Tuesday, September 2, 2014

It's All Kicking Off

Give a drunk monkey darts and ask him to throw them at a wall plastered with teams and win/loss records and you'll get similarly reliable results to the average NFL prognosticator. Still, going through the league team by team proves to be a therapeutic exercise in building up an illusion of knowledge about the upcoming year. Sure, there's a few givens: the Seahawks will contend to repeat, the Browns will struggle and the Cowboys will lose at least one game in which they score 45 point; but, there are far more unpredictable elements to the season such as injuries, turnovers and players' names (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix? Blake Bortles? Jadeveon Clowney? And those are just from this year's draft). It's the unforeseeable that keeps us watching, the uncertainty that makes it interesting and the seeming randomness that means any team can win on any given Sunday. Anyway, if you'd just like a quick glance at the team forecasts for the upcoming year, scroll down to where the pictures start, but if you're in the mood to let your mind wander, by all means, continue reading.

A little thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that each NFL team's talent and opportunity to win was distributed across the league in the same way as wealth and opportunity for success is distributed in the United States. A little tricky as dividing the wealth of the nation the same as dividing talent among 32 teams would require 3% intervals (more or less 100% divided by 32 teams). Estimates vary thanks to offshore hoarding, but the top 1% holds between 39.8% and 46.9% of the total wealth, meaning we can cheat a bit and say the top 3% has about half of the wealth. In our football terms, that means the best team has half the talent in the league. We also know that the top 10% holds about 75% of the wealth in the country. Let's say that 10% of the population represents the top 4 teams, including the best. So, let's split up 25% (75-50) among the next three teams, about 8% each (and that's distributing much more equitably than reality). We also know the richest quartile holds 90% of the wealth, meaning the next 15% (25-10) of the population gets 15% of the wealth, huh, almost seems fair, as that's five teams each getting 3%.

Now, things start getting lean for the remaining 23 teams. We know the bottom 40% of the population has zero wealth (the bottom quintile is negative and the 2nd is barely positive, so it's easier to lump them together), so let's give 13 teams exactly nothing. Again, for simplicity, let's give the remaining 10 teams an equal share of the remaining 10% of wealth/talent, exactly 1% each. To recap, our imaginary NFL has 13 teams with no talent with less chance of winning the Super Bowl than the Cleveland Browns, 10 teams with 1/100th of the talent in the league, translating into the equivalent chances of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There are five teams that are statistically 'average' in talent, making their likelihood of winning on par with, say, the Miami Dolphins. There are three really good teams with the chances of the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots. Finally, there is the cream of the crop, the top dog, head honcho, top of the heap, an amalgam of the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos combined with the time machine given talent of the '85 Bears and '72 Dolphins.

Oh, and it gets worse, that is to say more unequal. Seeing as inequality has a vicious tendency to reinforce itself, it'll do the same thing to the teams moving into the future. From 2009 to 2012, 95% of the income gains, which we'll translate into draft picks, have gone to the top 1%. This would take a bit of the pressure off at draft time for most teams seeing as the super team would get at least 20 picks for every pick taken by the rest of the league. There would never be a chance for a bit of excitement in Cleveland, Johnny Manziel would land with the champs every time. Injuries take a disproportionate toll on the non-elite teams, too. Though the overall wealth of the league may have increased by 26% from 2007-2013, the median family, and thus team, lost 43% of their wealth. Even worse for fans, being as stacked as they are, the champs can't possibly play all their stars, so much of their roster is inactive, much as 40% of the 1%'s accounted for wealth is simply sitting idle. We're talking an inefficiency beyond the English Premiership or even the Spanish Liga.

A few other twists to this years pre-season post. The most obvious visually is that instead of each team's logo accompanying their preview it will be a cheerleader shot from the team (unless of course that team is the Browns, Steelers, Giants, Bills, Bears, Packers or Lions who don't have official cheerleader squads). This is of course completely non-sexist and being done as a sign of solidarity with the current cheerleader class action lawsuit(s) against the Raiders for wage theft. Oh, and the similar unfair labour practice suits against the Bucs, Bengals, Bills and Jets. Legal action has already borne fruit, well, if you consider winning the right to be paid the absolute legal minimum per hour a good thing.

Just what those poor NFL owners and executives need, another legal headache, no pun intended. They probably couldn't imagine who wouldn't want a job that doesn't pay you to practice 6-15/hours a week, forces you to attend twice-monthly charity events for free, gives you the privilege to be auctioned off to sit on people's laps, fines you for minor infractions such as bringing the wrong pom-poms, forces you to buy team calendars (at a $3 discount so you can hustle and turn a profit!), pass weekly jiggle tests while staying within a +/- 3 lb weight band, foot the bill for beauty salon visits to maintain an assigned image, and give up the rights to your image all in the hopes of getting paid at the end of the year. Don't these girls know there's hundreds of aspirants who would kill to take their place? Hmmm, sounds a bit like the argument that Wal-Mart and McDonald's make. If you don't shut up and do your job, you'll be replaced. In fact, that's pretty much what the Ben-Gals cheerleader rule book says, "ABSOLUTELY NO ARGUING OR QUESTIONING THE PERSON IN AUTHORITY!!!"

Hey, wonder if these issues are somehow related to the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri. Nah, to suggest something like that would be akin to waging class warfare. On to bigger and better things.

AFC North - In a world without the Cleveland Browns, this division would define parity, the opposite of America, over the past 9 years as the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals have taken three division titles each. And what's this? Two teams without official cheerleaders? Appalling, obviously more inequality is needed.

Perhaps the best defensive player in the league is back in the person of Geno Atkins to join bizarrely-named Vontaze Burfict et al. Cornerback Leon Hall is also back to join a deep secondary manned by Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Terence Newman and given a much needed youth infusion by draft pick Darqueze (Darqueze?) Denard. QB Andy Dalton has a new contract, a stable of weapons, but an 0-3 record in the playoffs in his first three years (24 years and counting since the franchise has won at the dance); it's clear that the Red Rifle is more Red Regular. AJ Green has to be part of any discussion about the best WRs in the game, Marvin Jones, when back from injury, will terrorize one-on-ones on the other side, Eifer/Gresham provide a potent 1-2 TE threat and the running game features breakout candidate Giovani Bernard off a great rookie campaign to be complemented by rookie Jeremy Hill to relieve the ageing law firm. Good enough to reach the playoffs again, anywhere from 9-7 to 12-4.

With so much underperforming happening in Houston and Atlanta, it was easy to miss the fall off suffered by the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens last year. The once vaunted defense was middling while the offense was odious, especially Ray Rice. 3.1 ypc? 321 yards on 58 receptions? Seems he was no better than his fiancee at making people miss. Sorry, bad taste, but really Ray? QB Joe Flacco wasn't much better but may turn things around this year now that he has two Smiths to throw to at wide-out, Torrey and eternally young free agent signing Steve from Carolina. TE Dennis Pitta is back healthy, too. On defense Terrell Suggs is still around along with immoveable object Haloti Ngata in the middle. A pair of lockdown corners anchor a pretty good secondary as well and they drafted C.J. Mosley to shore up the linebacking crew. They're not headed back to the Super Bowl but a winning season, maybe 9-7 isn't a stretch here.

You've probably read or heard that Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, and their second-round pick, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, will be starting for Dick LeBeau's defensive unit although he hasn't started a rookie in over a decade. Could be because the Steelers defense was decidedly average last year and badly in need of a youth infusion. On the other side of the ball, QB Ben Roethlisberger has lost Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders the last two years so will lean heavily on Antonio Brown who was second in the NFL in catches, receiving yards and first-down receptions and third in catches that gained 20-plus yards. He should be complemented by second year wideout Markus Wheaton and Saint castoff Lance Moore along with TE Heath Miller, entering what seems like his 53rd season. There's hope in the running game with the blunt brothers, Le'Veon Bell coming off a decent rookie campaign and Buc/Pat import LaGarrette Blount to batter the line. Rookie speed demon Dri Archer (4.26-40) should make a big play or to as well. A return to the playoffs is a distinct possibility as long as Ben stays healthy.

Let's see. Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns for a billion in 2012, had his Pilot Flying J truck stop chain raided by the FBI for fraud in 2013, and fired the Browns GM and coach in 2014. Yet none of that matters any more, at least to the media, after he had his team pick Johnny Manziel, AKA Johnny Football at #22 in this year's draft. It's a good thing Johnny had some fun before the season started though as he'll be warming the bench, at least for the first few games, for Brian Hoyer. No matter, there's not much to throw to outside of TE Jordan Cameron as the team's best target, WR Josh Gordon, who BTW led the league in receiving yards last year, will miss the entire season for smoking a plant legally sold in Washington and Colorado. Ben Tate was brought in to lug the rock and along with third round pick Terrance West might give the Browns a decent running game. Meanwhile, the defense could be stellar, loaded front to back with the high draft pick rewards of perpetual ineptitude, peppered with stars such as CB Joe Haden, LB Karlos Dansby and even a guy named Barkevious Mingo! Sorry Cleveland fans, despite the high hopes, Manziel won't start until week 5 and the Browns won't break .500.

AFC West - What's up with the western divisions? It was just a few years ago they were the league's pushovers, now they're the powerhouses. No one is catching the Broncos until Peyton's head falls off but there could be another playoff team in here somewhere...

Scary. That's the only word to describe the 2014/15 prospects of the Denver Broncos, at least for their opponents. If the offense is only 75% as good as last year, they're still going to the Super Bowl as the defense will be at least that much better. They've added DeMarcus Ware to go along with Von Miller who's back from injury to give them perhaps the best 1-2 pass rush combination in the league. Oh, in the secondary they've added corner Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, drafted corner Bradley Harris in the first round and another corner, Chris Harris, is back from injury. Oh noes, RB Knowshon Moreno and WR Eric Decker are gone! Next man up, as long as QB Peyton Manning stays healthy, you or I could put up respectable stats. RB Montee Ball is expected to step if healthy while they've still got a plethora of receiving targets including All-World WR Demaryius Thomas and TE Julius Thomas. Oh, and Wes Welker, provided he wants to retire a cripple, and Emmanuel Sanders was brought in from the Steelers. We're looking at 12 or 13 win season here.

