is a new year for the Cowboys...and it might be the same old playoff disappointment for one Aaron Rodgers.
DENVER BRONCOS -7.5 over Indianapolis Colts (4:40pm EST)
This one won't take as long. I love Luck. I think what he did with Indy this year is worthy of an MVP award, especially when you look at his numbers in a personal and team contexts. But I can't get over the fact that:
a) Indianapolis got blasted by Denver at the beginning of the year
b) Nothing changed as they were routinely blown out by elite teams every time they played one
c) This game will have nothing to do with Luck and everything to do with that no-name Colts defence getting trampled
When Indy loses, they lose badly and in five defeats this year they were outscored by an average of -16.8 points. Again, this had very little to do with Luck most of the time. More so it was simply that the Colts were one of the gate keepers of the 2014 season. Lose to them and you're pretty much a pretender. Beat the hell out of them and you're right in the thick of things (unless you're Philly, and who knows what would've happened if Foles had stayed healthy).
Denver played a bit of possum towards the end of the season and also hit some bad luck and bad timing in later games, but they're still one of the most balanced teams remaining. There's always a blowout in one of these divisional games, and you're looking at it. That's probably a good thing because we all need to get our beauty rest for the college national championship game anyhow.
See you on the other side. Best of luck.
Posted Thursday, January 08, 2015 02:23 PM
by Michael Stewart
After a disastrous Wild Card Weekend where I went 0-4 ATS, I'm back for more punishment but this time I'm taking longer views at each team instead of blurbing it up like I usually do. Check back Saturday afternoon for the previews for Sundays game as well. Enjoy the very best weekend of NFL Football there is, folks and I'll see you on the other side.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS -7.0 over Baltimore Ravens (4:35pm EST)
On Thursday, I spent hours writing a long piece profiling the eight quarterbacks in the divisional round of the playoffs. In doing so, I talked about the potential breakup of the Brady-Belichik empire while calling Joe Flacco a snake in the grass in a positive way. The thing is, I like Flacco in this situation. I just don't love him enough.
I made this mistake with the Bengals-Colts game, betting strongly on a Cincinnati team that measured out much better than their opponents instead of Luck over Dalton. It was a massive error, one that cost me dearly but that's what happens in gambling. I vowed not to bet against the better quarterback in any playoff game even though I sobered up and realized that was a myopic point of view by Monday.
But as I wrote in that previous article, I'm terrified of Joe Flacco in this game. He could do what he's done many times before and throw up a complete dud, but his game against the Steelers made me a bit of a believer. When he plays at his best, Flacco is as complete of a quarterback as there is. He can easily make all the throws and is basically trained to make the right decision. More to the point, he tends to avoid making harrowing throws by relying on his arm strength when the moment calls for it. Frozen ropes and sniper-like precision can be part of his game. They're not always there, but they exist in his arsenal if he's confident enough to attempt those types of passes. My point is that I want to believe that Flacco can cover this game. There's a part of my brain screaming for me to reverse my pick here.
Belichik's defence is a big anchor for me here. There are a ton of differences between the Patriots and Steelers, but one of the major ones is the secondary. Revis Island is a real thing now, and that means trouble for a stiff route runner like Steve Smith and the rest of the secondary can easily contain the stretched out ceiling of a speedster with limited evasiveness like Torrey Smith. And the Ravens don't have a perfect offensive line; it's susceptible to the pass rush in a bad way, which is largely why they got torn asunder by Houston in Week 15. Baltimore didn't face another elite pass rush in the second half of the season outside of Miami's in Week 13 and that team had given up already.
Let's keep in mind that the Patriots ripped off a ridiculous 10-1 SU and 8-3 ATS streak between Week 5 and 16, giving up an absurd 18.0 points against, which is easily a top-5 average this year. Nobody has scored more than the 26 that Green Bay did, and even they needed Revis to fall asleep on one play. He was wide awake for every other play during that 11-game stretch.
I haven't even gotten to Brady yet, who led an offence that averaged 34.5 points per game over that span. Those include lows of 17 points against the Jets in Week 16 - and they almost always have weird, funky, bad games against them - and 21 against the aforementioned Packers. You can't take those games out of the equation because they happened, and the fact that the Pats plastered everyone else in that stretch pretty much sums up the state of the team right now.
