The Cleveland Browns Have Built One of The NFL’s Best Supporting Casts For A Quarterback

The Cleveland Browns have been the laughing stock of the NFL since their return to the league in 1999. With two fluke winning seasons in 2002 (with the only playoff appearance in the team’s return) and 2007 (barely missing out on the playoffs despite a 10-6 record), the team has been haunted by a never ending curse of bad/washed out quarterbacks, inept front offices, poor coaching, and a focus on washed up veterans that provide “potential leadership” instead of embracing a full rebuild.

In 2016, that changed.

When Sashi Brown took over as the general manager, he wasted no time in establishing his presence, letting tackle Mitchell Schwartz, center Alex Mack, and WR Travis Benjamin walk to the Chiefs, Falcons and Chargers respectfully. Browns fans had ripped this move, but in the long run it actually paid off. Allowing the two linemen and receiver to walk freed up a load of cap space for the Browns to use for the following offseason.

Brown also shook up the draft for Cleveland, trading the team’s #2 pick to the Eagles in exchange for Philadelphia’s 1st round, 3rd round and 4th round selections from 2016, as well as the team’s first round selection in 2017 and their 2nd round pick in 2018. This set up the stage for many trades to come for the team.

Sashi made additional noise trading for Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, then signing him after the season with a four-year, $50M contract extension.

But it was during the free agent year of 2017 and the draft that the Browns attracted serious attention. The team signed Rams receiver Kenny Britt, linemen JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler in free agency, and bought a 2nd round pick from the Texans on the condition of being the team that had the displeasure of letting Brock Osweiler waste away on the roster. The trade was heavily compared to a basketball trade and was praised for its unconventional technique.

The team drafted Myles Garrett with the #1 overall pick as expected, before trading their 2nd first round pick to the Texans in addition for more picks. They went on to select Jabril Peppers and tight end David Njoku in the first round.

All things considered, it’s been a hell of an offseason for the Browns. Sashi Brown thus far has exceeded any expectations I had of him when he was first hired, and his methods of trading and signing go against the traditional norm of NFL culture not just because he wants to do it different, but because he’s used actual logic and reasoning behind his trades. Because of him, the Browns have successfully entered a full, actual rebuild, going after fresh, young talent and making trades/deals that make sense.

While the Browns may not make the playoffs in 2017, what they have made is one of the best offenses for a quarterback to play in thanks to their coaching and front office. Regardless of whether Deshone Kizer, Cody Kessler, or Brock Osweiler (maybe not) starts, all 3 will be in a heavy QB friendly environment that gives them excellent pass protection and a good slab of weapons to throw to.

Below, we will analyze the key parts of the Browns offense and why it is so QB friendly.

Hue Jackson

I’ve already written on head coach Hue Jackson before, so you can find more information there. But he’s the key ingredient to the Browns’ future. While the team went 1-15 in 2016, it was primarily based on the lack of talent on offense, incompetent quarterback play, and one of the absolute worst defenses in the league.

Jackson’s scheme and play calling allowed the Browns to stay in games they weren’t supposed to be in, and got them a Christmas miracle with a win over the Chargers on Christmas Eve.

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In Cincinnati, Jackson was known for diversifying an already loaded offense that played at its peak in 2015. He was able to get the most out of Andy Dalton because his protection schemes kept the QB safe and gave him plenty of easy, open throws.

In Cleveland, while the offensive line was not as good in his first year, he was still able to provide the same friendly environment with less talent. On this play, Jackson calls for a play action pass off a jet sweep. The movement of the back and linemen creates misdirection, baiting the defense into going after the back. Gary Barnidge runs across the line of scrimmage and is left completely uncovered, allowing Robert Griffin III to make an easy throw for the first down.

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On this play, Jackson calls to motion in the outside receiver behind the slot receiver. This is smart because the secondary can’t communicate this in time. This leaves one guy to guard two guys, resulting in the outside receiver being completely open. The QB is given an easy target and a first down.

When people point at the Browns’ receivers not being up to league standards and preventing them from having a loaded offense, from an abstract point they’re right, but Hue Jackson at the helm makes up for this. Give me a great offensive line and a coach that can provide a QB friendly environment over a loaded receiving corps and a coach that doesn’t help the quarterback out. With the former, you’re guaranteed more openings and easy throws for the QB.

A healthy and fully improved offensive line will help the Browns, especially with Jackson calling the shots. He’s one of the best coordinators in the league and provides the beginning of what is to come for the Browns offense.

Next, let’s check out the running backs. The Browns have one of the best and most underrated duos in the league, with two backs that are young and have wide skill sets.

 

Isaiah Crowell

Isaiah Crowell’s development since year 1 has been substantial, as he’s gradually shown better footwork and running ability into tight gaps. While he’s been provided with quality run blocking, he hasn’t been the product of it, as he’s been able to make runs on his own as well.

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This play shows Crowell’s athleticism. The right tackle blows his protection, noted immediately by the back. He stops and cuts back outside before showing burst, shuffling his feet and crossing past the first down marker. Crowell shows off an impressive burst after grabbing the football, helping him on this run.

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Here, Crowell provides an example of how he’s able to run through tight windows. Before going up the middle, he lowers his head, protecting the ball, and is able to glide through the gap and cuts through the open space.

 

Duke Johnson

As one of the most exciting receiving backs in the league, Duke Johnson has been a gem for the Browns. He is a gifted route runner and extremely dangerous after the catch. He finished with the 4th most receiving yards of any back in the league in 2016 (514), finishing only behind David Johnson (879), Le’Veon Bell (616), and James White (551). His 53 catches were also 6th most out of all receiving backs.

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On this play, Johnson cuts inside to the first down marker. His awareness allows him to spot two defenders coming up against him the second he catches the ball. Once he sees this, he is able to make a sensational cut, avoiding the tackle and advancing the the field position.

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On third downs, Johnson is your safest bet. Not only is he fast and nimble, but he is also tough to bring down because of his slippery nature and his quick vision. An example is shown on the play above.

The combination of a healthy Crowell and Johnson will be lethal in 2017 behind the healthy line. They create enough plays on their own that they can give the Browns offense multiple dimensions to work with.

While the team doesn’t have the best group of receivers, they have some pieces that are definitely worth watching.

 

Kenny Britt

Kenny Britt is the Browns’ big free agent prize, and he’s a really good wide receiver (as illustrated in this article). With the Rams, he never had a good quarterback (Sam Bradford was out for the season in his only year with Britt) or a WR friendly offense. He gets the latter in Cleveland, and could potentially get a good QB to play with if Kessler ever develops or Kizer takes command of the starting job.

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In signing Britt, the Browns have replaced Terrelle Pryor with someone who is a bit more balanced and every bit as a threat at the catch position. Britt provides a huge frame to work and great strength, making him ideal for downfield throws and yards after the catch. On this play, Britt is held, but is able to break away from the guy guarding him. He bounces off tacklers and stays on his feet, bulldozing his way into the end zone for the touchdown.

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Britt is also a strong red zone option thanks to his footwork and body. On the above play, he’s able to box out his defender like a tight end, attacking the ball while making sure his feet stay in bounds. The combined concentration on the catch and his position allow him to score the touchdown.

 

David Njoku

Myles Garrett is the guy that’s gotten most of the draft buzz for Cleveland, but it’s David Njoku, drafted in the first round out of Miami, that gives them a potential superstar at the tight end position. It’s true that Njoku is lacking in blocking, but in today’s league filled with receiving tight ends (and with a great offensive line), it’s not that big of a deal.

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Like Britt, Njoku provides a cushion at the catch point, and in this case, he is a tight end! In Miami he was extremely dangerous partially for these reasons. The above play is one of the most impressive catches I’ve seen from any tight end in college. Njoku only gets one foot in (it counts as a touchdown due to the college football rules), but the concentration and ability to stay in bounds are both remarkable.

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On this play, Njoku shows his toughness, breaking through a tackle and bullying his way into the end zone. He’s a dangerous receiver and will be able to bring yards after the catch and contact to the team.

Britt and Njoku have been the two big additions to the receiving group, but the Browns have two other receivers that could potentially breakout.

 

Other Receivers

Corey Coleman

Corey Coleman’s rookie season was cut short thanks to injuries that kept him out during the middle of the season. He’s not great at the slot, but played well in Hue Jackson’s offense when on the field, and showed flashes of explosiveness.