ICYMI, here's how the then 5-7 Chargers finished last season to sneak into the playoffs: Giants 37-14, @Broncos 27-20, Raiders 26-13, Chiefs 27-24(OT). The rollercoaster of week 17 really was special. They also beat the Chiefs in week 12. Oh, and then they beat the Bengals in the wildcard game before gamely falling to the Broncos in the Divisional round. Was it magic fairy dust? Whatever you want to call QB Philip Rivers' year, comeback, revival, Renaissance, it was one in which he re-established himself as an upper echelon signal caller, and he did it with only one legitimate wideout threat. WR Keenan Allen is back off a ROY type season along with a bunch of other guys, as is TE Antonio Gates along with breakout candidate TE Ladarius Green. Erstwhile breakable back Ryan Matthews showed he's worth the hype and little Danny Woodhead is more dangerous as a receiver than a runner. The defense throws a bunch of no-names plus CB Brandon Flower, S Eric Weddle and Manti 'Catfish' Te'o out on the field, but they should get the job done, especially if Chris Harris can finally stay healthy. If only they hadn't wasted their free agency ammunition on a 3rd string RB and instead focused on a need such as the offensive line. Still, provided they can split their first two games, at Arizona and home to Seattle, a return to the playoffs seems likely.

Riddle me this, Batman: is this the team that blew a 28-point lead in the 2nd half to the Colts last year in the playoffs or that which turned around from a 2-14 to an 11-5 record? Is the big red tomato a genius or a curse? Could Alex Smith be the best boring QB in the league? Is there any other player more important to their team than RB Jamaal Charles? Will the real WR Dwayne Bowe please stand up? Can a LB possibly cover TE Travis Kelce? How did the defense rank 5th in the league in points given up but 24th in yards? Is it Simba, Pumba, Timon or Tamba Hali? How can an offensive line survive losing three of their starters? Have you seen their NFC West/AFC East schedule? Yike. Will they back their way into the playoffs again this year? I'm betting no.

It would be difficult to blame a casual Raider fan for needing a program to figure out who's playing defense for their team. Not to say they're unknowns, just that there's so many new faces. LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers, Khalil Mack and Sio Moore (the latter two via the draft) to name but a few. If they can grasp purported mastermind defensive coordinator Jason Tarver's scheme Oakland fans may be in for a pleasant surprise. Offensively, it's much the same story with at least six new offensive starters. None of which will much matter if new QB Matt Schaub sucks even half as much as last year (edit: rookie Derek Carr has been named the starter, their 18th since 2003, wow does Schaub stink!). RB Maurice Jones-Drew was brought in to lighten fragile Darren McFadden's load; if either can find a trace of their past glory, things could start to look up. James Jones was picked up from Green Bay to pair with Rod Streater at receiver with a load of odds and ends backing them up. Who's to say where the Raiders will end up but add in the fact they have the oldest roster along with the toughest schedule in football and in all likelihood it'll be somewhere well south of .500 a line they haven't crossed since 2002!

AFC East - The Patriots rule the east having won the division the last five and ten of the past eleven years. Not much will change.

It seemed at times as if QB Tom Brady was throwing to a bunch of guys picked up off the street last year and still managed to win. Well, the Patriots went out and picked up Brandon LaFell while Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have a year of pro ball under their belt. Oh, and TE Rob Gronkowski seems to be healthy along with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. RB Shane Vereen should catch as many passes as most teams number one receiver and may even carry the running load when Stevan Ridley breaks Billichek's brain by fumbling on the goal line, or maybe the carries will go to rookie James White. Many a fantasy player would love to be able to get inside Bill's head. CBs Derrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (missing the first part of the season to suspension) were brought in to beat the Broncos and the rest of the D should be good enough to win the division. New England was 4-2 against AFC East foes last year and went a combined 11-1 against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets the two years prior. You can take another 10+ victory season to Vegas.

While the lion's share of the press regarding the 2012 quarterback class has gone to RGIII and Russell Wilson, it's Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill who has been quietly developing the way an NFL quarterback is supposed to. Now entering his third year along with coach Philbin and free of the weight of last year's bullying shenanigans, the Dolphins might be ready to make the playoff leap they were on the way to last year before blowing the final two games. As South Beach is all about being trendy, Miami will be running a Chip Kellyesque offense after bringing in Bill Lazor. If he can turn WR Mike Wallace into DeSean Jackson, RB Knowshon Moreno can do what he did last year without a QB named Peyton and Dion Jordan's suspension doesn't sabotage the defense, there is hope for more excitement and maybe even a 10-6 year, but another 8-8ish season seems most likely.

As if it weren't bad enough being a J-E-T-S fan the past couple of years, this year they'll have to cheer for a team that doesn't seem to have any cornerbacks despite spending a couple of first rounds picks on the position in the last five years. Despite (because of?) Rex Ryan's supposed defensive wizardry, this team will be playing from behind with a quarterback named Geno. Or maybe Michael. They did add a couple of offensive weapons in the running back formerly known as CJ2K to complement unheralded Chris Ivory and WR Eric "Peyton Manning-made-my-career-last-year" Decker to complement, um, well, maybe somebody. Lucky this team has great defensive front three anchored by Muhammad Wilkerson and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson or they'd be staring down a 3-13 year, instead they'll be another .500ish AFC East team.

It can't be good when your defensive coordinator and most of his staff pick up and leave for Cleveland nor when most of the talk around a team is about a yet to be determined new owner relocating the team north of the border, but that's what the Bills face heading into 2014. There's talent here, particularly in the secondary, but also on offense, just not under center. The Bills traded up from nine to four in the first round of the draft to nab WR Sammy Watkins but the question is, can QB EJ Manuel be the guy to get him the ball? If preseason is any indication, the answer will be no as he couldn't manage a single touchdown drive in his four appearances. At RB, CJ Spiller was expected to have a huge season before succumbing to injuries last year but should be good to go alongside perennial stable mate Fred Jackson. With owner Ralph Wilson Jr. having passed this spring and the likely continuation of sub .500 seasons, the Bills should be opening in Toronto in a few years.

AFC South - Is it just me or does it seem the Colts could win this division even without Andrew Luck? Move along, there's not much else on offer here I'm afraid.

If WR Reggie Wayne comes back at 100% and Hakeem Nicks can find his 2010 form, they'll form an unstoppable pass-catching trio along with T.Y. Hilton for QB Andrew Luck. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are a dynamic TE duo to boot. The offensive line and running game might hold up the offense though as linemen have been falling like flies in preseason and RB Trent Richardson was hexed by an evil wizard turning him into a halting jitterbugger instead of a powerful runner. With Vick Ballard also falling to injury they might also need Ahmad Bradshaw to find his 2010 Giant form. Defensively, who needs a defense when your offense can come back from 28 down in the 2nd half of the playoffs? Yet when Robert Mathis returns from suspension, this team will be seriously stout up front, if a little lacking in the back seven. Provided they don't get docked a few losses for owner Jim Irsay's, um, predilections, you can punch their playoff ticket today.

Entering his fourth year, QB Jake Locker is playing for his football life as the Titans declined to pick up his 5th year option. Maybe this is the year he stays healthy. And learns to read defenses. And becomes more accurate. Or not, though look at the wonders new coach Ken Whisenhunt performed with Philip Rivers last year. He's got a great looking, on paper at least, new offensive line in front of him, and a few targets to throw to in the eternal Nate Washington, 94 catch surprise Kendall Wright, and breakout candidate Justin Hunter at WR along with Delanie Walker at TE. The Titans decided to save $8 million and release RB Chris Johnson so they drafted Bishop Sankey in the second round (the first RB taken) to pair with the plodding Shonn Greene. The defense will rely more on the schemes of defensive coordinator Ray Horton than talent and so may take awhile to gel. Man, this team is boring a seeming lock to be somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year many we're picking the Texans to go all the way, then came, um, well, 2-14, with all those 14 losses coming after opening with two wins. I don't want to worry any Texan fans (I'm sure they exist), but did you know you fixed your problem under center by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to play QB this year? Sure, he might not throw as many TDs to the other team as Matt Schaub, but he still makes his share of mistakes. On the positive side of the offensive ledger, RB Arian Foster could regain his 2012 form, WR Andre Johnson seems to be back for another year and WR DeAndre Hopkins has the skills to complement him on the other side. And on defence, well, having the worst record in football gifted the team the #1 draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney who looks to be a beast who might even distract from the amazingness that is J.J. Watt. Brian Cushing could also be back but after two consecutive season-ending injuries. 8-8 is a possibility but we're more likely to see 6-10.

Well, at least the offense has 9 different starters than last year. Comes with the territory when your team is as historically bad as the Jaguars. To their credit they gave up on Blaine Gabbert (and even managed to squeeze out a late round draft pick for him from the 'Niners!) and rolled the dice on another QB, christening Blake Bortles as their quarterback of the future, or present, by making him the fourth player picked in the draft. Until the future arrives though it'll be Chad Henne keeping his seat warm, a seat sure to get hot as he'll be stuck hucking it to the likes of Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders. Draft pick WRs Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson also offer tons of that cliche potential, but then again, so did Justin Blackmon, suspended yet again for a substance violation. At least TE Marcedes Lewis is still kicking around I guess. Toby Gerhart was brought in to lug the rock and should prove serviceable behind a revamped offensive line. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was brought in from Seattle to bring the Seahawks' defense to Florida. Erm, we'll see but there isn't a Richard Sherman in the young secondary, though Chris Clemons and Red Bryant were brought in from Seattle to man the front. Tough to read but should land around 5-11.