This seems like a lot of words to explain why and how the Patriots are going to beat the Ravens, but I need to talk myself in to this one because that seems like a lot of points in a cutthroat game between two blood rivals who absolutely despise each other. I can talk myself in to Flacco outperforming Brady to a certain extent in a vacuum but I can't escape the context of the situation with the two defences. The Ravens have holes everywhere, especially in the secondary where they were routinely exposed by Ben Roethlisberger, who didn't have a run game to speak of.
The math says that the Patriots are a logical bet because their defence won't give up the inches and windows that the Ravens need to fall in to a rhythm. Just know that I'm weary of Flacco, and everyone else who follows me down this road should be too. I'm just not convinced that the Ravens can keep up with what New England does offensively.
The receiving corps beyond Gronkowski isn't great...but that's how good Brady is. You can safely bet on Brady going for it in a way he just couldn't against Denver last year at this time. As for Flacco, I'm more than happy to be burned betting against him while still believing he's capable of ascending to the level we saw him reach two years ago.
I just hope everything I think about Flacco is wrong so I can relax after the first half. I just have a hunch it isn't. And now I find myself relying on that Pats defence. Bars serve alcohol on weekends right? Good.
Carolina Panthers +11.5 over SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8:15pm EST)
This is the biggest spread we've seen in a playoff game game in over three years, and the last one involved Tim Tebow. So it's almost funny that the action is - I kid you not - split right down the freaking middle. There are probably a lot of early line takers that wish they had waited for the weekend to take the Panthers. This line has moved up a whole +1.5 point away from Seattle.
The question is whether Carolina is a worthy bet even with a gigantic point cushion.
The answer: YOUR'E DAMN RIGHT THEY ARE! Listen, I know it's hard for me you guys to take me seriously when it comes to betting on a red-hot Panthers team and a rejuvenated Cam Newton because I totally suck on his baby bottles, but there's a difference between betting on a Carolina team that took 13 weeks to get their act together and a Carolina team that is playing behind a fully healthy Cam Newton.
For months, Cam battled terrible luck. He fractured his ribs in the preseason. He lost a bunch of teammates on both sides of the ball. His team was bad and getting worse. And then he got in to a car crash.
You can't diagnose the Panthers team that existed prior Week 14. There's no point. Cam was hoping for healthy ribs and wasn't running the ball at all. He didn't run that much last year, but he had more targets to throw to. With Benjamin being pummelled by targets so they could keep Cam a bit more insulated, the Panthers had a really, really rough ride. Stewart, Williams and all the other tailbacks were either on the trainer's table or wearing jogging pants. It was ugly, and not in the way that they like. Give me a minute to expand on that thought further.
It seems like it's the hope of every coach to see a running quarterback settle down, sow his roots and become a pocket passer. Newton has really tried over the past three years, but everything hit a boiling point this season. Benjamin is a beast despite his drops (you try catching it in constant double-coverage as a rookie with every safety head hunting you and no relief in sight), and Cam bought just enough time over three months to get healthy. That's when the glorious, 41-10, prime time televised, destruction of the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome occurred. Cam became a human bulldozer again and the Panthers re-discovered their offensive identity as a pulverizing force on the ground. Nobody saw it coming, especially the Saints and the gambling universe.
The defence responded in kind, allowing just 11.8 points per game over their last five matchups. ELEVEN POINT EIGHT. There's a momentum swing on NFL teams when a dead-in-the-water offence suddenly starts swimming. Defences that basically knew they had nothing to play for start pushing things in to fourth, fifth and sixth gear. That's what happened with Carolina; they embodied their inner-Cam, an indomitable fighting spirit (I can't help myself, alright?! I love him.) You can say what you want about the opponents (New Orleans, Tampa, Cleveland, Atlanta, Arizona) because it feels like they caught all those guys at the right time.
But that's the other thing about Carolina. At their peak, they create a lot of their own luck. You can say that they got lucky against Arizona to a certain extent, but gamblers who rode the scorching Panthers in 2013 know better. A lot better. That's exactly the type of implausible and totally gross kind of game that the Panthers love.