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Here, Coleman does the step jab on Janoris Jenkins and gets open easily, leading to the score. Coleman is fast and can afford to be schemed open in Jackson’s offense. He just needs to stay on the field so we can see what he can become.

Ricardo Louis

Ricardo Louis is another receiver both the Browns and Browns fans have been excited about in the offseason. He had some bad drops in his rookie season, but he is a talented receiver.

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This play shows Louis’ shiftyness after the catch. His experience on the field was limited due to the amount of reps he got, but it offered some positives. He has a good frame to work with and can potentially be a YAC weapon. We’ll still need to see more from him, but at this point he should get more opportunities in his second season, especially since the Browns reportedly liked the improvements he made.

 

Linemen

Finally, we look at the bread and butter of the Browns offense: The offensive line. For a team that hasn’t had much success since its return, it’s been able to completely rebuild its offensive line in just a year, something competing teams like the Seahawks and Vikings have struggled to do.

In free agency, the Browns made two big splashes that have revamped their offensive line, signing center J.C. Tretter from Green Bay and right guard Kevin Zeitler from Cincinnati. Tretter is 26 while Zeitler is 27, so both players are young enough to play for the Browns while they continue to rebuild while also offering veteran presence.

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Both Tretter (#73 in the first GIF) and Zeitler (#70 in the 2nd GIF) are athletic linemen that will patch much needed areas for the line. Tretter gives Cleveland a legit center while Zeitler gives the team much needed depth at the right guard position. These two pieces will be vital to what will likely be one of the top offensive lines in the league.

Future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas needs no introduction. He’s been the league standard in each of his 10 seasons in Cleveland, and shows no sign of slowing down. Left guard Joel Bitonio will return after a foot injury kept him out for the season last October. He signed a 5-year extension with the Browns in the offseason, and is one of the league’s top left guards when healthy. John Greco provides depth at the right guard position as well.

The one unproven is the right tackle position, where Shon Coleman and Cam Erving will battle it out, but the Browns have filled enough holes at the line where they should be one of the league’s most dominant units once again.

Conclusion

The Cleveland Browns have built one of the best offenses for a quarterback to take over. With an excellent, revamped offensive line featuring Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, a QB friendly scheme with efficient playcalling from Hue Jackson, a dynamic RB duo of Isiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, and a receiving corps featuring Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman and David Njoku, the Browns will put little pressure on their quarterback while giving them weapons to throw to.

As far as the overall team goes, the defense clearly still needs work and the team still needs established QB play before talk of the playoffs can begin. The front office understands this. This will be year 2 of the rebuilding process for the Browns, and they have done a phenomenal job of doing so. The team made plenty of crucial signings and draft picks in the offseason, drastically improving the quality of the team and adding more pieces all around.

Sashi Brown and the front office have done wonders managing the team. The Browns have avoided mistakes of the past by making logical steps for a true rebuild, collecting young talent and bringing in veterans with smart, reasonable deals. The best part is that they have added loads of draft picks for future drafts, with plenty of cap space for the 2018 season.

This is not a 10-12 win roster, but it definitely won’t be an 0-16 or 1-15 team. As the offseason continues to unfold, the Browns have looked like one of the least dysfunctional teams in this span in a time where other teams are shooting themselves in the foot with scared, illogical moves. If Kessler develops or Deshone Kizer takes the starting role, this group will look even better.

It’s been a long time since Browns fans have seen the playoffs. As a Browns fan myself, I’ve waited for the opportunity to see my team host a playoff game for the longest time. It’s one of the things that’s on my bucket list. It’s not likely that it will happen this season.

At the rate this team is rebuilding, however, we won’t have to wait long.

 

Featured image via dawgpounddaily.com

 

Teddy Bridgewater Belongs In Impressive Company

I’ve spent much of 2015 raving about Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s 2014 rookie season. While there’s been more impressive years for rookie passers, Teddy looked impressive behind a poor offensive line, playing like a competent starting QB.

The way Teddy finished his rookie season also deserves mention. In fact, his December puts him in some excellent company, as he is one of 20 quarterbacks since 1998 to post at least 7.0 yards per attempt in his debut December as a starter (minimum of 4 games). To make this list, this had to be the first season where the quarterback was the main starter throughout December, so needless to say I was pretty generous with adding a few QBs.

Take a look where Teddy ranks among other quarterbacks.

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Take a look at who ranks 4th amongst all the field generals. Teddy Bridgewater himself with 9.2 Y/A in the month of December in 2014. Notice the company he’s with; Ben Roethlisberger posted insane Y/A numbers in his debut December. Of course we all know how great Kurt Warner and Russell Wilson were in their debut Decembers. Hell, Matthew Stafford threw 1,919 yards and 15 touchdowns in this month alone in 2011.

Obviously Brandon Weeden is not who we thought he was, as he actually posted very nice Y/A numbers in his debut December in Cleveland. Vince Young sustained a bit more success than Weeden as a starter, which doesn’t say a whole lot in the end if you think about it.

Does that mean Y/A is the ultimate “best QBs of December” stat? Not necessarily. Certain games can inflate a quarterback’s Y/A, whether increasing or decreasing it. As a result, there are a few outlier games on several QB’s resumes on this list.

However, notice how many guys on the list are still active starters. Who knows what the hell’s going to happen with Jay Cutler in the offseason, but otherwise most of the quarterbacks on this list are capable starters with a long history of sustained success. Chad Pennington’s 2002 season deserves recognition, as he was very good before injuries gave him an up and down (but respectable) career. Yes, Matt Schaub used to be a good quarterback before 2013, mind you.

Placing 4th in Y/A with this kind of criteria is big for Teddy Bridgewater, as he’s above a few guys that are top 10 active QBs (Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady. Joe Flacco is close to that group). Having viewed his film, I can vouch that his progression in December, while not unseen, was a treat to watch. His progression makes dealing with the offseason a lot less painful if you happen to be a Vikings fan.

We’ll see how far Teddy can take his team in the long run, but if this is of any indication, it should be something worth waiting for.

The Top 15 Quarterbacks Of 2014

What a season. Considering all the uncertainties it has brought us, who would’ve guessed the kinds of years the NFL’s field generals would have?

Well that’s exactly why I wrote this list. The quarterback is the most important and valuable position in the NFL, and 2014 brought us at least 5 career seasons (and yes, the 5 guys I’m talking about are on this list).

I wrote this list based on playing styles, quality of games, 2nd half improvement, pure dominance, and how much the high moments of each quarterback impressed me. So without further delay, I present my 15 best quarterbacks from the 2014 season.

  1. Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions)

 

2014 Stats: 363/602 (60.3 CMP%), 6.03 ANY/A, 4,257 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT, 85.7 Passer Rating, 55.1 Total QBR

I’m very weary about the 15th spot on this list, but felt like Matthew Stafford the gunslinger deserved it the most. Having said that, I was disappointed by the outcome of his season, having expected him to elevate with new additions such as Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his high moments this season more than other guys such as Cam Newton and Andy Dalton.

Matthew Stafford’s style of play can be described as a mobile pocket passer mixed with a gunslinger. He can give you the big throws (and the big mistakes) with his arm strength, and can run a money bootleg with relative ease, and QB run as good as the elites. 2014 showed most of this.

While Stafford continued to frustrate critics and fans alike on his throws, he was very reliable in the clutch, as he led the NFL in 4th quarter comebacks (5) and game winning drives (5). His game winning touchdown pass against the Dolphins combined pure mobility with a perfect side arm pass in the end zone to runningback Theo Reddick.

As said before, his high moments were very high, and his low moments were very low. It would’ve been easier on him if Calvin Johnson didn’t miss 3 games, the offensive line didn’t give up 45 sacks on him (4th most in the NFL), and his receivers didn’t drop 24 passes (same as Cam Newton’s Panthers). The game against the Patriots is a prime example.

All in all, Stafford had an elite defense to back him up this time around, and his protection of the ball wasn’t great, but was far better this year (20 turnovers this season as opposed to 31 in 2013), and did enough to help bring the Lions to the playoffs. I like Stafford, and feel as if his ceiling hasn’t been reached yet. We shall see for years to come.

Best Game: Week 1 Against the New York Giants: Stafford was lights out in the first game of the season, throwing 22/32 for 346 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 picks, a 125.3 rate, and a 97.5 Total QBR, as well as a rushing touchdown. He was pure money on his deep ball passing to Megatron, as well as his mobility.