Conference Break

Time for thought experiment #2 here at halftime. In this one I'd like you to try to imagine if the NFL fan base did a gender swap. No, I'm not talking about anything involving scalpels and silicon, simply imagine a world in which the majority of football fans were women. If that's too hard for you, maybe picture watching the NFL as the equivalent of going shoe shopping. Too sexist? Sorry, but really, imagine a world where the NFL was as popular with women as shopping for shoes and you'll be able to do this. Now, imagine this shoe shopping league, or whatever, has the ability to enforce extralegal rules that allows it to punish athletes who do things that reflect poorly on their sport. Don't ask me what kind of actions would reflect badly on professional shoe shopping, maybe buying sandals to wear with socks, whatever. Could you in your wildest dreams imagine punishments such as these?
  • Test positive for marijuana - Full season suspension
  • Have a couple of beers on vacation - 4 game suspension
  • Beat your partner unconscious - 2 game suspension
No? Well, welcome to the world of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's justice. Those were the punishments handed down to Josh Gordon, Matt Prater and Ray Rice respectively in the past few months. Before we get into the justification for the penalties, just think for a moment about the message these punishments sends not only to players, but to the public at large. In the words of Keith Olbermann:
"The message to the women who the league claims constitute 50 percent of its fan base: The NFL wants your money. It will do nothing else for you. It will tolerate those who abuse you verbally and those who abuse you physically." 
Yeah, I've got a feeling that all those pink socks, gloves and other paraphenelia sported by both the players and the league in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was a bit of a waste. What's that you say? That whole thing is nothing but a marketing scam anyway that serves to enrich the CEO of Komen and the NFL owners. You don't say. No, the real message that the public gets is that even after passing 70 drug tests, if you are found to have more than 15 nanograms per millilitre in your urine sample (for comparison, the World Anti-Doping Agency requires ten times the amount, baseball and the US military require 50 nanograms per millilitre - Gordon had 16 in his "A" sample, only 13.6 in his "B", had they had the labels switched he would have passed) of a substance that is legal in a couple of states, you should be kicked out of the game for a year, but if you knock your girlfriend unconscious in an elevator, you only deserve to sit out two games. Unfortunately, this is the only video evidence we have, but the NFL is said to have even more damning tape from inside the elevator.

Of course there is the other side of the story. The commissioner's hands are tied when it comes to disciplinary actions related to drugs by the league's collective bargaining agreement (CBA - yeah the agreement that may have transferred billions in wealth from the players to the owners, good work DeMaurice Smith). Being a repeat offender in stage III means a player is automatically suspended for a year. No matter how much you hate Goodell, it's not his fault, it was the player's union that signed Gordon's (football) death sentence. Ditto for Matt Prater, apparently he was in stage two or three of the league's intervention program. Meanwhile, the woman that Ray Rice knocked out not only took some blame for provoking Rice, but testified in his defense both in court and to Goodell, and also made the decision to marry Rice after the incident. So there you go, Rice underwent counselling and, I mean, she married him, so obviously beating women isn't as big a deal as smoking a plant that is legal in a couple of states.

Wrong. The NFL is, intentionally or not, sending the message that domestic violence isn't so bad. Worse, this isn't an isolated incident, the same month of the Rice decision saw both Fred Davis and Greg Hardy slapped with new domestic assault charges; don't worry though, the Panthers are "very disappointed" in Hardy but not enough to discipline him for allegedly threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season, but not for restraining and breaking the collarbone of the mother of his child, but, you guessed it, substance abuse-related violations. The list goes on, and on, and on.

The good news is that thanks to the backlash generated by the miniscule suspension, the league has implemented a sweeping domestic violence initiative under its personal conduct policy that calls for a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban from the league for a second offense. The bad news is that thanks to the way our brains take in information, the whole affair has probably served as ammunition for misogynists' anti-feminist justification as they see their old world order crumble, replaced by what they see as politically correct nazis. The bottom line is this change didn't come about because there's been a shift in people's perception but because the NFL is a business and a business will always take the strongest action against people who damage its ability to make money. Hopefully enough people are paying attention to the cheerleaders situation and Goodell's next big decision, what to do with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay...

NFC South - Since 2002, each of the four teams have won the division three times. Prognosticators beware, six times in the last 11 years the division has been claimed by the team that finished fourth the previous year. Time to get on the Bucs bandwagon?

Don't panic Saints fans, you lost RB Darren Sproles but he's on the downside of 30 while rookie WR Brandin Cooks will slide into his role. If preseason hype is to be believed, RBs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are improbably all set for big years on a throwing team. QB Drew Brees will have WRs Kenny Stills and Marques Colston to throw to, and yes, TE Jimmy Graham is back to dominate. Who knew that Rob Ryan's defense was the fourth ranked unit last year in both points and yards? They've added S Jairus Byrd so should be every bit as good and again led by DE Cameron Jordan. Before Brees joined the-then 'Aints in 2006, they had won one playoff game in 39 years. They won one that year and a mittful since, including a Superbowl in 2009 and are poised to make another run with one of the league's easiest schedules pushing them towards 12 regular season wins.

It was a steep fall from 13-3 to 4-12 for the 2013 Falcons as everyone seemed to break including WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White. Having both back fully healthy automatically makes this team contenders and gives QB Matt Ryan a chance to step up to the first rank of signal-callers. Yet another offensive line upgrade through draft (RT Jake Matthews, yes another Matthews), free agency (RG Jon Asamoah) and position coach (Mike Tice) should give him enough pocket protection and help RB Steven Jackson, who's still somehow only 31, find enough room to roam. The loss of all-world TE Tony Gonzalez hurts though as the team will lean on 6'8" rookie Levine Toilolo. The offense will be asked to carry a defense with a thin linebacker corps, especially with LB Sean Witherspoon out for the year, standing in contrast to run-stopping depth up front and a decent secondary. There will be points put on the board in Atlanta and the Falcons should put up a bit more than half, say 9/16ths.

The Panthers are exhibit A when it comes to demonstrating the ofttimes gaping chasm between real football and fantasy football. After QB Cam Newton, there's no one I'd want on my fantasy team but if I were fielding a real team, I'd take this squad over most others. Ok, you might take TE Cam Olsen as he's opening the year as the team's #1 receiver, but that's as much a function of the fact the Panthers got rid of all their WRs in the off-season as it is the talent of Olsen. Therefore, they're hoping one or more of their free agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, or Tiquan Underwood pan out and that rookie Kelvin Benjamin merits the preseason hype. It's fantasy hell in the backfield with a three headed RB beast in the form of DeAngelo William, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert but in real life they're serviceable in their running, catching and touchdown scoring ways respectively. The defense was the key to the Panthers surprising season, leading the league with 60 sacks, finishing second in both yards and points allowed and sporting stars such as Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy. However, there are too many red flags, the lack of proven WRs, the Jordan Gross-less offensive line, Super Cam's fractured ribs following recovery from ankle surgery plus an insanely difficult schedule (look at the first 10 weeks!), for me to pick a return to the playoffs though they should be above average.

At least Greg Schiano's reign of terror has ended. Coach Lovie Smith takes over a Buccaneer team that has chosen to start from scratch again, with a new 35-year old quarterback with a history of mediocrity joining his 8th NFL team. Ok, maybe Josh McCown did have a pretty good year with the Bears and he does have some skyscrapers for targets on the outside in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. However, they're not quite Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Still, what if equally freakishly statured rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins pans out? Muscle Hamster Doug Martin should be more his 2012 self after an off year and the Bucs will need it since third round pick Charles Sims went down. He'll be running behind what seems to be all too common around the NFL, a rebuilt offensive line which now includes Logan Mankins at guard. The team spent 24 of the $55 million in free agent signings on DE Michael Johnson to bookend bullrushing Adrian Clayburn on a great defensive line that also boast DT Gerald McCoy, has star power at linebacker with the likes of Lavonte David and a decent secondary which will keep the team in games. Another fourth to first in the south? Maybe, but a .500 finish is more likely.

NFC (L)East - Things have gotten bad in the East. Vegas puts the odds of any of the four teams winning the Super Bowl at 15-1.

Regression to the mean for their quarterback, the departure of DeSean Jackson, and the rest of the league catching up to Chip Kelly's jet-fueled (or personalized smoothie fueled) offense could see the Eagle's come down a notch. Or not. QB Nick Foles simply can't repeat last season's numbers (league leading 119.2 passer rating; 27 TDs to 2 Ints, the 3rd lowest Int% in history) but he'll be above average. WR Jeremy Maclin should be back at 100% and together with 2nd round draft pick Jordan Matthews should be able to pick up Jackson's slack. Throw in RB Darren Sproles and just try to imagine how defenses will deal with him and all-world RB LeSean McCoy on the field at the same time. Oh, and they've got a couple of weapons at TE in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and perhaps the most cohesive and consistent offensive line in the league. Who need a stinking defense? Here, the Eagles are definitely improved off a year in which they were last in the league against the pass. A tough out of division schedule holds this team back, but if any team in this division finishes above .500 it should be the Eagles.

Speaking of .500, the Cowboys have finished at 8-8 the last three seasons having lost in what came down to end of the regular season playoff games to their three divisional opponents to finish those last three years. So, yeah, though Jerry World may be worth a league-topping $3.2 billion according to Forbes, they're not topping any football lists this year. Unless you look at them upside down in which case you'll find the defense at the top of last year's squads which is where you'll find them again this year after losing DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos, Jason Hatcher to Washington and LB Sean Lee to injury. Not even Rod Marinelli will be able to prevent this unit from being bottom feeders again. Fortunately, the offense should be able to put up a plethora of points to keep them in games (remember the Broncos game?). WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten will consistently draw double teams opening things up for breakout candidate 2nd year WR Terrence Williams. RB Demarco Murray should put up decent numbers behind the strongest unit on the team, the offensive line, while camp-buzz leader RB Lance Dunbar should contribute as a pass catcher. Why even play? 8-8.

The good news: former Packer assistant Bob McAdoo was brought in to resuscitate the lifeless offense. The bad news: the new offense hasn't looked good in preseason, RB David Wilson was forced to retire and #1 pick, WR Odell Beckham Jr. can't seem to get his hamstring healthy. Eli threw 15 picks in the first six games on his way to a league-leading 27 last year, but he does have WRs to throw to in Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle though there doesn't seem to be a TE in sight. RB Rashad Jennings was brought in from Oakland where he looked good as a starter after years on the Jaguar bench to team up with rookie Andre Williams behind an offensive line that is at least not last year's line. The biggest moves on defense came in the secondary where they picked up free agents Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and ex-Seahawk Walter Thurmond and a couple late-round draft choices. There's still Jason Pierre-Paul up front along with a middling linebacking crew. Can you say 7-9? No? Then 6-10.