Carolina forces ugly like no other team by wearing down defences with Cam's body, and a revitalized Jonathan Stewart, while the defence does a lot to stir the pocket and create turnovers. Again you can look at the laundry list of opponents they've dealt with and laugh because they all have either deplorable records or Ryan Lindley at quarterback, but they also include Drew Brees and Matt Ryan who are two of the best at what they do and they scored a combined 13 points in truly important games.
Ironically, the Panthers are one of the only teams that actually makes Seattle look bad. The Niners don't do it. Denver doesn't do it. Nobody has or does on such a routine basis like Ron Rivera's bunch. If the Panthers had Greg Hardy and Star Lotulelei (who broke his foot this week and is out), Carolina's automatic in my eyes. Without them, it's much harder to imagine the Panthers re-creating the 13.7 points against average they've held Seattle to in their past three meetings over the past three years.
But defences in the current NFL don't just thrive on big name stars. With rule changes galore, systems are what counts. Arizona is a case in point of a team that thrived despite injured starters, while Houston is a study of a team that rode the talent of one guy. You get my drift. Obviously you need to rig those systems with major studs...and this front-seven still has Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson so there is a lot of reason to hold out hope. Kuechly is especially vital to what Carolina's accomplished against Seattle because few linebackers are intelligent enough or fast enough to successfully track and contain a running-back like Lynch and a mobile quarterback like Wilson. There's a 50-50 chance that Seattle just blows this game up and puts all this dialogue in to a grave, but I'm more than willing to believe that Rivera and this Panthers defence has Seattle's number.
Let's keep in mind that Seattle is not a perfect team and I've said this many times before. They do what they do at an unbelievably elite level, maximizing the skill sets available to them with immense results. But Seattle's recipe for success relies heavily on Wilson having free reign in what I've jokingly referred to as a "flag football offence", where he runs around and receivers boot leg until they're open. Carolina is probably the only team out there that has a proven track record containing Wilson's style in this regard. Even in the first game of 2013, Wilson racked up 320 passing yards and a touchdown with no picks but that game ended 12-7 and really could've gone either way.
There's another set of numbers you have to pay attention to without focusing too much on Wilson: 62, 42 and 85. Those are Lynch's rushing numbers against Carolina over those same, three games. That's an average of 63.0 yards on the ground for Beast Mode, and the big 85 came in the Panthers-Seahawks game from 2012. The up-front defence does such a good job of bottling up Lynch. A lot of that has to do with Kuechly who does a magnificent job at making decisions to track Wilson or throttle himself at Lynch that it should be documented and shown to every linebacker who has to play the Seahawks.
If you've made it this far in to the late game preview for the Panthers-Seahawks game you're probably as desperate as I am for reasons to bet on Carolina. Those that gave up on this either hate my writing (very probable) or are just going to say "Fudge this the Seahawks gonna win you troll!" (extremely probable). Simply put, the Panthers have a lot to be concerned about - most notable the loss of Star upfront - but their physical offence can beat up a Seattle front-seven that is predicated more so on speed than power and force.
You've probably guessed that I'm hoping for this game to be as beautifully ugly as I hope it is. And by all angles, I'm betting that it will be. That makes this double-digit point spread a fantastic, high-value investment, especially if Cam can impose his will on this game the same way he's done with his team.
A straight upset? I mean you know I have money on it. How can I not? But you're probably better off with the points.
by Michael Stewart
I have an unhealthy obsession with dissecting NFL quarterbacks, and with divisional weekend barrelling right down our throats, I can't help but get contemplative about the elite eight standing right before us. From Brady to Newton, we have eight staggeringly unique identities and destines that are about to be shaped yet again. Will we see an empire rise again, or will an architect rebuild himself? Or will it be the future king, a force of nature or a snake in the grass that bites us? All I know is that I'm so excited to see how these stories unfold.
Writer's note: I basically wrote all of these blurbs as separate entries. You'll be able to tell. I just wanted to gush, and gush I did. All of these guys are captivating. Yes, even you, Joe Flacco.