  1. Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota Vikings)

 

Stats: 259/402 (64.4 CMP%), 5.46 ANY/A, 2,919 yards, 14 TD, 12 INT, 85.2 Passer Rating, 50.16 Total QBR

 

Before the season and even before the draft, I said Teddy Bridgewater was the most NFL-ready of the quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL Draft. Apparently Mike Mayock and others didn’t agree with me, as his pro day was heavily criticized as “poor.” (as indication of how stupid that is, JaMarcus Russell’s pro day was praised by Mayock as one of the best he’s ever seen).

Bridgewater started off pretty damn rough, but in the 2nd half of the season lived up to his anticipated rookie season and impressed the hell out of me. From what I’ve seen, Teddy isn’t the most talented or athletic quarterback from this year’s class, but in terms of accuracy, he’s ahead of the pack, and even ahead of several veteran quarterbacks.

As the season progressed, Teddy’s performances in a system requiring him to use a big boy NFL playbook gradually improved despite poor pass protection and a talented yet inconsistent run game. He mirrored the incredible rookie seasons of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson and actually made his teammates better with a combination of screens, intermediate passes, and deep balls. His decision making, footwork, passing under pressure, and pure accuracy of course were also impressive. In his last 5 games, he completed at least 68% of his passes, and at least 70% in 4 of those last 5 games, despite a few dropped passes that led to interceptions.

Give me Teddy Bridgewater over the other rookies anyday. The Vikings have plenty of young talent on offense that’s gelled over the course of the season, and a bright future is in store for the land of a thousand lakes. Consider me a Teddy fan.

Best Game: Week 4 Against The Atlanta Falcons: Teddy’s first start was his finest, as he was in control of advancing the ball, and even got a TD run in. He finished 19/30 for 317 yards, a 98.9 rate and an 85.6 Total QBR.

  1. Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins)

 

Stats: 392/590 (66.4 CMP%), 5.83 ANY/A, 4,045 yards, 27 TD, 12 INT, 92.8 Passer Rating, 59.09 Total QBR

One of the few bright spots on a team considered to have the worst locker room in the offseason, Ryan Tannehill has been a pleasant surprise in 2014 after nearly being benched after a poor first 3 games, contributed by countless drops from his receivers.

Tannehill’s deep ball accuracy is still a concern, but with the help of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (quarterback coach for Nick Foles’ 27 TD 2 INT season on the 2013 Eagles), Tannehill’s overall quality of play drastically improved. His mobility has always been as good as Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson’s, but his accuracy has actually increased; his completion percentage was 66.4% in 2014 as opposed to 60.4 in 2013. That’s coming with 28 drops from his receivers, 7th most this season.

Despite getting sacked 46 times, Tannehill’s meltdowns were fewer and farther in between this time around, and his progression has been a treat to watch considering he’s part of an iconic 2012 QB draft class. With the help of Lazor’s playcalling, this has been made possible.

Now imagine Tannehill with a head coach that actually knew how to control a locker room, an improved run game, and wide receivers that weren’t overpaid actually want to play the game of football (looking at you, Mike Wallace). While he’s failed to reach the playoffs for the 3rd straight year, this season has finally indicated that Tannehill is taking steps into the right direction.

Best Game: Week 9 Against The San Diego Chargers: In a 37-0 shutout, Tannehill threaded the needle perfectly, with top-notch mobility, scrambling, and velocity as he was Steve Young-esque with a long 22-yard run. He finished 24/34 for 288 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 picks, a 125.6 passer rating, and a 94.5 Total QBR.

  1. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)

 

Stats: 415/628 (66.1 CMP%), 6.71 ANY/A, 4,694 yards, 28 TD, 14 INT, 93.9 Passer Rating, 66.98 Total QBR

 

It was another rough year for the Falcons, as they finished the season 6-10, but Matt Ryan showed he was still capable of being an above average quarterback on a terrible team.

Matty Ice’s interceptions were very awful (his interception against Detroit and his two pick sixes in week 17 against the Panthers are 3 of the worst throws I’ve ever seen), but he was generally terrific in ball movement, advancing the ball well with solid arm strength despite his limited mobility and athleticism. Ryan won’t run for 20 yards, but he’ll do a little side step or step up in the pocket when the front 7 rushes at him.

There were multiple times throughout the season where Ryan threw a perfect pass, only to have it dropped or fumbled away. And with close loses against Detroit and Cleveland decided by former head coach Mike Smith’s abysmal clock management, Atlanta was close to winning 8 games, which could’ve have gotten them first place in the worst division in football: The NFC South.

Aside from week 17, Matt Ryan had a solid December, and it’s a shame the problems with the offensive line and the entire defense hampered an improvement from Ryan’s 2013 season.

Best Game: Week 3 Against The Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One of the biggest blowouts of the year, Matt Ryan’s arm strength, decision making, and pure accuracy were of top notch in a 56-14 massacre over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ryan finished 21/24 for 286 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 155.9 passer rating, and a 99.7 Total QBR.

  1. Eli Manning (New York Giants)

 

Stats: 379/601 (63.1 CMP%), 6.67 ANY/A, 4,410 yards, 30 TD, 14 INT, 92.1 Passer Rating, 70.93 Total QBR

 

Much like Philip Rivers in 2013, Eli Manning looked very much revived in a new offense for the 2014 season, even if the Giants’ 6-10 record doesn’t reflect that.

In Ben McAdoo’s west coast offense, Eli looked like the Eli of old, with excellent velocity on his passes. While his gunslinger mistakes were many, Eli was also screwed by dropped passes out of the get-go, witnessing his receivers drop 30 of his passes (6th most in 2014). An injury to an ineffective Victor Cruz also ended his season early.

While rookie sensation Odell Beckham Jr certainly helped, Eli looked fresh before Beckham took off, stretching the field with solid intermediate passes and a few deep bombs. I counted at least 4 dropped passes that resulted in interceptions from the Giants’ first 4 games.

The one reason Eli doesn’t rank a lot higher than he should is because he a solid run after the Giants were eliminated from the playoffs during a 7 game losing streak. While the talk will be mostly that of Beckham’s sensational season, and while the 70.0 completion percentage goal was ludicrous, the Giants should be very pleased that Eli has been revived.

Best Game: Week 4 Against The Washington Redskins: Eli Manning was perfect in this game, controlling the tempo of the Giants offense and contributing in a number of ways, including a perfect 3rd and 15 pass with 6 seconds left in the 2nd quarter to Victor Cruz, who got out of bounds with a second to spare. This gave the Giants a field goal to end the first half. Eli went 28/39 for 300 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception (that should’ve been a touchdown), a rushing touchdown, a 117.5 rate, and a 97.5 Total QBR.

  1. Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens

 

Stats: 344/555 (62.0 CMP%), 6.65 ANY/A, 3,986 yards, 27 TD, 12 INT, 90.9 Passer Rating, 67.27 Total QBR

 

By far the best season of his career, Joe Flacco bounced back from a miserable 2013 season and did just enough to bring the Baltimore Ravens back to the playoffs.

As per usual, Flacco benefitted from better field position from pass interference calls, getting 14 DPI calls for 283 yards (most in the NFL in 2014). However, with the addition of Steve Smith Sr, as well as the help of Torrey Smith and an improved offensive line, Flacco’s deep ball game was revived, giving the Smiths loads of ability to make plays where only they could catch it.

Gary Kubiak’s play action offense was a perfect fit for Flacco as well, and the addition of runningback Justin Forsett opened up a bunch of space for Flacco to make plays. This allowed the decision making of Flacco to skyrocket in improvement from 2013.

While anything but elite, Joe Flacco was very good in 2014, one to rely on with his new targets and run game.

Best Game: Week 6 Against The Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Throwing 5 touchdowns in the first half, Flacco’s connectivity with his receivers was absolutely spot on, and his deep ball game helped lift Baltimore to an easy 48-17 victory. He finished 21/29 for 306 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, a 146.0 Rate, and a 99.8 Total QBR.

 

 

  1. Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)

 

Stats: 456/659 (69.2 CMP%), 6.77 ANY/A, 4,952 yards, 33 TD, 17 INT, 97.0 Rate, 71.56 Total QBR

 

While I disagree completely with the idea that Drew Brees is no longer an elite quarterback, his 2014 season was sloppier than previous seasons. Even in this case, a sloppy Drew Brees season is still a career year for most quarterbacks.