So long coach Shanahan, hello coach Gruden. Jay, not Jon. Hello speedster WR Desean Jackson. The question is, will they be able to turn RGIII into a pocket passer? Or, more important, will he be able to avoid injury over 16 games. He's got the targets in Jackson, WR Pierre Garcon (who led the league in targets and receptions last year) plus TE Jordan Reed (who has his own concussion issues to worry about). RB Alfred Morris enters his third year already having gained 2,888 yards in the league; the guy can't catch but he'll add to those rushing totals. The offensive line has LT Trent Williams. The defense brought in 34-year old Ryan Clark to help the overhyped DeAngelo Hall in the backfield and LB Jason Hatcher to help Brian Arakpo get some push up front. Encouragingly, somehow for both Washington and their opponents, Brandon Merriweather won't be on the field for the first couple of games as he's too stupid to avoid suspension. Distraction over that team nickname won't help. Could be anywhere from a repeat of last year (3-13) to a 9-7 season, but I'm betting on closer to 6-10. 

NFC North - What's the deal? Three of the four teams don't have official cheerleaders. Scandalous.

Off five straight playoff appearances, the Packers also have to come to terms with their season being ended by the 49ers the last two years. Though it wasn't as painful to watch last season's playoff showdown, Kaeparnick still beat them with his legs in the end and to that end (or something), this year's defense should be less of a liability as the law of averages says they shouldn't suffer the same rash of injuries they have the past two years. Newly minted CB Sam Shields (4 years, $39 mil) is back with Tramon Williams to lock down all those willowy receivers in the division (there's also a 1st round pick known as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix!). Adding Julius Peppers to the mix along with the likes of Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and B.J. Raji also gives the Pack a formidable front seven. We all know the offense is stacked from top to bottom starting behind center with Aaron Rodgers, 2nd year RB Eddie Lacy behind him and out wide (or anywhere on the field) in WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The only weak leak is a shaky offensive line. Still, take the over on 10 wins.

You know we're living in strange times when it's the Chicago Bears offense that'll need to carry its defense. With a year under his belt under coach Marc Tressman's system, QB Jay Cutler seems to have cleaned up his sloppy habits and is squaring to deliver the ball. Sounds like a fancy way to say he's got the best 1-2 WR duo in the league to throw to in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There's continuity on the offensive line to run behind for RB Matt Forte as all five linemen return from last year. Oh, he can catch, too, making him the third progression for Cutler, ahead of TE Martellus Bennett, except maybe in the red zone. The defense could be improved, though still not any younger with both DEs Jared Allen, who defected from the division rival Vikings, and Lamarr Houston expected to provide what Julius Peppers once did, that is, everything. Lance Briggs is still at linebacker while Charles Tillman was re-signed to patrol the secondary where he'll be joined by his eventual replacement, Kyle Fuller, the #14 pick in the draft. If Cutler goes down as he has so often, it'll be a long season with Jimmy Clausen as QB, but with a little luck, looks like 9-7.

The Lions have been fantasy football winners the past few years, not so much in real life. Megatron leads the way. WR Calving Johnson followed up his record-setting 2012 with another great year and will help new WR Golden Tate who should feast underneath thanks to his double-team drawing counterpart. Rubber armed QB Matthew Stafford may benefit from coaching staff changes, but will continue to draw expletives to balance the ooh and aahs. The team drafted TE Eric Ebron in the first round to partner with Brandon Pettigrew. Though you wouldn't know it, Reggie Bush is the team's second best RB thanks to the presence of Joique Bell. The defense begins at tackle with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Problem is attitude; Suh can't control himself and Fairley can't motivate himself except at the kitchen table. 2nd year man Ziggy Ansah (after the tackles, the 3rd 1st round defensive lineman pick by the Lions in the past 4 years) flashed QB hunting talent in his rookie year. Decent linebackers and safeties will need to cover for the paucity of cornerback talent in the back seven. A new head coach in Jim Caldwell as well as offensive and defensive coordinators and a wealth of talent but still, a 7-9 type club.

There's more talent here than you'd expect from such a seemingly boring team. All Day, AD, AP, the Purple Jesus, there can't be enough nicknames for the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson. Then there's the next big thing, WR Cordarelle Patterson who will be fed the ball every possible way while Greg Jennings is the #1 WR if you go according to pay cheque size. TE Kyle Rudolph ain't too shabby either. So what's missing? Oh yeah, a quarterback. If you're the Vikings, you keep throwing darts at the #1 pick. Christian Ponder. Nope. Terry Bridgewater. Well, we'll see. Despite a pretty decent preseason posted by the rookie, it'll be steady buy unspectacular Matt Cassel calling plays. Emerson Griffen, freshly minted with $19.8 million in guaranteed money will be new head coach Mike Zimmer's Michael Johnson from Cincinnati. He's also got Chad Greenway at linebacker but they're thin after him and only a serviceable secondary that may be susceptible to homerun plays. The Vikes will also call a new venue home, some bank name, which is perhaps apropos as the taxpayers were left with the bill. A favourable AFC East schedule this year makes a .500 season more than possible.

NFC West (or is it Best) - Coming in to the season, it certainly stacks up as the best division in football.

Here's a wacky stat to chill the most ardent Seahawk fan's blood: total playoff victories of the last eight Super Bowl champions the following year: 0. Yet, it's hard to imagine this team failing to add a few to that total but they'll now wear the target for the rest of the league. They're stacked, stoked and stalked. It all starts on defense, where they were far and away the #1 unit in the league last year in most categories and in the conversation for best ever. Most of the Legion of Boom is back, Earl Thomas III, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman, perhaps the best free safety, strong safety and cornerback in the game. Brandon Maxwell should pick up where he left off last season playing the other corner but Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner have moved on. Three more pieces of the defense left the line, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald, and have been replaced by the aging Kevin Williams. They're supported though by an athletic linebacker group anchored by Bobby Wagner. The much ballyhooed hype coming out of camp is the team will open up the playbook which should finally make people stop referring to QB Russell Wilson as a game manager. They lost WRs Golden Tate and Sydney Rice but a healthy Percy Harvin will more than make up for the loss and along with Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin will form a stronger group. Beast Mode is back though most of the preseason talk has been around RB backups Christine Michael and Robert Turbin instead of Marshawn Lynch. The TE will again be the steady Zach Miller who will work alongside the weakest group on the team, the offensive line, a pedestrian group outside of Okung and Unger. Regardless, the 12th man at home and coach Pete Carroll will have this team back in the playoffs after a double digit victory total in the regular season.

I've got a feeling the Niners take a little step back defensively while making the same size step forward offensively. The loss of Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith to free agency, injury and suspension (9 games for Smith) won't be completely compensated for by the incoming talent. S Antoine Bethea and 1st round pick CB Jimmie Ward will join a cast that is still talented but ageing, including the likes of Justin Smith (turning 35) and Patrick Willis. The forward progress heavily depends on Colin Kaepernick proving he's worth the six year, $126 million extension he inked. The team has tried to help by bringing in some wide receivers to join perennial Anquan Boldin and oft-broken Michael Crabtree in the bodies of Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd. TE Vernon Davis is back despite his contract threats and RB Frank Gore has another in a line of replacements in waiting behind him, 2nd pick Carlos Hyde. Oh, they've also got a snazzy new Wifi friendly stadium named after jeans. Still, should come in around 10-6 but a fourth consecutive conference championship game seems a bit of a stretch.

The Cardinals are a trendy pick this season and for good reason. Sure QB Carson Palmer is just middling at this point in his career but he's got weapons. WR Michael Floyd was promoted last year to the X receiver and had a big year while Larry Fitzgerald selflessly filled the Z slot, the possession/decoy guy. They're both back with buzzy rookie John Brown added to the mix. TE Rob Housler will be a bit healthier and better while RB Andre Ellington should be a household name by the end of the year as he'll be counted on to run more often behind an improved offensive line and can win battles for the ball split wide. The defense has a gaping hole in the middle left by the departure of Karlos Dansby to Cleveland and woman beating/substance abusing Daryl Washington's year long suspension. Their replacements are ok though, former Steeler Larry Foote and last year's 2nd round pick Kevin Minter and will have a strong cast both in front of them in the likes of 36-year-old John Abraham and Darnell Dockett and behind them with new acquisition Antonio Cromartie, eventually Tyrann Mathieu and All-World cover man Patrick Peterson. Last year's Cardinals were probably the best team not to make the playoffs and though a bit better, this year will probably be no different as they still play in the best division in football.

Losing QB Sam Bradford two weeks before the season opener shouldn't affect my forecast for the Rams all that much but it does for whatever reason. His replacement, Shaun Hill, is statistically his superior and Bradford hasn't really done much to merit his #1 draft position from 2010 but still, I was going with the Rams for my underdog pick of the year, no longer. There's positives, not only were the Rams the youngest team in the league last year (and probably this year), but even beyond Bradford the team is still pretty stacked with early round draft picks; number ones litter the roster after years of amassing high picks and the RGIII trade. There's four alone on perhaps the best defensive line in football. The back seven defenders aren't quite at the same level but are still a decent bunch. The offense features their share as well, particularly on the offensive line along with a couple at wide receiver. Unfortunately, one of those is Kenny Britt while the other is last year's #1 Tavon Austin, a mini speedster who needs space this offense can't create. Instead they'll grind out yardage with late round 2nd year RB Zac Stacy. The team splashed out on TE Jared Cook last year but he failed to live up to the hype. I can't see this team breaking .500 in this division but you never know.

Wrapping it up

Well, that about does it for the team-by-team lowdown which means it's time for thought experiment #3 before we take a quick look at who might be travelling to Glendale, Arizona to play in the 49th Super Bowl. As always, there's tons of other issues confronting the league from the Washington team name to the latest officiating point of emphasis on calling more defensive holding penalties to make the league even more pass oriented. However, you didn't think I'd let you get away without reading about the seventh round draft pick whose jersey was the sixth-best selling in the NFL since April, did you? Yep, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL only to become the first openly gay player to not make the team. In fact, no one picked him up nor did he get signed to the Rams practice squad. Despite the handful of current players who are gay, despite the fact that there have been numerous ex-players who have come out, despite his talent, there are still many who believe Michael Sam is part of the "gay conspiracy" out to destroy America or that he came out just to attract media attention to both gather fame and to ensure a place on a team. Don't believe me? Just spend a bit of time on the comment thread of any article about Sam.