THE EMPIRE - Tom Brady and Bill Belichik (New England +300 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
There's little doubt that Brady and Uncle Bill will go down as the greatest quarterback-coach duo since the immortal pairing of Montana-Walsh. They're easily the best, overall bet to make to win the Super Bowl in my estimation, especially at 3-to-1. Gronk is unstoppable, the running game has suddenly emerged and the Pats' defence has blanked everyone they've needed to outside of Green Bay. Since that ugly loss to Cincinnati which totally woke a sleeping giant (thanks a lot, Andy), the Patriots haven't allowed anyone to score more than the Packers did, and they only managed 26.
The only problem with Brady is that he hasn't won a Super Bowl since 2004 making this season the 10 year anniversary of the last time this Patriots' dynasty actually existed. Obviously they've been to the big one twice since then, inexplicably losing both times to the Giants. But you can't fault Brady as much you can question Belichik's methods.
Beyond Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski, Brady has been under fire with a lacking supporting cast. Even now, his best wide receiver is the truly underrated Julian Edelman and after that it's Brandon LaFell, who was so bad for Carolina that they just cut him despite desperately needing receivers. Even with a ton of cash to work with, Bill always relied on The Patriot Way, letting go of franchise stalwarts like Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Richard Seymour and so on. The thing is, Bill always seemed to drop the right guys at the right time and made "the right decision" instead of the risky gamble. Look at the way he handles the draft. Amassing picks was more important than amassing first-round talent that could go boom or bust.
Eventually, these hedges caught up with Bill as the offence did what it could with Brady at the helm while the defence tried desperately to do its part, failing when it needed to succeed. That changed this past off-season when the Patriots went out and grabbed Darrelle Revis after the Bucs made yet another, terrible roster decision. Revis has been a revelation this year after three, painful seasons of rehab from a blown out knee. Belichik has crafted a defence worthy of the 8th fewest points against this season, and finally has a secondary that can go toe-to-toe with anyone. When great talent meets great coaching, you get amazing results and for too long Belichik has relied on the latter too much.
There's rumblings that Brady and Belichik are starting to unravel a bit, and that the new restructuring of Brady's contract was less of a cap savvy move and more of a method of allowing the Patriots and Brady to walk away from each other after this year if things don't work out. That seems insane, but it's in the air. We all know it. The Pats can cut Brady in the spring now at a reduced cap penalty and just move on to a proper rebuilding phase. It was the subtext of the contract re-negotiation. You should know this by now and if you didn't, well now you do.
For me, that doesn't mean it's going to happen because Brady has been the lynchpin of this entire franchise no matter what anyone says. Belichik can get rid of anyone - even a guy like Gronk - and I would never question him but I don't think he'd be arrogant enough to let Brady walk. Even a mad man has his limits.
That being said, it's been ten years since they raised a banner at Gillette. It's been ten years since the legend of Brady and Bill has really had anything to be proud of, because in New England it really is Super Bowls or nothing. Nobody in Boston brags about the 18-1 season. They've been a playoff mainstay since the turn of the century, making the dance 10 out of 10 times when Brady is involved and for any other franchise three Super Bowls would be enough.
But not these guys. This could very well be the year that this magnificent pairing comes to an end, but it's much more likely that this is when The Empire strikes back.
MIGHTY MISLEADING - Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers +550 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
It's impossible to hate Aaron Rodgers. Downright impossible. The only thing I hate is the Discount Double Checks thing because it's so obviously a title belt signal from pro wrestling, and it's also the name of my fantasy nemesis in a league I've played in for over a decade. But anyone that hates Aaron Rodgers can just burn in hell in my opinion. The only reason to despise him is because you hate the Packers, and that feels sacrilegious. Even for a Bears fan.
Everyone seems to think that Rodgers is the MVP of this season, and I'm going to argue against that because of Luck's bewildering campaign until my throat is sore, but the numbers are astounding. Rodgers threw for 4,381 yards (7th) and 38 touchdowns (3rd) with just 5 picks (1st), compiling a rating of 112.2 which is second to only - wait for it - Tony Romo. This is what we expect out of Rodgers. It's automatic greatness.