What we saw from Brees was the standard in his game. He was still one of the top passers in accuracy. The main problem came from the turnovers, which happened often times in critical moments. Of course, it didn’t help that Jimmy Graham wasn’t as dominant in the tight end position as he’s shown in recent years past, and the yards after catch were severely limited for Brees’ receivers.

Nonetheless, the 35-years-old quarterback advanced the ball with high volume passing in ways few other quarterbacks could have ever done. Brees played very well for most of the season, and kept the Saints in playoff contention until week 16 in a terrible NFC South.

We’ll see how many years Brees has left in him, but if it’s of any indication, he is the least of New Orleans problems (re: defense). New Orleans was a huge disappointment in 2014, but the future hall of famer still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Best Game: Week 13 Against The Pittsburgh Steelers: Brees was masterful on the deep ball, finding Kenny Stills 5 times for 162 yards, a touchdown, and 32.4 yards per reception. This helped Brees distribute the ball for touchdowns to 5 different receivers, none of them being Jimmy Graham. He finished 19/27 for 257 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 140.0 passer rating, and a 95.3 Total QBR.

  1. Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)

 

Stats: 285/452 (63.1 CMP%), 6.72 ANY/A, 3,475 yards, 20 TD, 7 INT, 95.0 Passer Rating, 62.45 Total QBR

 

Without a true deep ball threat to help advance the ball, Russell Wilson wasn’t as top notch of a young quarterback as he was in 2012 and 2013, but I’d be lying if I said what he did in 2014 was under par.

Wilson’s athleticism was at its best in 2014, as he lessoned the passing to open up a passion of scrambling, running for 849 yards and 6 touchdowns, while leading the NFL in yards per attempt (7.2). The stat sheets don’t say it, but Wilson’s mobility and scrambling were of top notch, and even his screen passes had me saying “how on earth was he able to complete that pass?!?!”

Russ has always been a perfect fit in the read option play action system of the Seahawks, and while he had a number of games with overthrown/underthrown passes getting sacked 42 times won’t help change things (the scrambling is a contributor to that though). One might suggest Wilson benefits from the #1 defense in the league. While this is sort of true, his reliability has increased as his age continues to go up, and more often times than not he used his legs to help carry Seattle’s offense.

A deep ball threat combined with an improved offense would make a huge difference in Russell Wilson’s play. Talent-wise, he might be the best QB, but there’s still some progress to be made before he can become an elite quarterback. That said, plenty of love for Russ. (Fun fact: Wilson has the most game winning drives in a QB’s first 3 seasons in NFL history)

Best Game: Week 16 Against The Arizona Cardinals: This was the golden standard of what Russell Wilson should be: a deadly accurate deep ball passer combined with a dangerous threat in the run game with his legs. Wilson finished 20/31 for 339 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 1 rushing touchdown and 88 yards, a 122.9 passer rating, and a 96.0 Total QBR.

  1. Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers)

 

Stats: 379/570 (66.5 CMP%), 6.45 ANY/A, 4,286 yards, 31 TD, 18 INT, 93.8 Passer Rating, 66.83 Total QBR

 

Note: The main reason Philip Rivers isn’t lower than 7th on this list is because of his terrific first half of the season, where he was the frontrunning MVP.

Rivers mostly resembles Dan Marino, able to deliver huge throws, quick passes and side step to avoid pressure. Heck, he just might have the quickest release in today’s NFL. During Rivers’ remarkable first half, he set an NFL record for most consecutive games with a passer rating of at least 120.0 (4). Many of his “trust the receiver and lead them” throws were some of the best I’ve ever seen. Dimes, if you would.

Unfortunately, it was clear Rivers was playing the 2nd half of the season unhealthy, and combined with possibly the worst offensive line in the NFL and a terrible run game, Rivers’ play in the last 8 games mostly struggled. Even so, he did enough to keep the Chargers in playoff contention until the last week of the regular season, even if it wasn’t pretty.

2013 was easily Rivers’ best season, but considering what he went through in 2014, it wasn’t a bad follow-up at all (much better than what 2011 and 2012 offered). A healthy Rivers could be a potential MVP winner in 2015.

Best Game: Week 16 Against The San Francisco 49ers: It was an extremely ugly game for Rivers, as he had a 52.3 QBR and 3 interceptions, but his 4th quarter comeback was gut wrenching and down to the wire. Twice on the Chargers’ final drive of regulation he converted on 4th down, and the standard beautiful Rivers TD throws helped give San Diego a miraculous 38-35-overtime victory. Rivers finished 33/54 for 356 yards, 4 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and an 82.0 passer rating on the road.

  1. Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts)

 

Stats: 380/616 (61.7 CMP%), 7.28 ANY/A, 4,761 yards, 40 TD, 16 INT, 96.5 Passer Rating, 63.79 Total QBR

 

Along with Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck has been an absolute joy to watch as he progresses in his 3rd season. The improvement he’s shown has been incredible, and few 3rd year seasons have been this good.

You can say all you want about the turnovers, and they’re the reason Luck doesn’t rank any higher on this list. He still has the gunslinger mistakes, with 2-3 “WTF WAS HE THINKING” throws every game. This progressed during the final few games of the season in addition. And yes, playing in the AFC South won’t turn any heads.

But when Andrew Luck was on target, he was on fire. Combined with a rising superstar receiver in T.Y. Hilton, Luck torched defenses downfield and was able to avoid pressure with his legs, and went on a 8 game streak of 300-yards passing, a Colts franchise record. He even delivered in his ugliest games, such as the comeback victory in Cleveland.

Luck did this despite playing behind a terrible offensive line and Trent Richardson. And while a number of his passes were dropped interceptions, his receivers dropped 40 of his passes (most in 2014). That’s awful. There’s obvious room to improve (the turnovers), but it’s refreshing to see a newer quarterback throw for 30+ touchdowns in a season. One day when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady both retire, the AFC is his to control.

Best Game: Week 4 Against The Tennessee Titans: Luck was terrific with his feet, arm strength, and passing under pressure, as he was the spark in a 41-17 victory. He finished 29/41 for 393 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, a 123.3 passer rating, and a 96.7 Total QBR.

  1. Tom Brady (New England Patriots)

 

Stats: 373/582 (64.1 CMP%), 7.01 ANY/A, 4,109 yards, 33 TD, 9 INT, 97.4 Passer Rating, 74.32 Total QBR

 

Through the first four games of the season, the 37-year-old Tom Brady looked completely washed up only throwing for 4 touchdowns and not intimidating any defenses. His accuracy was at a career low as he was overthrowing and underthrowing his receivers, he had zero trust in his offensive line, and critics everywhere were wondering if Brady had declined. This was apparent in Week 4 against the Chiefs, where Brady looked awful.

Then, the Patriots moved onto Cincinnati. With the help of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, as well as an improved offensive line, Brady sparked a 10-game streak of at least 2 touchdown passes, as he returned to his top 5 form. Though his style of play has never been spectacular, at his best, Brady delivers the ball quickly with solid 10-20 yard passes with receivers that can explode for yards after the catch, which was what happened in 2014.

Brady’s decision making in the pocket was noticeably improved over 2013, electing for QB runs and a few side steps in the pocket, something we haven’t seen as much from him in the past. His dominant streak helped secure the #1 seed for the Patriots.

Brady is one of the 5 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and this season has continued his terrific and competitive legacy.

Best Game: Week 9 Against The Chicago Bears: Brady and company absolutely embarrassed the Chicago Bears in Foxboro, as his connectivity with Rob Gronkowski was 2nd to none. He finished 30/35 for 354 yards, 5 touchdowns, zero interceptions, a 148.4 passer rating, and a 98.8 Total QBR.

  1. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)

 

Stats: 408/608 (67.1 CMP%), 7.82 ANY/A, 4,952 yards, 32 TD, 9 INT, 103.3 Passer Rating, 72.48 Total QBR

 

Long under the shadows of the big 4 quarterbacks (Peyton/Brady/Brees/Rodgers), Big Ben made clear he was still one of the league’s top quarterbacks and had his greatest season yet in 2014.

With a disposal of weapons at his display in Antonio Brown, Le’veon Bell, Heath Miller, and the terrific rookie deep ball/intermediate threat Martavis Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger advanced the ball in ways never seen with the modern day John Elway. In addition to his unique backyard football style of play, where he’s famously bought time to extend plays, Ben was the heart of perhaps the best offense of 2014.