It was only a year and a half ago, prior to Super Bowl XLVI that 49ers player Chris Culliver responded to the question of whether he thought there were any gay players on his team with the screed "[n]o, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.... Can't be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can't be…in the locker room, man. Nah." Just last year, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team according to him because he publicly supported gay marriage. If you don't think that this sort of thing along with the hyper-masculine chest beating culture of the league contributes to a climate conducive to gay bashing and this sort of craziness, chances are you're part of the problem.

The fact is Michael Sam was the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and would have been drafted higher and had a better chance of making the team if he hadn't come out as gay. His public disclosure caused his draft ranking on scouting reports to drop overnight by as many as 70 spots, from 90th to 160th on one list. He went from a borderline 3rd or 4th round prospect to a borderline draft pick. The accusation that he was simply trying to draw attention to himself is dispelled simply by noting the cancellation of the planned Oprah special focusing on his attempt to make the Rams. Coach Fisher was quoted saying that Sam was "absolutely not" a distraction during camp. Unfortunately for Sam, the Rams chose to cut him, most likely because of football reasons: they're simply too deep at defensive linemen, by far the teams strongest position, specifically defensive ends, the position Sam plays.

So, the NFL will have to wait yet again for its first openly gay player. Whether it's Sam playing for the Rams or some other team or someone else entirely, he has provided a template for others to follow. He didn't go public to attract attention but in an attempt to deflect it when rumours began to emerge that were getting in the way of the scouting process. Sam's agent claimed scouts were asking whether or not Sam had a girlfriend or had been seen with women before they would ask about Sam’s work ethic or playing ability. His sexual orientation only became a distraction because other people decided it should. The lesson to cull from all this is that this issue is no longer an issue in 2014 as Sam's Mizzou team mates all knew he was gay for an entire year, a year in which the Tigers had arguably their best season ever, going 12-2 and winning the Cotton Bowl before voting Sam the team MVP. Sounds like the kind of locker room distraction any team could use.


Defensive Rookie of the Year: Not Michael Sam
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Not Johnny Manziel
Rookie of the Year: Not Jadeveon Clowney
Coach of the Year: Not Andy Reid
Comeback Player of the Year: Not Percy Harvin
MVP: Not Peyton Manning
Offensive Player of the Year: Not Peyton
Defensive Player of the Year: Not J.J. Watt
AFC winner: Not the Denver Broncos
NFC winner: Not the New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl winner: Not the Seattle Seahawks

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/08/26/6655611/san-francisco-49ers-2014-season.html#storylink=

Thursday, January 30, 2014


In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the Sports and Pastimes most generally prevalent among them.
              Joseph Strutt - Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801)

There's no game that better embodies Strutt's theory than American football nor an event that more fittingly encapsulates everything the United States is about than the Super Bowl. In addition to lending itself perfectly to pro-pot propaganda, Sunday's match up between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos seems to affirm the American idealized vision of itself as a meritocracy in which a combination of hard work and talent yields the rewards of success as the game's most dominating defense will be pitted against the league's offensive juggernaut; the top seeds from each conference playing in the final for just the third time since 1993. I can't fight the condescending smirk my lips form whenever I hear someone refer to baseball as America's pastime; they just don't get it on any level from opinion polls and TV ratings to water cooler talk and the behavior of society itself. According to Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, "[b]aseball is where we were. Football is what we have become." Little kids play Pop Warner, high schoolers fight the glare of the Friday night lights, and kids go to college to play football (or play football so they can go to college) all for a shot to one day be drafted by an NFL team and have the chance to fulfill their dream of one day playing in the Super Bowl.

When Peyton Manning leads his Broncos into MetLife stadium he'll be trying to duplicate brother Eli's feat of winning his second Super Bowl on his brother's home turf. Could it be his last game? Will he go off a champion a la his boss, John Elway? Just a few of the many subplots that will pump up the media buzz around the single biggest day in American sports. Heck, it took over Thanksgiving years ago and is threatening Christmas as the most important day on the calendar. Yet, no matter how many games they play in London every year (where they'll play three next year), the sport will remain a uniquely American phenomenon as it parallels the dichotomy that is America. Projecting military power (now occupying 134 countries!) at will while paranoiacally trying to monitor the world's most intimate thoughts for fear that someone's out to get them and simultaneously creating as many enemies as possible. Paradoxically powerful yet vulnerable as in football where gridiron warriors line up in formation to bomb, blitz and sack in an attempt to control the trenches while field generals fire bullets trying to blow away their enemy while inflicting very real physical damage on one another that will result in long-term health consequences every bit as serious as real soldiers. It's no coincidence that pro football has witnessed a jump in popularity in the post 9/11 world.

America's a post racial society as well of course as they elected a black president not once, but twice, and  Russell Wilson could become the second black Super Bowl winning quarterback (yes, Doug William in XXII!). Yet, somehow I doubt Richard Sherman would agree, nor Trayvon Martin's family, or the one out of three black men who will go to jail in their lifetime (not to mention the women, including Broncos' WR Demaryius Thomas' mom and grandma sharing the same cell for selling crack) nor the median black income earner making less than half as much as his Asian counterpart leaving black median household wealth at less than 5% those of whites. Both America and the NFL are financial superpowers as well, constantly in search of growth regardless of the damage it does. Actually existing capitalism isn't a system to nurture the American Dream but to cultivate socialism for the rich and desperation for the poor; backdoor (and front door) bailouts for the banks, privatization of essential services providing guaranteed profits for everyone from private prisons, mercenaries and missile makers to power companies and billionaire farmers at the expense of hungry kids, the unemployed and the 'fortunate' ones who compete in the part-time McJob labor market. Meanwhile the richest sports league in the world, worth over $35 billion hasn't paid taxes since 1966 thanks to its non-profit status that it retains despite Roger Goodell's ambition to nearly triple league revenue to over $25 billion by 2027. Goodell got paid $29 million to run a socialist, revenue sharing league where millionaires bash each others brains on the field so billionaires can bilk billions from society.

Yet it seems no matter how hard it tries to turn me off the sport, the NFL still has the power to pull me back to the screen every Sunday. I can ignore the air force flyovers, the marine recruitment spots and star spangled army veterans used to sell perpetual war and convince folks that drone signature strikes are as accurate as Russell Wilson's TD strikes (true, so long as the former are targeting bridal wedding convoys the way the latter targets receiver convoys). I can overlook the fact that most of these Sunday warriors will end up crippled, suffering from CTE, or worse, provided we get wild week 17 win-your-in finishes to determine the winner of all four NFC divisions. Hell, it seems I can even look past the morally-deficient likes of Riley Cooper, Richie Incognito or pretty much every NFL teams' owner and count myself as one of the tens of millions who tune in every Sunday (and Thursday, Monday and playoff Saturdays) to take in the action. Everything about the game, much like its home country, screams Roman gladiator end of empire pans et circenses, but I can't help myself. I love the game and this Sunday's Super Bowl showdown between the Seahawks and Broncos has all ingredients for a great game: the best offense against the best defense, the... wait, let's review the season before we get to the game.

The (not so) Regular Season -

Peyton Manning started the season with a bang. Or more like a bomb or better yet a clusterbomb as he connected for seven TDs in the Broncos' season opener against the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens and at least partially avenging last year's playoff loss. Though he didn't manage to maintain his 112 TD pass pace, he did manage to duplicate Dan Marino's 1984 feat of breaking both the TD pass and passing yard records in the same year, 55 and 5,477. Five different Broncos scored ten or more touchdowns, and the teams 606 points were a record and a big part in the league as a whole setting records for total points scored (11,985 or 46.8/game) and touchdowns (1,338 breaking last season's 1,297). Even the Broncos' kicker got in on the record fun as Matt Prater broke the NFL longest field goal record booting a 64-yarder at Mile High. Though the Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing with 1,607 yards, picking up over five yards a carry and adding 539 receiving yards, fantasy football's MVP Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and even a Brown, Josh Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards with 1,646 despite missing two games to suspension, had excellent seasons, there's little doubt Manning was the league MVP having lead his team to the #1 seeding in the AFC and the Super Bowl. Elsewhere in the conference, Brady somehow led the Patriots to the #2 seed, the Chiefs ran off victories in their first nine before fading, the Bengals had another un-Bungle-like regular season, the Steelers opened 0-4 and almost made the playoffs, and besides the Colts the AFC South went, well, south.

Talk on the defensive side of the ball starts with the Seattle Seahawks as they became the first team to lead the league in points allowed in back-to-back seasons giving up a paltry 14.4 per game by fielding what could be the 2nd best pass defense since the '70 AFL-NFL merger. Add in a pretty good pass rush and you have a defense that allowed teams to only score 3.7 points per red zone trip and created takeaways on 20.1% of opposing possessions, one out of five! Offenses get most of the glory but the top five defenses in the league made the playoffs and 96 defensive TDs were scored in the regular season. Those Seahawks have a couple of the defensive player of the year candidates in their secondary, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. Panther Luke Kuechly will probably wind up with this year's DPOY but Texan J.J. Watt could easily have been a repeat winner as could have Bengal Vontaze Burfict, 49er NaVorrow Bowman or sack masters DEs Robert Quinn of the Rams and Colt Robert Mathis along with the aforementioned Seahawks as they were all equally deserving. Other happenings in the NFC saw a vastly improved Panther, Eagle and Cardinal teams, consistently inconsistent Bears, Rodgersless Packers for nearly half a season, Payton's brother Eli throw 1.5 picks for every touchdown, an RGIII shutdown, and a Falcon meltdown.

The league also continued to somehow strike the right balance between parity, consistency and novelty. Five teams (the Chiefs, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Chargers) made the playoffs after missing out last year with the Chiefs and Eagles rebounding from last to first (the 11th consecutive year at least one team has done it), the Patriots became the second team to win at least ten games in eleven consecutive years joining the '83 to '98 Niners (Brady also became the first QB to lead his team to win 11 divisional championships) while the Chiefs matched the feat of the '08 Dolphins and '12 Colts in following up a two win season by winning eleven the next. Defenses around the league learned to deal with 2012's offensive innovation in the pro game, the read-option, but new wrinkles were added along with new adherents as the Eagles, Chiefs, Raiders, Bills and Jets joined the Niners, Seahawks, Panthers and Redskins in using it to varying levels of success. Fresh blood was pumped into the league with offensive rookie of the year candidates such as bulldozing RB Eddie Lacy of the Packers and Chargers' wide-out Keenan Allen, Bills' LB Kiko Alonso, Jets' DE Sheldon Richardson and Bengals' RB Giovani Bernard to name but a few who made a splash in their first year.