Or is it? Since 2008, when Rodgers finally got to start, the Packers have won a Super Bowl as a wild card team meaning that they have four playoff victories. Outside of those years, however, Green Bay is just 1-4 SU in the post season, losing all of their first games in the playoffs and beating the Vikings who had Joe Webb at quarterback. All totalled, that's a 5-4 SU record for Rodgers and these Packers.
"But...but that Super Bowl run!" Yeah, well you know else had a glorious, record shattering Super Bowl run? Joe Flacco who also started in 2008 (but as a rookie) and is 10-6 SU with a ring on his finger and a mega contract in his back pocket. Unlike Harbaugh, I'm not willing to put Flacco in to the elite ranks yet, but his performance in the post season speaks for itself. The guy just wins a lot when it comes to the post season. I'll expunge more on Flacco in his own section, don't worry.
Rodgers is one loss away against Dallas from becoming the next Peyton Manning. I'm dead serious about this. We ALWAYS talk about how badly Manning does in the playoffs, that he's not clutch and that it shouldn't matter what his numbers are if he only has one ring. It doesn't derail Manning's overall greatness, but it does detract from it, and it will do the same to Rodgers despite how loveable he is.
I'm just saying what gamblers already know en masse. Don't trust Aaron in the playoffs. Not yet. Not just because of one run, especially when it looks more and more like the exception to the rule instead of the gold standard of his playoff career. We scrutinize Brady's ringless, 10 year run. We put Peyton under siege after every playoff loss. You have to do the same to Rodgers, especially when he's put in the same category as those two legends. It's only fair.
How does that GB -6.0 line look now?
THE UNDERDOG - Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks +230 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
It would've been easier to call Russell Wilson "The Champ" because that's who he and the Seahawks are in present day. The fact that they're also a strong favourite to win the Super Bowl this year also makes the underdog nickname pretty non-sensical. So am I just trolling Seahawks fans that I openly detest because they're the worst?
Not in the least. I've become a fan of Wilson, especially considering how Pete Carroll has used him. Throughout the final quarter of the season I've stated emphatically that the Seahawks are one of the only teams that know who they are from top to bottom. They're an imperfect team that embraces their strengths and ignores their weaknesses. Instead of trying to force Wilson to become something he can't (i.e. the next Drew Brees), Carroll has designed a system that maximizes all of his players' intertwined skill sets. It's actually glorious to watch.
You have to remember that despite all of Wilson's incredible success, he remains largely overshadowed. We heard a lot more about Kaepernick and RG3's demises this year, and Luck's continued ascension, then we did about Wilson. He's not a major marketing force unless you live in the Pacific Northwest. And as the sixth quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL Draft (behind Luck, RG3, Tannehill, Weeden and Brock Osweiler) he's always been overlooked. That wasn't meant as a joke about his height either.
Wilson doesn't jump out at you is what I'm saying. He had two 300+ yard passing games this season. His numbers are very good when you add in his rushing totals, but they're not top-10 worthy nor are they the kinds of stats that make analytics geeks foam at the mouth. He's also too short to play the position, which is one of the reasons he ends up running the ball so many times and we have no idea how he'd fare if he didn't have Marshawn Lynch in the backfield as well. There's no long term trajectory for Wilson's career because there aren't a lot of guys like him. He is not the next Drew Brees as I stated before. If anything, he's more so the next Steve Young and even that's a stretch.
I'm on an island with Wilson because of my overall concerns that he is a "perfect place, perfect time" kind of guy. I don't think that another coach would've done as masterful of a job with him as Carroll has. The Seahawks have an insanely intimidating defence and running-back, and the culture they're breeding is undeniable. Hell, they've already won a Super Bowl and could create the dynasty this year we all thought we'd see in San Francisco.
That's the thing about Wilson - he's doing all of these incredible things on an incredible team, and yet we still can't say with complete confidence if longevity is part of his future. But he's been overlooked before. It happened in the 2012 NFL Draft. It happened in the last Super Bowl. It happened briefly before the 2012 season when he somehow outmuscled Matt Flynn for the starting gig (it was ridiculous at the time). When we find reasons to doubt Russell Wilson, he gives us more and more reasons to believe in him.
He's overcome the odds before. There's no reason to think that Wilson isn't just the guy that wins in spite of them.