Big Ben’s efficiency and accuracy were at an all-time high, and if there’s anyone asking why he’s as high as #4, he passed for 6 touchdowns in TWO STRAIGHT GAMES (an NFL record), and became the only quarterback in NFL history to have 2 500+ yard games. Roethlisberger was also consistent down the road in December, leading the Steelers to their first playoff spot since 2011. He also tied with Drew Brees for the most passing yards of 2014, with 4,952 (yes, tied).

In my opinion, Ben Roethlisberger is a hall of fame quarterback, and if that wasn’t clear before, his career best 2014 season has confirmed it.

Best Game: Week 8 Against The Indianapolis Colts: What else needs to be said? Go ahead and watch the game highlights. Ben Roethlisberger was flawless in this game, going 40/49 for 522 yards, 6 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 150.6 passer rating, and a 99.0 Total QBR. Wow.

  1. Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos)

 

Stats: 395/597 (66.2 CMP%), 7.68 ANY/A, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT, 101.5 Passer Rating, 77.25 Total QBR

 

The definition of a field general himself, Peyton Manning has always been the premier quarterback of the 2000’s. Look at his numbers again and consider he played one of the roughest schedules of the season.

We all know Peyton’s arm strength isn’t where it used to be, but his decision-making and audibles have aged like wine. The “weapons” don’t matter if you don’t have a quarterback capable of making super quality throws that make his receivers better, which is ultimately what Peyton has continued to possess. And we all know the famous touchdown record Brett Favre once held is in good hands.

An MVP candidate for most of the season, Manning committed several turnovers during a few critical moments which took him out of the MVP race, including an ugly 4 INT performance against the Bengals in week 16, and relied on CJ Anderson and run game as he went on autopilot. However, the talks of a possible decline are pure rubbish, and although his touchdown volume decreased in December, he still possessed the ability to advance the ball in ways no other quarterback can even dream of doing.

In 3 seasons with the Broncos, Manning has thrown 14,863 yards, 131 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions. That’s 33 less touchdowns than Troy Aikman’s entire career. Peyton Manning has once again put together a tremendous season, and is without a doubt the greatest quarterback to play the game of football.

Best Game: Week 7 Against The San Francisco 49ers: It should be obvious that the game where Manning broke Favre’s record is the best game of his 2014 season. Manning connected perfectly with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, as he went 22/26 for 318 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 157.2 passer rating, and a 99.4 Total QBR. The Sherriff.

  1. Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys)

 

Stats: 304/435 (69.9 CMP%), 8.06 ANY/A, 3,705 yards, 34 TD, 9 INT, 113.2 Passer Rating, 82.75 Total QBR

 

Everyone loves to hate him, but long as Tony Romo been an underrated quarterback. The team around him in previous years failed to remain stable, and his defenses collapsed historically as Romo fell under the pressure. It looked that way again in week 1 when Romo threw 3 interceptions as the Cowboys lost 28-17 in San Francisco. People were calling for Romo’s benching, and many wondered why Dallas passed on Heisman winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.

That all changed. Starting in week 2, the Cowboys won 12 of their next 15 games to secure the NFC East title and shock the entire NFL nation in Romo’s greatest season. In 2014, Romo finally had a cast comparable to the ones Troy Aikman had in the 90s, as Dallas was built well enough to avoid the 4th quarter and December collapses that made the more recent teams a laughing stock. Runningback DeMarco Murray also added fuel to the offense as workload.

But make no mistake; Romo wasn’t relegated to a game manager in 2014. In fact, the Cowboys relied on him more than ever before. His accuracy, mobility in the pocket, and extremely fast throws elevated Dallas in a competitive NFC East, and his jukes against Houston and Seattle were absolutely textbook. HE AVOIDED J.J. WATT. HOW MANY QUARTERBACKS CAN SAY THAT? He was a monster in Sunday Night Football games, and led 3 4th quarter comebacks and 4 game winning drives on the season.

But it was Romo’s December play that really stands out. Throwing 12 touchdowns and only 1 interception (that probably shouldn’t have counted because it was in a week 17 matchup when the Cowboys were already up huge) in a brutal primetime filled schedule, Romo emerged as a huge MVP candidate, going down to the wire with other players. He’s had his best season, and this says a lot because Romo’s best season is better than Aikman’s best season.

It just goes to show that unless he gets a ring, Romo will never get the respect he truly deserves. But his 2014 season has been a season to remember, elevating himself as the 2nd best quarterback of the year.

Best Game: Week 11 Against The New York Giants: In a Sunday Night thriller against the rival Giants, Romo was perfect in connecting with superstar Dez Bryant, including the game winning touchdown drive, where Romo bought all sorts of time stepping on his toes in the pocket, delivering a beautiful touchdown throw to Dez. He finished 18.26 for 275 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, a 143.4 passer rating, and a 92.2 Total QBR.

  1. Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)

 

Stats: 341/520 (65.6 CMP%), 8.65 ANY/A, 4,381 yards, 38 TD, 5 INT, 112.2 Passer Rating, 82.64 Total QBR

 

There are few things as fun to watch as seeing Aaron Rodgers play the game of football.

He is the most athletically gifted of the elite quarterbacks, able to make any football field his personal playground with expert defensive reads, mobility, scrambling, and the best deep ball in the business with the one-two punch in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and a running game threat in Eddie Lacy.

Despite a rough first 3 games of the season, Rodgers RELAXED and went on an incredible run, torching defenses and delivering accurate long balls that no one else in the league could ever accomplish. An awful game aided by 7 dropped passes from his teammates against the Bills put in doubt who between Peyton, Romo, and Rodgers was most deserving of the MVP, but ARod answered the debates in week 17, playing on an injured calf, where he carried the Packers to their 4th straight NFC North division title, throwing 17/22 for 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, a rushing touchdown, a 139.6 passer rating, and a 97.5 Total QBR, preventing the threat of the Lions from taking away the NFC North for good.

Consider that Rodgers threw 5 interceptions on the season, and threw interceptions in only 3 games. His entire career efficiency numbers are insanely good, and 2014 validated that statement.

People will be debating which between Rodgers’ 2011 and 2014 seasons is his best. I’d take 2011 overall, but only because it’s that damn good. Aaron Rodgers’ 2014 is awfully close, and if there’s one guy that should win the MVP in 2014, it’s him. Few players have ever played as impressively as him, and few players will ever play as impressive as him in the future.

That’s just how Aaron Rodgers has worked his magic, and he is the best quarterback of 2014.

Best Game: Week 10 Against The Chicago Bears: Nothing needs to be said other than Aaron Rodgers threw 6 touchdowns in the first half, going 18/27 for 315 yards, a 145.8 rate, and a 99.8 Total QBR. Watch the highlights for more.

Stats via pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, and hosted.stats.com.

9/4/2014: Packers-Seahawks Recap

First off, I have to welcome back the NFL. It’s been forever. Seriously, don’t leave any time soon.

Moving on, this was as one sided as the Super Bowl last year. The combo of a dynamic offense and the Legion of Boom defense confirmed this, as the Seattle Seahawks destroyed the Green Bay Packers 36-16. They’ve lost only once at home in the past 3 seasons.

Let’s review both teams by offense and defense, obviously splitting them up into 2 sections.

 

The Winning Team: Seattle

 

The Seahawks played like it was still the Super Bowl, simple as that. The defense as expected was of top quality, but the offense was just as good. Marshawn Lynch put all doubts anyone had about him aside as he looked more dynamic, stronger, and elusive than ever before. The Packers defense failed to contain Lynch, as he broke tackles and found numerous holes in Green Bay’s front 7. He rushed for 110 yards, 2 TD, and 5.5 yards per carry. Welcome back, Beast Mode.

Not too far behind is Russell Wilson. For all the talk of being a game manager, Wilson certainly looked more like an actual QB. There were a few bad throws that weren’t picked off simply because of pure luck, but otherwise Wilson looked efficient, and put the Seahawks in terrific field position throughout most of the game. Wilson’s pocket presence continues to amaze. I believe he only took 1 sack, and looked very comfortable scrambling and moving around in the pocket. He completed 19 of 28 passes (67.8 completion percentage) for 191 yards, 2 TD, and a 110.9 passer rating. His 2nd TD pass put the game away late in the 4th quarter, and we could be looking at an elite quarterback in the makings.