Most surprising team (one the positive side):
The Carolina Panthers
There was no shortage of teams who made huge strides this year, but none shocked me as much as the Panthers. Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs went from 2-14 to the playoffs at 11-5 after starting the season with nine straight wins. Yeah, the Philadelphia Eagles took the NFC East (thanks to the woeful Cowboys) at 10-6 after a dismal 4-12 2012/13 season. However, both weren't in the shocking category. Ok, it was a bit surprising to see Andy Reid's new incarnation as the round red tomato be successful in Kansas City, but Chip Kelly turning around the Eagles was almost expected, albeit not with Nick Foles at quarterback. Had the Arizona Cardinals made the playoffs, they'd be in the running too, again though, thanks in large part to new coach Bruce Arians. The Panthers though? While my preseason prediction record is far from stellar (at least compared to my Superbowl predictons, incentive to read on), I had Carolina firmly ensconced in the basement of the NFC South only to see them not only win it but also earn a first round playoff bye with the 2nd best record in the NFC at 12-4.

The secret to the Panthers success wasn't a sudden transformation of QB Cam Newton back into Superman; he was a bit better than last year but he's nothing more than a good quarterback who can run. After starting the season with two losses, it was all about the dominant D. They won one of the toughest division in football thanks in part to a crash and burn season from the Falcons, a fading Saints team and a head coach in Tampa Bay who destroyed a promising Bucaneers team, but mostly thanks to a tenacious defense. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis both had Defensive Player of the Year caliber seasons while Greg Hardy picked up 15 sacks, including eight in the last three games of the season. The defensive front was further bolstered by the strong rookie seasons of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. New GM Dave Gettleman worked some salary cap and free agency magic while Riverboat Ron Rivera earned his nickname and the gambles turned around a 1-3 start to the season and brought them to the precipice of the NFC Championship game.

On the negative side:
Houston Texans
Almost a photo-finish with the Atlanta Falcons but the fact the the Texans will be picking #1 in the draft this spring puts them over the top. Both teams were trendy picks this fall to make it to the Super Bowl yet neither could manage five wins, with the Texans dropping their final 14 in a row to finish 2-14 and the Falcons winding up at 4-12. The Texan phenomenon needs closer study, there must be something to teach future generations about exactly what not to do. Sure, there were a bunch of significant injuries with Owen Daniels, Danieal Manning, Brian Cushing and Arian Foster all landing on injured reserve at some point in the season. In fact things got so bad at running back, a position they were loaded at to start the season with Ben Tate along with Foster, some guy named Jonathon Grimes was signed right before week 17 to become their fifth starting running back of the season. It's true Matt Schaub was never going to be a great quarterback, but who woulda thought he'd throw as many pick 6's as touchdowns (ok, not really, but he did throw one in four straight games). The nightmare season was perhaps a bit of karma for a team that fired coach Gary Kukiak December 6th a month after collapsing on the field.

How About Those $100 Million Quarterbacks

Along with Matt Ryan, lucrative deals were inked before the season by Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. Well, splashing out $103.5 million for Matty Ice and $119.5 million for Tony Romo and their combined 2-7 playoff record, Joe Flacco pulling in $120.6 million for winning a Superbowl and extending Stafford's contract, bumping it to eight years and $150.5 million didn't even get their teams to the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers' Packers, though making it to the dance, saw how risky such investments can be when Rodgers collarbone snapped in week 9. Sure, it healed up in time for him to lead the Pack to a dramatic week 17 victory, but who knows what the long-term effects will be. Ryan's Falcons flopped, Joe went from Super Bowl to super average, Tony's Cowboys choked in week 17 and failed to reach the playoffs again while Matthew had his team peaking just a little early as they looked great on Turkey Day but stumbled down the stretch to finish 7-9 leaving the Lions without a playoff victory since 1991 when they won their only one in the past 55 years.

Remember way back to two years ago? The owners had locked out the players and the 2011/12 season was in doubt but was miraculously saved at the last second when the owners and players' union finally agreed on a new 10-year CBA (collective bargaining agreement)? Sighs of relief were exhaled as we all inhaled more hope and change smoke and mirrors. Two and a half years later we're starting to get a feel for who won the negotiations and I'll give you a hint: it wasn't the players or the fans. The only team whose books we have access to thanks to their ownership status, the Green Bay Packers offer a glimpse at the winners. The Packers earned a record $54.3 million for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2013, up 26% from the year before making an $85.8 million post-CBA two year total. In the two years before the CBA they made $22.3 million for a near four-fold increase. I'm guessing their situation isn't unique among the 31 other teams. Strangely, no wait, predictably, that money isn't trickling down to the players, rookie salaries were cut in half, kids are entering the draft too soon in order to start the free agency clock as young as possible, and veterans are being priced entirely out of the league. Yes, it seems the owners' man, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really did earn his $22.3 million bonus in 2011.

To recap. Profits are up for the owners while salaries are down or at best flat except for the elite QBs and CEO. Sounds pretty familiar so far. Adding fuel to the fire, salaries are not only capped but often back-loaded which along with the team's right to use the franchise tag or cut a player at any time make guaranteed money and signing bonuses of paramount importance in a sport where every snap of the ball could lead to the snap of a femur or ligament and be your last. All of which has turned simple contracts into complex covenants and their negotiations into a labyrinthine maze only understood by the chosen few. Hmm, sounds kinda familiar too, a little like the work of those Wall Street wizards, no? Much like their robber-barron brethren's manipulation of the public to obtain bailouts, NFL owners used the financial crisis to leverage concessions from the players' union such as a temporary drop in the team salary cap that has only just reached 2009 levels again this year.

It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to realize that if elite QB salaries are rising and the total salary number is stagnant it leaves less for the rest of the players just as in the real world the growing slice the 1% are taking of the income pie leaves the 99% growing hungrier. Owners taking a bigger cut reduces the take of the players in much the same way higher corporate profits as a percent of GDP lowers the salaries of the workers. Worse, just like the country, many owner's refuse to accept that runaway inequality does more harm than good as the Bears made Smokin' Jay Cutler the leagues newest $100 million man after leading his team to, um, nothing. Remembering what inequality does to a country, think higher homicide, incarceration, obesity, mental illness and teenage pregnancy rates coupled with lower social mobility, child well being and education achievements, it suddenly becomes clear what ailed the Falcons, Cowboys, Lions and Ravens this year.

Half Time Show

A few months ago, the NFL revealed who would have the honor, privilege and responsibility of following on the heels of such performers as Michael Jackson, his sister Janet's right nipple courtesy Justin Timberlake, Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2 and most recently Beyonce. The name they came up with? Bruno Mars. Huh? It's like they picked the name by seeing who the world's most boring teenager tweets about most often. In an admission of the massive mistake, they were forced into adding The Red Hot Chili Peppers in an attempt to stir a bit of interest in the show; otherwise, heaven forbid, millions of eyeballs might not be glued to the real star of the show, the marketing extravaganza. At $4 million per second spot, the commercials are as valuable as most of the players. Mention the words Super Bowl anywhere outside North America and after a moment of doubt, without fail the only glint of recognition will be when someone remembers the commercials. It's what America does best, making empire look sexy, poison look tasty and pick-up trucks look manly. There's now marketing campaigns around the commercials themselves and even a cottage-industry of producing ads for the purpose of getting them banned, the perfect fit for a nation and game where wealth creation and destruction are one and the same.

Other distractions from the game include gambling, lots of it, with tons of prop bets this year (over 500) such as whether or not the Gatorade will be green or Knowshon Moreno will cry during the national anthem (parlay yes with Renee Fleming forgetting or omitting a word in her rendition), and of course Richard Sherman. Yes, Richard Sherman sounded stupid, juvenile, and egocentric after the 49ers game but wait until you make the defensive play that puts your team into the Super Bowl and see how you react. No, it doesn't take anything away from his amazing season, subtract from his charity work, diminish his scholastic achievements (4.2 GPA in high school, 3.9 at Stanford, or trivialize his journey from Compton to the Super Bowl, and, no, it doesn't make him a thug. Oh, and yes, the twitterverse and Joe Sixpack were using the word thug as a racial slur instead of the N-word (when they weren't using the N-word that is). No, he shouldn't be suspended. Yes, Richard Sherman is a popular prop bet play as well: whether or not he'll get a taunting penalty, currently about 4/1 against.

As for another of the prop bets, looks like the over/under on Manning hollering 'Omaha' in the pre-snap count will be at 27.5, take the over after 44 against the Chargers as the Nebraskan town's biggest marketing success since the Counting Crows gets another boost from the suddenly personable Peyton (but Bud Light, really?). The actual halftime show gives a few more opportunities to blow money on whether or not a Red Hot Chili Pepper will perform shirtless and what kind of headwear Bruno Mars will be sporting (I'd go yes and fedora). Between shots of cheerleaders while the players are leaving and returning to the field we'll get a female sideline reporter, Pam Oliver or Erin Andrews (another prop bet), giving us an interview every bit as choreographed as the halftime show but no mention of the ten thousand odd women and children sex-slaves brought in for Super Bowl week to serve the influx of predominately male fans. Of all the distractions though, one stands a clear chance of affecting the game: playing the Super Bowl outdoors in a cold weather stadium. What was the NFL thinking in its blind greed? Of course there's a prop bet for the kick-off temperature to boot along with whether or not it'll snow. Game day weather forecast is here.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Regardless of whether you see it as a good or bad thing, all this financial hocus-pocus has changed the sport. No longer is winning or losing all about athletic and coaching talent but building a team that'll stay under the salary cap today and tomorrow. Sadly, no system is perfect and there's always someone trying to get a leg up on the competition by finding, or better, exploiting, the loopholes. In their build up to the lock out in 2011, the owner's opted out of the previous CBA in 2008 which led to an uncapped 2010 season. Despite warnings from the league to not flaunt the temporarily non-existent cap, the Cowboys, Redskins, Saints and Raiders did just that, leading to the former two being punished thanks to their owners' indiscretions. Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder lead the group of Ugly Owners thanks to their fumbling, mumbling, swindling and meddling ways. Yes, the once legendary Cowboys-Redskin rivalry on the field has been diminished to a neck and neck NFC East battle over who has the worst leader in the owner's box.