THE ARCHITECHT - Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos +700 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
There's no point in going over Manning's long, Hall of Fame worthy career. There's also no point in diving in to his horrible playoff statistics or record although I do want to point out this single thing: One of the reasons that Manning has the most career playoff losses in history is because he's given himself that many opportunities in the post season. Doesn't that say how good he is instead of how bad he is?
In any case, Manning is and always has been the greatest architect in the history of the game. He builds his offences and tailors them to his liking. The fact that he went from throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark to throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker/Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas is no accident. He made those things happen. He's always been able to not only acquire the weapons he desires, but to customize them to do what he sees best.
It hasn't always worked out, but that's just nitpicky. We have never seen a quarterback like Peyton Manning before and we won't ever see one again, because the arrogance it takes to build your own team and offensive scheme just wouldn't fly anymore. I know this overlooks what John Fox does, but I can name almost every offensive coordinator in the league. The one I always forget is Adam Gase (who I had to look up again for this article).
Manning and Denver's worth in the playoffs will always be based on how people feel about him in the playoffs. We've seen him suffer such epic failure time and again for two reasons: he's always in the playoffs and the expectations for him are always unbelievably high. It's not like Denver is stomping in to the playoffs with the momentum they had last year either since their 5-1 SU record to end the year consisted of five victories against non-playoff teams and a loss to Cincinnati (who lost last weekend).
No matter what, if Denver wins or loses, it will be Peyton Manning's fault and that's totally by design.
REDEMPTION SONG - Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys +850 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
My name is Michael Stewart and I have a confession to make: I am a Tony Romo apologist. Scroll back through my archives and you'll find pieces here and there where I launch myself against the masses to defend a career story arc, and a player, that I find completely fascinating. The way people react to Tony Romo is a university level sociology class in the making.
Romo is a guy we should be rooting for. He's literally living the American dream! The son of a naval officer and a store clerk, Tony grew up in Wisconsin (the heart of the country!), eventually playing college ball at a school we're not even sure actually exists (have you seen them play?). He then went undrafted in 2003 and didn't start for three whole years as he toiled behind names like Testaverde, Quincy and Bledsoe. Then 2006 happened and the rest is history.
But wait! There's more! He's dated countless superstars, including In Her Prime Jessica Simpson, and then married a former beauty queen. Plus he plays for AMERICA'S TEAM CAPITAL LETTERS. Isn't this guy as American as apple pie? He's an underdog who never had a chance, that was raised in the middle of the country and then blossomed to fame by sheer force of will only to indulge in the pleasures of being famous (i.e. dating super hot country stars and pop singers) before settling down with a beauty queen. All while playing professional football for the Dallas Cowboys.
We should love this guy. He is literally living a life that at least half of us have dreamed of. I like to think that Tony Romo is one of us.
Of course, he isn't one of us and a lot of people hate him for a variety of reasons. Romo's biggest problem hasn't been winning games and we know this because he's 77-51 SU as a starter. His biggest problem has been Jerry Jones who has also been his biggest supporter. The Cowboys have tried to rely on Romo the same way teams rely on Brady or Manning, and he simply isn't that guy. Romo needs a balanced offence which shouldn't surprise anyone because - guess what? - everyone else does to. Manning's chances are infinitely better with C.J. Anderson, Brady needs Blount at the goal line at Gray everywhere else, and Rodgers' life is so much easier with a guy like Eddie Lacy.
The best running back Romo has ever had wasn't even one guy; it was the Julius Jones/Marion Barber combination and teams were able to game plan against those guys pretty easily depending on who was on the field. Now that he has DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys have relied less on Romo's arm and more on a two-pronged attack. With Murray in the backfield, Romo has laid waste to fools this season, posting his best quarterback rating in a great career spanning 12 seasons. He slaughtered Seattle and in the last four games of the season Dallas averaged a whopping 41.3 points per game.
The idea in Dallas has been "let Romo throw and pray that the defence holds together with stalwarts like Demarcus Ware". That didn't work and in the process Romo has been killed in the playoffs, most famously against Seattle in a game that was actually pretty close and lost on a play that wasn't his fault.