WR Percy Harvin looked as much of a dual threat tonight as Jamaal Charles. He provided the extra weapon the Seahawks offense needed all along, and his athleticism was incredible when healthy. He caught 7 receptions for 59 yards, and rushed for 41 yards on 4 carries, putting Seattle in excellent field position.

Overall, Seattle’s receivers and rushers looked great (so did the QB), but the credit partially goes to the defense. They made Aaron Rodgers look like Carson Palmer (2011-2013 Carson Palmer that is), and put 3 sacks on him, as well as a fumble for a safety. The rush defense allowed only 80 yards for 3.8 yards per carry., and the pass defense allowed for few deep ball opportunities for Green Bay. The Legion of Boom rarely allowed any answers, no complaints here.

 

The Losing Team: Green Bay

 

I expected a 28-17 victory for the Seahawks, not a 36-16 blowout (see how 8 more points makes a big difference?). Not only were the Packers outperformed by Seattle, they were outcoached too.

The running game was barely used effectively, and often relied on the vertical passing game against perhaps the best secondary in the NFL. As expected, it didn’t work out as planned.

Dom Capers has been overrated as a defensive coordinator, and it appears that his hot seat is beginning to form. Rookie HaHa Clinton-Dix played about as silly as his name, but it seems like the whole Packers defense just wasn’t prepared tonight.

Hell, the entire Packers team didn’t look good at all tonight, and allowed 207 yards of rushing (and 5.6 yards per carry).

Aaron Rodgers played decent, but looked awkward to start the game, and although he had a higher completion percentage than Wilson (69.8), some of his throws looked off, and he rarely ran for it despite open lanes clearly available to him. So it’s obvious Rodgers made some mistakes tonight.

His lone interception is not on him. That was tipped by receiver Jordy Nelson, and into the hands of CB Byron Maxwell. Not exactly a LOB masterpiece. That said, I expected Rodgers to struggle tonight, and he did. Green Bay simply had no answers on offense, though Rodgers did pass for 189 yards.

The 1 TD was in garbage time, however, and Rodgers finished with an 81.5 passer rating.

While Rodgers and company played better against Seattle than the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, does it honestly say much? Nope, not really.

 

MVP: Marshawn Lynch (20 carries, 110 yards, 2 TD, 5.5 yards per carry)

As good as Russell Wilson was on Thursday, Lynch was just unstoppable. His strength and athleticism were put to extremely good use, and fears of a decline have been put to rest for now. Best of all, he’s made fantasy owners happy.

 

Overall, this wasn’t a very fun game for teams expecting a shootout, but very fun for analysts/writers like me. Seattle has sent a message to every team in the NFL; getting past them will take the will over 100 men, and then some. 

Pete Carroll and the Seahawks looked as excellent as ever.

NFL Playoff Predictions (2014 Edition)

NFL Playoff Predictions 2014

 

Less than a week away from the NFL, what better time to predict the playoff spots?

 

Not much should be able to change in terms of teams that make the playoffs, from a few exceptions. 2014 potentially brings an all-star cast of veteran, returning, and rookie quarterbacks, and more star names on defense than 2013, which can affect the outcome of the season.

I won’t go into too much detail on what players the teams have, just specifically rankings and a few thoughts about each team. So without further ado, I present the playoff predictions for the NFL, by conference, division and Wild Card.

 

AFC

 

AFC East

 

I know who’s going to win the AFC East, you know who’s going to win the AFC East, and your grandmother knows who’s going to win the AFC East. Outside of 2002 and 2008, only one team since 2001 has won the division. So let’s just get it out of the way; the New England Patriots are once again winning the division.

Tom Brady gets veteran Rob Gronkowski back (hopefully), and numerous additions on offense and defense from free agency/the draft back them up. The best coach in the NFL himself (Bill Belichick) is also returning, so really, this isn’t much of a debate.

The Jets and Dolphins can at least keep it close as quarterbacks Geno Smith and Ryan Tannehill show promise, but lingering problems (coaching issues for NYJ, and the awful offensive line of MIA) prevent a new champion from occurring. As for the Bills, their QB issue is a problem, and though the defense has life, outside of the backfield depth, nothing appears to wow the NFL. With rookie WR Sammy Watkins injured, who knows how well this team will finish.

AFC East Rankings

 

  1. Patriots
  2. Jets
  3. Dolphins
  4. Bills

 

AFC North

The competition is close in the AFC North, and all 4 teams have potential as long as certain areas play out right.

The Bengals should have no problem retaining their division titles. Andy Dalton, while certainly not a top 10 QB, has played well enough to lead Cincinnati to the playoffs in each of his first 3 seasons, and the #1 guy in AJ Green is expected to be back and better than ever. The defense looks as good as ever before, especially with DT Geno Atkins returning from injury.

The Ravens, despite being heavily flawed in 2013, still managed a respectable 8-8 record. The run and pass protection expects to be better in 2014, which will certainly help Joe Flacco and Ray Rice (respectfully). And with weapons at WR including Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and newcomer Steve Smith, the offense will get a fresh start in the new season. Expect a wild card spot from Baltimore.

The Steelers will keep it close, but I don’t see a playoff spot. Rookie Dri Archer is a terrific addition, but Big Ben can only carry the Steelers so far, and problems on defense and pass protection exist. The Browns have a talented roster on offense and defense, but the QB situation is more than enough to prevent this young squad from a playoff spot. The loss of Josh Gordon certainly doesn’t help.

 

AFC North Rankings

  1. Bengals
  2. Ravens (Wild Card)
  3. Steelers
  4. Browns

 

AFC South

 

Like the AFC East, we already know who will win the AFC South: The Indianapolis Colts. The strength of schedule in the division doesn’t exist, and despite the Colts’ lingering issues on both sides of the field, QB Andrew Luck should do enough to lead the club to back-to-back division titles.

The Texans should be strong on defense thanks to Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt, the latter recently locked up with the team. But the QB situation won’t strike fear anytime soon, despite talented weapons in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. The Titans will go as far as Jake Locker intends on playing a season, despite boasting clear talent on both sides of the field. That’s where the doubt kicks in. The Jaguars have potential in Blake Bortles (cast Chad Henne aside), but this is a team that hasn’t provided the benefit of the doubt for a while. The loss of Justin Blackmon certainly hurts.

 

AFC South Rankings

  1. Colts
  2. Texans
  3. Titans
  4. Jaguars

 

 

AFC West

 

The competition seems tight in the West, as all 4 teams have capable QBs. The Broncos live and die by the performance of Peyton Manning, so expect them to stay on top, especially with a defense expected to improve.

Not too far behind are the Chargers, along with a rejuvenated Philip Rivers, who came off a terrific 2013 season. San Diego is my 2nd wild card team (along with Baltimore).

The Chiefs locked up Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles, but I don’t see Smith progressing enough to lead Kansas City back to the playoffs. The loss of key veterans on offense and defense doesn’t help matters.

The Raiders are in rebuilding mode (again), but rookie QB Derek Carr should be a bright spot on a team named the least desirable in the NFL.

 

AFC West Rankings

  1. Broncos
  2. Chargers (Wild Card)
  3. Chiefs
  4. Raiders

 

NFC

NFC East

All 4 teams in the NFC East have won the division at least once in the last 5 years, but the division should be chalked up to the Eagles once again. Yes, Nick Foles might regress, yes, the offense lost DeSean Jackson, and yes, that defense doesn’t look great. But with Chip Kelly coaching, and the other 3 NFC East teams appearing to fall behind, it shouldn’t be to difficult for Foles and company to repeat as NFC East champs.

The real reason to get offended by the Redskins was how they played in 2013. They sucked. RGIII should have more of a 2012 season than a 2013 season, and with DeSean Jackson, Alfred Morris, and Pierre Garcon as weapons, and a new pass happy head coach in Jay Gruden, I don’t see a reason not to believe the offense and team will improve. But it’s looking like a 7-9 or 8-8 for the Skins. I just see Philadelphia as better prepared.

The Cowboys boast plenty of talent on offense, with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, and Jason Witten headlining. The problem is the offense plays well on an incredibly flawed team. The defense looks worse than it was in 2013 (which was still pretty awful), thanks to a hole located where the defensive end depth used to be. Having Jerry Jones as an owner and a GM wastes Romo’s excellent career as an undrafted QB.