Nearly every owner is to some extent guilty of screwing up, talking out, knocking off or butting in to some degree, but Jones and Snyder excel in all four categories, particularly meddling. Snyder may have eventually handed over the day-to-day operations to Coach Shanahan but did enough damage (Jeff George, Bruce Smith, Albert Haynseworth and Donovan McNabb) to last a lifetime while Jerry is still doing his best to keep the Cowboys a .500 team and blow the salary cap (really, a lucrative long term contract for the most interchangeable part of a team, the kicker?). Anyone who watched the Cowbums blow another opportunity to sneak into the playoffs week 17 must have noticed the number of backups without the talent or teaching to play, forced into action thanks to the lack of depth resulting from Jerry's reckless spending. An NFL team is only as good as the bottom of its depth chart. Dan Snyder, in addition to being football-tarded is simply an evil man. Since 1999, the year Snyder took over the Redskins, the Cowboys have a 120-120 win-loss record (136-136 since '97 and coming off their third straight 8-8 season in 2013) while the Redskins sport a 104-136 mark, the former with a grand total of one win in the playoffs during that stretch and the latter with two. Proving once again that in America the only way to create wealth is by creating disasters, the Cowboys are the league's most valuable team, worth over $2.1 billion while Snyder's train-wreck is #3 at $1.8 billion. Who's worse? Snyder? Jones? It's a toss up but I'll take Snyder by a nose, he is simply loathsome, while Jerry's just, well, Jerry.

Joining them would have to be Jimmy Haslam, Jerry Richardson and Zygi Wolf, owners of the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings respectively. Like many an NFL owner Haslam came by his fortune (dis)honestly, he was born into it, son of 'Big Jim' Haslam, founder of a single gas station that grew into Pilot Flying J, the largest truck-stop chain in North America. While his brother Bill became governor of Tennessee, Jimmy was teaching his sales force to run a rebate scam for which the feds are now currently sniffing up the management chain trying to pin the blame. I'm sure the ongoing investigation was in no way a distraction for the team leaving him no choice but to fire yet another head coach and start afresh. Again. Richardson seems to have been the ringleader in the CBA negotiations, crying poor and exhorting his fellow owners to "take back our league" even while turning a $112 million profit. Meanwhile, another trust fund baby, Minnesota Viking's owner Zygi Wilf, was found liable last year for breaking civil state racketeering laws and in the judges words had used "bad faith and evil motive" in keeping separate accounting books to fleece former business partners of shared revenue.

Of course Cowboys' Jerry pays no property taxes on his billion dollar pleasure palace, Panthers' Jerry siphoned cash from Charlotte taxpayer pockets and Zygi used the extortionary 'pay for the stadium or I'll move the team' ploy to shake the state of Minnesota down for $678 million (well, he got a state senator to do it for him!), an old gambit that's darn-near a prerequisite to get onto the Bad Owners list. Home Depot cofounder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank not only creamed a cool $200 million to put towards construction costs but even secured a revenue stream from a state hotel-motel tax to help offset costs of maintaining and operating a new stadium which will run into the hundreds of millions over 30 years. The Saints owner used a hurricane for leverage, the 49ers owner got a new stadium for nothing, the Seahawks Paul Allen got the state taxpayers to foot 70% of the new home for the 12th man which is about the NFL average of the capital cost covered by public money. In fact, research has found that the owners of the Bills, Bengals, Browns, Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Chiefs, Saints, Chargers, Rams, Buccaneers and the Titans have all turned a profit on stadium subsidies, meaning they have received more money from the public than needed to build their facilities. Only three franchises, the Patriots, Giants and Jets have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs. Yet, the Patriot and Jet owners still easily qualify as bad: the Pats' Robert Kraft extracted concessions from Massachusetts by threatening to move to Hartford, had that weird ring incident with Vladimir Putin and c'mon, look at that dude; the Jets' Robert Wood Johnson IV, somehow thinks being known as Woody will cleanse him of the stigma attached to the roman numeral after his name and his being heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and also thought Mitt Romney winning the 2012 election was more important than the Jets having a winning season.

Which leaves us with pretty slim pickings for potential Good Owners: the Giants, Ravens, Broncos, Dolphins, Raiders, Steelers, Cardinals, Bears, Lions, Eagles and Packers. Thinning the field further is child's play as Ravens' owner Steve Bisciotti made his fortune founding America's biggest staffing company, and a particularly evil one at that. Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins went so far as to create a PAC to raise money to fight politicians who were against publicly funding billionaires' hobbies. Al Davis may no longer soil the Earth or curse the Oakland Raiders but his son Mark is keeping up the tradition by threatening to move to, yes, Los Angeles, if he doesn't get some free money. Dating back to their days in Chicago, it's little wonder the Arizona Cardinals have the longest title drought in the NFL, not having won since 1947 when current owner "Dollar" Bill Bidwill's dad ran the show as Bill was infamous for his frugal style which included selling players to cover operating expenses or making them pay for their own cleats and deducting lunch from their paychecks. Oh, and he did move his team to the desert when St. Louis refused to ante up. Virginia, the current Bears owning Halas (well Virginia Halas McCaskey) doesn't seem so much evil as useless which equals bad. Meanwhile, William Clay Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions, has guided his franchise to one playoff win since he bought the team in 1963.

With a bit of charity, that leaves five seats in the Good Owners luxury box. John Mara and Steve Tisch may have inherited the New York Giants from their fathers, but have since guided the team to their third and fourth league titles. Mara has come out and said the league has forsaken players health in their dealing with the concussion issue while Tisch cut a video supporting gay marriage way back in 2001. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney has the good fortune to be a Rooney, football royalty, and also the name behind the Rooney rule which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for both head coach and general manager positions. I've got a soft spot for Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos, as he's not only Canadian but spent many years in Edmonton. Plus, you've gotta like an owner who seems to really believe his team belongs to the fans and writes an email to season ticket holders apologizing for a "gut-wrenching" loss. The Eagles' Jeff Lurie is what every owner should be, like a child, seen and not heard. It doesn't hurt that he had Philly's Lincoln Financial Field retrofitted with 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels, and a 7.6 megawatt biodiesel power plant. Finally, as if you didn't see this coming, we have the owners of the Green Bay Packers sitting atop the field as it is the only form of ownership that makes sense, a publicly-owned non-profit company with 364,122 shareholders. To prevent any predator from trying to take over there is a limit to share ownership in a system that has produced four NFL championships and the most loyal fan following in the league. Naturally, the hyper-capitalistic NFL has long since banned such a practice but the Packers have been grandfathered in. Er, think it's time to get back to the game on the field...

Week 17 and the Playoffs

Week 17 - Maybe it was just me, but this years final regular season Sunday seemed every bit as exciting as a playoff weekend; 13 of the 16 games played had some sort of playoff implication. All four NFC divisions were up for grabs, two of them decided by head-to-head win-your-in games. The Packers needed to convert three fourth-downs including a fourth and eight 48-yard strike (enabled by John Kuhn) courtesy the just returned from a broken clavicle Aaron Rodgers to a just returned from a snapped fibula Randall Cobb to snatch the NFC North from the Bears 33-28. Later, the Cowboys didn't need Tony to pull a Romo as back up QB Kyle Orton threw a game ending interception to hand Dallas their third consecutive NFC East deciding week 17 loss, this time to the Eagles after losing to the Giants and Redskins the previous two years. Earlier in the day the Seahawks sealed up the West by beating the Rams and the Panthers clinched the South winning a squeaker over the lowly Falcons which relegated the Saints, despite their demolition of the Buccaneers, to a wildcard spot. The Saint victory combined with the surprising Cardinals falling heartbreakingly short in their comeback bid against the Niners left the red birds on the outside looking in and cemented San Francisco's number five seed as a wildcard.

Although the AFC divisional crowns had already been decided there were still more than enough combinations and permutations to keep things interesting. In addition to bye-weeks and homefield advantage, the wildcard race was wide open with even the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had opened the season 0-4, with a shot: all they needed was a victory combined with losses by the Ravens, Dolphins and Chargers. When the Ravens mediocrity finally caught up with them, the defending Superbowl champs fell with a thud to the AFC North winning Bengals, and the Dolphins couldn't even come up with a home victory against the lowly Geno Smith-led Jets, suddenly the impossible seemed within reach as the Steelers did their job and took care of the down-and-out Browns. The late afternoon game that followed pitted the Chargers, needing a win to get in, against the already playoff-bound and position locked Chiefs. Though Kansas City sported an 11-4 record coming in and may have normally been favored, the game was meaningless to them and therefore coach tomato, er, Reid decided to rest all his starters rather than risk injury thus leaving the Chargers with a cakewalk into the playoffs against a bunch of second-stringers. You should read Bill Barnwell's account of the Chargers' day over at Grantland, but suffice it to say the Chargers needed a missed FG and penalty call to get to overtime and then an even more bizarre fake-punt which looked like a fumble returned for a winning touchdown by the Chiefs called back on forward progress to sustain their game winning field goal drive. Elsewhere, the Patriots joined the Broncos as bye-week benificiaries as winners of the East and West with a win over the Bills, and the Colts locked up a date with the wildcard Chiefs as the winners of the South.

Wildcard Weekend - Of epic comebacks, bizzarro universes, playoff futility and an Arctic vortex

Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts - Shrug off losing a third of your offense on the sixth play of the game (Jamaal Charles), pass the superhero cape to Alex Smith and jump out to a 38-10 lead. Then, remember you are the Chiefs, haven't won a playoff game in 20 years in an 0-7 stretch, your coach is Andy Reid who couldn't manage time even if it weren't linear, and watch Andrew Luck snatch the cape and play catch with T.Y. Hilton as they lead the Colts to a 45-44 win. NFL playoff record 1,049 combined yards.
New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles - Nearly the mirror image of the early Saturday game, the Saints show they can win on the road in the cold with Drew Brees playing poorly as the Saints held the league's #2 offense to only 256 yards while racking up 185 yards on the ground spearheaded by heretofore first round bust Mark Ingram and some guy named Khiry Robinson.
San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals - There's good Andy Dalton and awful Andy Dalton. The awful one keeps showing up in the playoffs: three playoff appearances in three years with zero wins and six interceptions. The Bengals QB added a fumble to his two picks on this cold, soggy Sunday meaning Philip Rivers only needed to throw for 128 yards in the victory as the Bolts' RBs combined for 196 yards.
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers - With temperatures falling towards 0° F (so what does that mean? -50° C? Bloody Americans and their bizarre measurements) the game had the feel of a heavyweight fight with the Niners left standing as Colin Kaepernick remembered he was a running QB and moved to 3-0 against the Packers. A textbook five minute drive for a last second field goal.