Now that Romo has the team he needs around him to succeed, redemption is within reach. Every other quarterback on this list either has an impossibly bright future (Newton and Luck) or has a championship ring in their possession already. For Romo, this post season is Super Bowl or Bust.
Frankly, it's felt like it's been that way for Romo his entire career. The difference this year is that Romo and these Cowboys can win a Super Bowl, and nothing would typify this insane season than seeing a quarterback who has faced so much criticism, finally find redemption.
THE FORCE OF NATURE - Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers +2800 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
Nobody has endured a tougher 2014 season than Cam Newton, and you won't find a bigger supporter of Newton out there outside of yours truly. Behind Gronkowski, who is essentially my spirit animal thanks to my keeper league in fantasy football, Newton is my second favourite player in the league. It all started for me in college when he won me a mountain of money in the Iron Bowl and the BCS Championship game. It's grown in to something else since then.
When Newton entered the league in 2011, he became an instant force of nature with 4,051 passing yards and 706 yards rushing. No quarterback in league history has ever posted that many yards from scrimmage total as a rookie. The problem was that his team sucked. So Newton started to become more of a pocket passer, with his numbers dipping in 2012 and the team putting itself in position to draft incredible difference makers on the defensive side. In 2013, we saw Newton become who he is meant to be: a grizzled king on an ugly team that forced you in to fist fights and barely ever lost. That 2013 team reeked of Newton's personality and I loved it. Sadly, they ran in to the Niners exactly one year ago and failed to punch it in from the goal line four times early and lost against the best defence in the league. Stuff happens.
The thing is that Carolina has gotten better overall around Newton because Newton himself has also improved as a quarterback and a leader. Things were only supposed to get better in 2014 until the team mismanaged the roster entirely and gave Newton nothing to work with. Kelvin Benjamin is going to be good when he doesn't have to deal with double coverage on every play, and the defence will hopefully improve if Greg Hardy is back. Outside of Newton and Luke Keuchly, this team is wretched.
It's a miracle they not only won the NFC South but seven whole games this year. That all happened because, in the last three weeks of the season, Carolina re-discovered their identity as a bruising team who can pound you on the ground and win by thismuch when they need to. It's how they defied the odds in 2013. Make no mistake about it - the Panthers are the worst collection of football talent remaining the playoffs. But Cam is good enough that that might not matter.
Cam and Luck have almost nothing to work with, and yet everything they do seems to work. That's because of their sheer force of will. You can bet against Cam, but trust me when I tell you that there are very few quarterbacks in this league that can simply put a team on their shoulders and win with little to no support. Cam is one of them and I have all the faith in the world that the Panthers can do the impossible this year and force their way in to the NFC Championship.
This team is Cam Newton again and that should send fear in to the heart of the 12th Man this weekend. I kid you not. Seattle is used to rain, but they have rarely seen a force of nature as torrential as Cam Newton at his best.
A LAZY SNAKE - Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens +1700 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
Of all the quarterbacks on this list, Flacco is the hardest to grade because he feels the most vanilla of them all. Ordinary Joe, right? Well as I alluded to in the Brady section of this article, he might not be so ordinary after all. When he's in the post season, Flacco is about as extra-ordinary as they get. That might be the defining characteristic of a guy who is difficult to qualify in general. But is Flacco great when it counts and do his playoff victories actually mean anything considering the context of those wins?
In 2012, Flacco was damn near perfect. His 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and 0 picks along with his 84.4 QBR is the best, statistical post season of any quarterback. Of course, he had the wild card round to boost his overall numbers, but for four straight games, Flacco looked and played like the greatest quarterback on the planet. Financially, he was rewarded like one.
The problem is that Flacco doesn't play like this at all times. I've said that he's the guy who would rather make a safe play or no play at all, and that works as a detriment against him overall. It's part of the reason that he's never thrown for more than 4,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in any season. In fact, his 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns this season were career bests for him in both categories. Unfortunately he's thrown double-digit picks in every season as well. He simply doesn't take a lot of chances, even though when he does, the Ravens end up winning championships.