After last year’s farce on offense, there’s nowhere for the Giants to go but up. Eli Manning was a disaster in 2013, but so was the OL, the receiver routes, the entire offense was complete crap. While improvements will be seen, it won’t be much, or enough to compete for a playoff spot.

 

NFC East Rankings

  1. Eagles
  2. Redskins
  3. Cowboys
  4. Giants

 

NFC North

 

Since the NFC West is expected to regress in 2013, it appears that the NFC North may be the divisional powerhouse to watch. A healthy Aaron Rodgers, along with talented depth on defense, means another NFC North title for the Packers.

The Bears won’t win the division, but I see a playoff spot for them. QB Jay Cutler is due for a MVP like season as long as he stays healthy, and established forces on the backfield (Matt Forte) and the receiving core (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery) prepares for an explosive year on offense. Signing Jared Allen will provide much needed mentoring on a defense that was terrible in 2013. And that’s enough for a Wild Card spot.

The Lions will once again be competitive this season down the final stretch, especially with a new set of WR weapons (Eric Ebron, Golden Tate) to go along with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, but it’ll be a step in the right direction. The same goes for the Vikings, who look promising with Teddy Bridgewater as a starter (benching him for Matt Cassel looks questionable). No playoffs, but at this rate, they should be in that position once again come a few years.

 

NFC North Rankings

  1. Packers
  2. Bears (Wild Card)
  3. Lions
  4. Vikings

 

NFC South

We move to the NFC South, which looks a bit different than the last time we saw it. Of course, the expectations are that Drew Brees and the Saints reclaim the division for the first time since 2011, especially with the defense looking as good as ever.

 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers surprised many by having one of the best offseasons by any team in recent memory, acquiring key coaching, offense, and defense from free agency and the draft. I trust Mike Glennon as a QB more than I do Josh McCown. Glennon, though not spectacular in 2013, was good by rookie standards, throwing 19 TD and 9 INT, including a surprising 2 TD 0 INT performance against the Seahawks defense at Seattle. This is the year to make a playoff run for Tampa, and I expect them to do that.

Record wise, the Falcons should be much better than 2014, especially with the return of Julio Jones and Matt Ryan behind center. But questions still lurk at OL, and the competition is heating up in the South. I don’t see Atlanta making it back to the playoffs this year. Neither do I see the Panthers making a return. The receiving core has disappeared, which will be enough to give Carolina a potential last place finish.

 

NFC South Rankings

  1. Saints
  2. Buccaneers (Wild Card)
  3. Falcons
  4. Panthers

 

NFC West

Lastly, we move to the NFC West, which has dominated the NFL in terms of defense. As expected, the defending champ Seahawks should have no problem reclaiming the NFC West division, despite the fact that Richard Sherman may experience a Madden Curse. The roster is still young, and it’s no surprise Seattle is still favorite to return to the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals have long been the underdog in the NFL, but the sun is a few years away from shining on them. The defense won’t be as good as last year, and Carson Palmer isn’t exactly 2005 Carson Palmer, but it’ll be good enough for second place, thanks to issues from the other 2 teams in the division.

The Rams have a loaded defense, and potential backfield talent in runningbacks Zac Stacy and Tre Mason. No playoffs for them, but they should be able to finish better than the 49ers, who collapsed completely on defense in the offseason, losing almost every valuable piece that made up a feared front 7 and secondary from 2011-2013 to partial suspension/injury. I don’t see Colin Kaepernick and company being able to help lead the team to another playoff appearance with the issues lurking on defense.

 

NFC West Rankings

  1. Seahawks
  2. Cardinals
  3. Rams
  4. 49ers

 

AFC Playoff Teams: Denver (1), New England (2), Cincinnati (3), Indianapolis (4), San Diego (5), Baltimore (6)

 

NFC Playoff Teams: Seattle (1), Green Bay (2), New Orleans (3), Philadelphia (4), Chicago (5), Tampa Bay (6)

 

Super Bowl Predictions: Denver vs. New Orleans

I see Peyton Manning Denver dominated the AFC once again to make it back to the Super Bowl, where The Sherriff will fight a rematch against Drew Brees and the Saints (2009). I’m high on both QBs for this season. It should be a duel this time around, with Denver winning one for Peyton this time around.

 

Super Bowl Champion: Denver Broncos

Runner Ups In AFC/NFC: New England Patriots/Green Bay Packers

 

I expect to be wrong on a lot of these predictions, if not all of them. That’s the beauty of the NFL; it’s unpredictable enough to prevent predictions from being 100% accurate. So we shall see what happens starting Thursday.

Share you (rational please) thoughts in the comment section below. Or just follow me @LastWordKinsley and complain about how much my predictions suck.

The 10 Best Quarterbacks Heading Into 2014

2013 was an interesting year for the NFL in terms of quarterbacks. We saw the decline of Matt Schaub, the reemergence of Philip Rivers, the rise to stardom in Nick Foles, and the pure dominance of Peyton Manning, as well as the younger QBs (Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick).

With the NFL preseason just about halfway over, what better time to come up with a top 10 list of the best QBs heading into 2014 (this is a trick question, as there is no better time)? Obviously the list might not be 100% accurate at the end of the year, but these are basically my predictions in terms of quality QB play for the 2014 season.

Making the list was a challenge, as today’s game features more capable QBs than ever before. Surrounding talent/team success played part of a role in making this list for some quarterbacks, but I tried not to make it an emphasis. THIS NOT AN OVERALL RANKING OF QUARTERBACKS, just who I think are the best heading into 2014.

Finally, unless you have the ability to see into the future, please note that this is an opinion based list, so yes, I’m expecting to be wrong on some of the picks.

 

So without further ado, I present “The 10 Best QBs Heading Into 2014.”

 

 

 

10. Matt Ryan

2013 Stats: 439/651, 67.4 Completion Percentage, 26 TD, 17 INT, 89.3 Passer Rating

 

The 29 year old Falcons QB is entering his 7th season in the NFL, hoping to shake off a mistake filled 2013 season, in which Atlanta played for a 4-12 record, unwelcome territory considering the previous success of the past 5 years of Matt Ryan’s career.

As is expected, Ryan should be much better in 2013, but with the loss of tackle Sam Baker, the Falcons struggling offensive line may not hold its ground. Still, the return of WR Julio Jones should give Ryan the boost he desperately needs.

Despite struggling in 2013, Ryan’s completion percentage only declined by 1.2 points from 2012, so even in those losses, he was still extremely accurate, which is welcome news with Jones back. Though future HOF TE Tony Gonzalez is gone, this should also open up younger talent at the TE position, giving Ryan a fresh set of new targets.

Ryan has never really been a mobile QB, but his deadly accuracy should be enough to keep the Falcons contending. We shall see if it’s truly the case in 2014.

9. Ben Roethlisberger

2013 Stats: 375/584, 64.2 Completion Percentage, 4,261 yards, 28 TD, 14 INT, 92.0 Passer Rating

 

Big Ben has always been an interesting case. While he’s never put up the gaudy stats of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers for most of his career, he’s made up for it with his world famous ability to extend a play in the pocket, thanks to his scrambling abilities and strength.

After suffering an 0-4 start, the Steelers under Big Ben finished the regular season with a 8-4 run, becoming a “BS no penalty call in the Chargers/Chiefs Week 17 Game” away from sneaking into the playoffs. During that 8-4 run, Big Ben thew for 23 TD and 9 INT for a completion percentage of 64.1 and a passer rating of 95.0.

Not much should change in terms of the quality of QB play from Big Ben in 2014, but the talent surrounding him is questionable. The Steelers defense that was once feared throughout the NFL has significantly declined, and with the recent arrests of running backs LeVeon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, that only leaves rookie Dri Archer as a dependable player in the backfield.

I expect some struggles from Big Ben (but overall consistently good QB play), but if Archer and WR Antonio Brown can hold their ground, it’s a definite possibility Ben will climb higher on this list at the end of the year.

 

8. Tony Romo

2013 Stats: 342/535, 63.9 Completion Percentage, 3,828 yards, 31 TD, 10 INT, 96.7 Passer Rating.

 

Perhaps the most underrated quarterback in NFL history, Tony Romo has played exceptionally well on Cowboys teams that continue to be mediocre. As a result, the “choker” status sticks out, and it always seems like the pieces for Dallas fall apart at the wrong time. 