Divisional Round - In which brains fart, luck runs out, Superman's cape is swiped and destiny is duped

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks - After demolishing the Saints at home 34-7 just six weeks prior, rainy, windy Seattle once again welcomed New Orleans. The Seahawks only managed to jump to a 13-0 lead three plays into the second quarter after being up 17-0 at the same point in the previous match up but a steady diet of Marshawn Lynch, who bulldozed his way to 104 of his 140 rushing yards between the tackles, allowed the 'Hawks to hang on to a 23-15 win thanks in part to this bizarre Marques Colston brain fart.
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots - Seemed Andrew Luck wanted to replay the script from the Chief win, throwing an early pick (four on the day) to hand the Patriots an early 14-0 lead but he didn't count on the transformation of this Patriots team into a power running steamroller, grinding and gashing out all six of the touchdowns on the ground (plus a 2-point conversion) on 243 rushing yards (LaGarrette Blount with four on 166). Brady and Belichek head to their eighth conference championship together with a 43-22 thrashing of the Colts.
San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers - The Panthers defense smothered the Niners November 9th 10-9 but the roles were reversed as the Niners D picked off Cam Newton twice, sacked him five times and stuffed the Panthers on the 1-yard line twice in the first half, including a pivotal fourth down stop. Cam's Superman outfit seemed to fit Niners' QB Colin Kaepernick just fine in the 23-10 win.
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos - After improbably beating the Broncos at Mile High to spark their improbable playoff charge in week 15, the Chargers came in with the feeling of a team of destiny (fun fact: the previous five Superbowl winners had begun their season with a game against the Eagles. Who played the Eagles to begin the year? The Chargers). Yet, destiny and another strong defensive performance against the Broncos weren't enough as Manning came through when it mattered and the Bolts offense was anemic for three quarters before a late rally brought them within a touchdown only to fall short, 24-17.

Conference Championships - When Welker channels Belichek and Kap's cape slips

Patriots @ Broncos - Neither CBS nor the story books could have dreamed up a better match-up, Brady versus Manning. Again. The 15th meeting and fourth in the AFC final with Brady coming in up 10-4 and 2-1 respectively. Sadly, the game didn't live up to the hype as the Patriots didn't even put up much of a fight nor duplicate their amazing week 12 comeback OT victory over the Broncos thanks to Brady's atypically poor play, a more-than-questionable Wes Welker pick play that took out Aqib Talib (hmmm, wonder where Welker learned to do that Bill?) and a series of clock chewing drives orchestrated by Manning allowing him to even up the championship record at two wins apiece thanks to a 26-16 victory.
49ers @ Seahawks - Another perfect pairing as an all out, old school, knock 'em down, drag 'em out slugfest was all but guaranteed. The game was bookended by turnovers, an opening play fumble by 'Hawk QB Russell Wilson and a game sealing interception of Niner QB Colin Kaepernick off a Richard Sherman tip in the Seahawk endzone in the most exciting game since the Wildcard round. Kaepernick ran for 130 yards but had three fourth quarter turnovers while Wilson was steady and Seahawk beast Marshawn Lynch picked up 109 yards and a TD in the 23-17 victory.

Super Bowl 

You couldn't ask for more on paper. A pair of 13-3 (now 15-3) teams; the best offense led by the best quarterback in a passing league against the best defense in a sport where defenses are said to win championships. The tale of the tape would have to give the Broncos the nod at QB. The league-wide passing rating this year was 84.1, the highest in history. As a comparison, Roger Staubach lead the NFL in 1978 with an 84.9 rating! Manning registered a 115.1 in the regular season, but it was the records that made his year special. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson managed a 101.2, putting him over the century mark for his first two season while becoming the winningest 2nd year QB in league history. At twelve years and 250 days, the age differential between the two will set a new Super Bowl record, breaking the Kurt Warner/Ben Roethlisberger record by almost two years. If we take into account Wilson's mobility and we take heed of Peyton's age, wobbly neck and 0-4 record in playoff games with kick off temperatures under 40° F, the Broncos advantage becomes a near wash as it should be around freezing come game time Sunday.

Have I mentioned how perfect a pairing these teams are? Seriously, it's been 23 years, Jim Kelly leading the Bills against the Giants, since the #1 offense has played the #1 defense in the big dance. There's been some classics but you couldn't draw it up any better than this. There's tons of marquee matchups in this game, Manning vs Wilson, Beast Mode up against Pot Roast, but let's face it, the pivotal battle will be between the Broncos' ball catchers, WRs Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, and the Seahawk secondary, "The Legion of Boom" of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Earl Thomas, Jeremy Lane and Kam Chancellor. Whichever group plays better will likely determine the winner. The Seahawks had a league-leading 28 interceptions which helped the team also lead with a +20 turnover ratio. Their ball-hawking (who knew puns were so fun) ways come courtesy of their aggressiveness as they challenge receivers on the outside while playing zone around them. Some say the 'Hawks clutchy-grabby ways fall on the wrong side of the rule book, but regardless, it'll be interesting to see how the Broncos receivers deal with it.

The Seahawk receiving core should get a major upgrade with the return of Percy Harvin which could tip the scale in their favor going up against the Broncos' secondary, the weakest link in their defense playing without Chris Harris. Harvin, Seattle's major off-season acquisition, has only appeared in a couple of games following hip surgery, including less than a quarter against the head-hunting Saints in the divisional round, for a grand total of 37 snaps. Along with his fellow receivers, regular season team reception leader Golden Tate, NFC Championship heroes Doug Baldwin (six for 106) and Jermaine Kearse (game-winning grab), and TE Zach Miller, they've got more talent than the coverage which will put pressure on the Broncos front seven to, well, put pressure on Wilson.

They've been dominant  in the playoffs even minus Von Miller, holding the Chargers and streaking Patriots running attack to an average of 64.5 yards. Former Jaguar coach now Broncos' defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is making his boss GM John Elway look like a genius for his part in luring Terrance 'Pot Roast' Knighton to Denver from Jacksonville as he's been the key to not only stuffing the opponents run but even made a pivotal sack on Tom Brady two weeks ago. Lining up against the rotating weakest link of Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter at LG, Pot Roast will be a disruptive force in the middle. Center Max Unger will have to slide over to help but Seattle can't afford to devote too much otherwise they'll open things up for Broncos' LB Danny Trevathan who has turned around an embarrassing start to the season when he pulled a Leon Lett. Shoddy play often characterized the whole defense much of the season as the team kept winning in spite of the defense, including a 51-48 shootout victory over the Cowboys, or even losing because of them as in the comeback loss to the Patriots after leading 24-0. In their last four games they've given up more than 100 fewer yards per game compared to their first 14.

Looking at the stats, the ground game seems to be becoming meaningless; there were only 13 running backs who hit the 1,000 yard mark this year, down from 16 last year and 23 in 2006. However, Marshawn Lynch will be a difference-maker; if the Broncos' defense can dominate the line the way the Cardinals did against Seattle in week 16, they'll win. Next to Manning, Knowshon Moreno doesn't seem quite so pivotal, but their three-headed attack which also includes Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman do have the benefit of a great blocking offensive line. The Seahawks should have some success pounding the ball behind Okung or on the edges while look for Moreno et al. to have some space as they run the no-huddle and employ spread formations to keep the Seahawks smaller defenders on the field. Remember, Seattle's run defense was 'only' seventh in the league and gave up 100+ yards 11 times. To stuff the run they'll need to find ways to keep their version of Pot Roast, Brandon Mebane, on the field. Denver's O-line only allowed the immobile Manning to be sacked 20 times but this speaks more to Peyton's pre-snap reads, Omahas and quick decisions, releasing passes a league-low 2.36 seconds after the snap. They'll have their hands full with a Seahawk team that produced 44 regular sacks and the versatile defensive end/linebacker hybrids Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin while Michal Bennett has a match-up advantage over guard Zane Beadles.
With weather being a factor, there's a good chance it'll be turnovers or the third phase of the game, special teams, that'll be the determining factor. Even without the cold, you only have to think back to Jacoby Jones' kick return TD last year for the Ravens or the Saints' onside kick a few years ago. After showing up on the injury report a few days ago, Broncos' kicker Matt Prater has gotten over the flu and seems ready to show off his NFL record holding range. He's hit on 30 of 32 this year through the playoff while the Seahawks' Steven Hauschka has been even more money, hitting an astounding 39 of 41 through 18 games. There should be fewer touchbacks in the cold meaning more returns which will put Trinidad Holiday in the spotlight for the Broncos. The small-statured speed merchant, who'll handle punts as well, has had four touchdowns in two years for Denver but he's also fumbled ten times. It's hard to say for sure, but I'll bet the Seahawks will wheel out Percy Harvin for at least a few returns despite his fragility, it's the Super Bowl after all. He was only the league's leading returner in 2011 and '12 for the Vikings and managed this beauty against his former team the only time he suited up in the regular season. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are no slouches themselves, so, advantage Seattle.

If you think having been there before helps, the Broncos have the advantage as they'll field four players to the Seahawks zero with Super Bowl experience: Peyton Manning, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Wes Welker and Jacob Tamme. It won't, Manning's the only one to have won and the cold will limit his effectiveness Sunday. Though I'm loath to do it, after all, over the years I've called the Seattle team everything from the Seachickens to the Shithawks while being forced to suffer through all too many Sunday afternoon games as theirs was inevitably the only game being broadcast when I was growing up in Alberta, I'm picking the Seahawks to upset the favorite Broncos, straight up and of course against the spread.