Joe Flacco is either a venomous possum or a lazy snake. I can't tell. In 2008, during his rookie season, he went all the way to the AFC Championship thanks to a great defence and stayed out of the way for the most part until he threw three picks against the Steelers, including the epic, game sealing pick-six by Troy Polamalu. In 2009, Flacco literally did nothing in the post season. He threw 10 passes against New England, completing just four of them, as Willis McGahee and Ray Rice did all the work in a dominant win. Then he got blasted by the Colts 20-to-9 while coughing up two more picks. In 2010, he ruined the Chiefs with a fantastic game before blowing it against Pittsburgh again. And in 2011, he did just enough to beat Houston before opening it up against New England in a loss that Baltimore and Billy Cundiff will never, ever forget. Then he obliterated everyone in 2012 and won a Super Bowl. That's the Flacco playoff history in a nutshell.
So yeah, he's won a lot of playoff games but a lot of those victories weren't necessarily because of him. He was the Blurst of Times Monkey in most of those games, with Ray Lewis and company doing most - if not all - of the heavy lifting. But then something clicked with Flacco in 2012, and we saw glimpses of it last weekend against Pittsburgh when he threw for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns in a hard fought game.
If Super Bowl Winner Joe Flacco shows up out of nowhere like he did in 2012, everyone left in the playoffs should be absolutely terrified. We may not know who Joe Flacco is because he might be figuring it out just now. All I know is that I'm a lot more scared of Flacco discovering a confident identity more than I was 15 minutes ago when I started writing this blurb.
That's the annoying thing about snakes: you never know where they're hiding...or when they'll decide to show up and bite you.
THE FUTURE KING - Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts +2000 to win 2015 Super Bowl)
Andrew Luck is the MVP of 2014. There is zero doubt in my mind about this. The love affair with Rodgers notwithstanding (and again, I don't dislike Rodgers, I just think he gets a free pass that he may or may not deserve just yet), Green Bay's roster is miles ahead of Indianapolis's. Ryan Matthews is one of the best defenders in the league. McCarthy is a proven coach. Eddie Lacy over Trent Richardson all day, every day (roll tide!). Jordie Nelson isn't just better than T.Y. Hilton, he's got a better wingman in Cobb. I can't even name the defensive players on Indy without going to the internet and football is my job.
It's a wondrous marvel that the Colts did this well and that's because Luck's intrinsic value to this team is greater than that of any other player on any other team, outside of maybe J.J. Watt. Generally speaking, I think an MVP has to make the playoffs but Watt's two-year campaign deserves very strong consideration. Anyways...
Luck's numbers do the talking for me. His 4,761 passing yards were second overall behind Brees and Ben who tied for first with 4,952. Luck also threw 40 touchdowns this year against 16 interceptions, and that is INSANE given the guys that he's throwing to. Nobody put up numbers the way Luck did with a crappier supporting cast, and nobody had more success than his team did despite what one can only call a very low ceiling. The Colts led the league in passing this season for goodness sakes.
The caveat is the AFC South, which the Colts stomped on for what feels like six, easy wins. That's why the 11-4 SU and 10-5-1 ATS record of the Colts is a bit of a red herring. It also didn't help Luck's MVP resume that they got walloped by the Broncos, Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys by an alarming -20.0 point differential in four games. An easy schedule, and bad performances when that same schedule got a bit tough, are why Luck wasn't in the MVP conversation this season despite awe inspiring numbers.
But look at his team!!! Look at it in horror and be amazed that he's muscled them to three straight, 11 win season whiles picking up two playoff victories including last week's genuine artistry against Cincinnati where he put up 376 yards. I shudder to think what Luck would be capable of if Indy was able to surround with a competent run game, an above-average defence and another receiver that wasn't the shell of Reggie Wayne.
Luck hasn't accomplished what the other guys have yet in terms of accolades and championships because the team around him has been awful at best. This is not just a prodigal son wallowing away on a bad team. This is a guy who is so transcendent that it doesn't matter what the state of his team is because he's going to get you 11 wins just by existing on offence. We all knew Luck was going to be great when he was drafted first overall three years ago, but this good? Nobody could've imagined. Not even Indianapolis.
So crown him now. Award him the MVP that he deserves instead of a pat on the head and the petty, empty, reassurance that "you're time will come". His time is now. The future king is upon us, even if he's about to get his butt kicked by the very man who held his throne before him.