But for the last 3 years, Romo has kept the Cowboys relevant in playoff talk going into week 17 thanks to efficient passing and large volume yardage. This isn’t garbage time either, the Cowboys were desperately fighting for a playoff spot, and the usual week 17 match ups decided the NFC East Division Title thanks to Romo’s underrated ability in the clutch. 

We know he’s not elite, but he’s awfully close. The Cowboys defense was atrocious last year, including a disastrous performance against the Broncos, in which Romo still managed to throw for over 500 yards and 5 TD passes. His late interception changed perspective, and many unfairly blamed him for the loss.

The defense won’t look any better in 2013, but TE Jason Witten, RB DeMarco Murray, and star WR Dez Bryant, Romo should stay exceptional in 2014, and I expect him to improve this year (the team Romo was on in 2013 was worse than the 2012 team, which he struggled more so than 2013). The 34 year-old veteran is due for a playoff run, and while that might not be a possibility this year, if the cards play right on offense, we could definitely see it coming.

 

7. Andrew Luck

2013 Stats: 343/570, 60.2 Completion Percentage, 3,822 Yards, 23 TD, 9 INT, 87.0 Passer Rating

 

Numerous experts have praised Andrew Luck as a top 5 quarterback already. While I hesitate to agree on that, his ability in the clutch, mobility, and consistent leadership easily put him on pace to do so. Carrying a mediocre supporting cast around, Luck still managed to perform well as a young quarterback.

Though Luck’s TD numbers are about average, he lowered his turnover rate in 2013, and we should see significant progression in 2014 from him, to the point where he may play at the level of the elites.

I see Luck as the next Steve Young, not in terms of style, but rather stepping out of the shadows of another great. In other words, Joe Montana is to Steve Young and the 49ers as Peyton Manning is to Andrew Luck and the Colts. I expect Luck to not only step out of Peyton’s shadow, but thrive in 2014.

It’s only a matter of time before the elite QBs such as Peyton, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees near retirement, and Luck is inching closer near that mark of elite play.

 

6. Philip Rivers

 

2013 Stats: 378/544, 69.5 Completion Percentage, 4,478 yards, 32 TD, 11 INT, 105.5 Passer Rating

 

What seemed like a once great quarterback exiting the doors vanished. After declining in 2011 and 2012, Philip Rivers suddenly thrived in 2013, returning to his glory days from 2006-2010. Under a new non Norv Turner system, Rivers’ skill set was fresh, and his terrific play was enough to guide the Chargers to the 6th seed in the AFC, which included a playoff win against the Bengals and a Comeback Player Of The Year award.

Rivers at his best has always been a dangerously accurate quarterback, and like Tony Romo, is due for a deep playoff run. His mechanics were changed under new head coach Mike McCoy, in which he got the ball out quicker and had much better pass protection. Ultimately, it made a big difference for the Chargers.

Though I don’t expect an AFC West Division Title with Peyton Manning on the Broncos anytime soon, the Chargers can very likely return to the playoffs as a Wild Card team again under Rivers. I expect around the same QB play as 2013, which would be good enough to get SD into the playoffs once again.

 

5. Russell Wilson

 

2013 Stats: 257/407, 63.1 Completion Percentage, 3,357 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT, 101.2 Passer Rating

 

The defending Super Bowl Champion QB has a lot of expectations coming into 2014, which I believe he will exceed with flying colors.

Russell Wilson has not posted the amount of passing attempts fellow young QB Andrew Luck has, but makes up for it with above average TD passing and exceptional efficiency. Though he’s got the best defense in the NFL backing him up, the Seahawks would be nowhere near the Super Bowl without Wilson, who has excelled under head coach Pete Carroll’s aggressive go-for-it style of play.

I predict Wilson will be much better in 2014. For a young QB, his mobility is top notch, the decision making superb, his ability in the clutch is exceptional, and his deep ball accuracy is ridiculously smooth. That offensive line isn’t getting much better, but we could be seeing the next elite QB once Wilson’s training wheels finally break.

Game Manager? Hardly.

 

4. Tom Brady

2013 Stats: 380/628, 60.5 completion percentage, 4,343 yards, 25 TD, 11 INT, 87.3 Passer Rating

 

Let me explain myself, Patriots fans, before you bash me for putting Tom Brady this low on the list.

2013 was a decline for Brady. While it’s true he played with a cast without the quality of his previous teams, Brady himself struggled, becoming surprisingly off on a significant amount of throws. These struggles included 0 TD in the playoffs (unless you count the garbage time TD against the Broncos). The Patriots easily won against the Colts, but this was due to a dominant running game and defense. Brady threw 0 TD in that game.

It seems safe to say Brady may be near the end.

However, because the Patriots organization is well run, this may not be the case. Brady’s #1 guy in Rob Gronkowski should FINALLY start healthy (for the sake of my fantasy team), and Brady’s got weapons in Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman that should be able to progress enough for Brady to return to his prime state. And Brady has ALWAYS been deadly accurate when the cards are played right.

While I wouldn’t call his 2013 season “More With Less”, Brady, for the most part, played well enough to guide the Patriots to yet another AFC East Division Title. It’s definitely possible for Brady to exceed 35+ TD once again.

No one can deny Brady is a hard working QB, and very few QBs have been able to pass his body of work and excellence. I sense 2013 was an off year, and he should return to Tom Terrific in 2014.

 

3. Drew Brees

2013 Stats: 446/650, 68.6 Completion Percentage, 5,162 yards, 39 TD, 12 INT, 104.7 Passer Rating

 

One of the most efficient long bomb passers EVER, Drew Brees is one of a kind, and has almost always had the long volume bombs of Warren Moon, and the pin point accuracy of Kurt Warner. The long volume yardage would mean nothing without a solid completion percentage, and Brees has an extreme amount of that, and then some.

You’d think he’s the most accurate Hail Mary passer of all time.

Despite his size, the Saints star QB doesn’t seem to be declining at all, providing New Orleans 8 years of top level QB play. Though the turnover rate prevents him from being the #1 QB in my eyes, Brees has stayed consistently elite for a long time, and his career is something few others have accomplished in terms of pure sustainability.

I see Brees finally performing a bit better than Tom Brady, who has usually had the edge season-by-season. And who knows, we could see another Super Bowl added to Brees’ collection if he continues his excellent quarterback play.

No worries here, Who Dat Nation (knock on wood).

 

2. Aaron Rodgers

 

2013 Stats: 193/290, 66.6 Completion Percentage, 2,536 yards, 17 TD, 6 INT, 104.9 Passer Rating

 

The best QB of the 2010s by far when healthy, Aaron Rodgers has played at a level of smart decision making that has never been seen before.

While the struggles were there in 2013, and the health concerns present, Rodgers’ return in week 17 of the 2013 season saw him guide a mediocre Packers squad to another NFC North title in a closely contested match against the Bears, where he threw a last second game winning TD to WR Randall Cobb.

Aaron Rodgers in my eyes is already a Hall Of Famer, providing quality over quantity from 2008-2013, including outstanding playoff performances and a dominant peak. His severely minimal mistakes, combined with huge TD volume and efficiency, make him standout among the elites, and the expectations are that he will continue his reign of terror on the NFL.

Needless to say, because of his injury in 2013, I have him as #2 on the list, behind a fellow elite quarterback.

 

1. Peyton Manning

2013 Stats: 450/659, 68.3 Completion Percentage, 5,477 yards, 55 TD, 10 INT, 115.1 Passer Rating

We are all witnesses to the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. No I’m not talking about Joe Montana. I’m talking about The Sheriff himself, Peyton Manning.

The 38 year-old QB ages like wine, constantly improving his game and conquering the NFL as THE poster boy for field generals. His 2013 MVP season was yet another masterpiece, and ranks as one of the greatest seasons in individual QB history, setting records for TD passes and yardage.

It’s no secret that Peyton’s never had the strongest arm, but he’s got the smartest. He makes the players around him better in ways no other QB in NFL history has been able to achieve, and his window of excellence ranks high among the rest.

Is there really much to say?

With Peyton at QB, the Broncos will remain a threat until the day Peyton retires. And with his level of play getting better as each year goes by, it’s no surprise that I have him as the best QB heading into 2014.

Scoff at Peyton Manning for being a “playoff choker” all you want, but he’s better than your favorite quarterback, no debate necessary.

 

Thank you for viewing this list, and do not be afraid to voice your opinion on snubs, your list, or agreement (irrational comments and insults are frowned upon).