Cam Newton and the Panthers bullied their way back into the NFC South race by pummeling the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
That Panthers domination of the Saints came out of left field. I did not see it coming at all. I wrote last week that Carolina needed at least a split from their mini road trip to Minnesota and New Orleans. After the Panthers performance in Minnesota I was certain they were done. And then they blow the doors off the Saints, who actually looked great last week in Pittsburgh. The NFC South is so bad and unpredictable that it’s now my favorite division for the next three weeks. I picked the Saints to win the division last week and I guess I’m sticking to that, and not because I trust the Saints. I don’t trust anyone in that division to do anything related to winning consistently.
Speaking of the Saints, they have to fire Rob Ryan regardless of how their season ends. That defense is a disaster. Some have even wondered if Sean Payton goes too. I doubt Payton leaves or gets canned until the Drew Brees era officially ends. Though, it’s certainly looking like that end is in sight.
Let’s stay in the NFC South for a second. The Falcons have lost at least twice this season due to Mike Smith’s poor coaching. While poor coaching didn’t cost them a victory Monday, it certainly didn’t help, either. Here’s the scenario: Green Bay ball with a 6 point lead and 2:11 on the clock. Atlanta has three time outs. Ultimately, the Atlanta defense folded like a chair and Green Bay faced a 2nd and 7 at the Atlanta 6 with 90 seconds to go. Atlanta was out of timeouts. Do the math, Mike Smith. You have two options: 1. Let the Packers run out the clock or at best, kick a field goal and leave you with a few seconds. 2. Let the Packers score and try to score twice with an onside kick recovery in between. Likely? Of course not, but at least you have a chance, because you have no chance if you don’t have the football. Again, well done Mike Smith.
Eagles lose. More about this later. I need to compose myself first.
Here we are, three weeks from the end of the season and it looks like we have four elite teams. Only an unfortunate playoff seed could prevent a Green Bay/Seattle and New England/Denver matchup on Championship weekend. And really, it’s been that way all season. Sure, each team took a dive out of the elite four at some point during the season. Green Bay and New England started slow. Seattle hit a rough patch three weeks in. Denver struggled in early November. However, while those teams struggled, no one replaced them. Despite impressive records, at no point did Arizona, Detroit, Philadelphia, Dallas, or Indianapolis resemble an elite team. It was always four, and barring injury (or playoff seeding), it will be those four on January 18, 2015.
So long, 49ers. What a weird season for one of the NFC’s best teams over the last four seasons. Sure, injuries plagued their defense but the defense was never the problem. It was the offense, an offense that remained completely healthy, too. In the past seven weeks, San Francisco scored more than 17 points only once. In 2013, the 49er offense ranked 11th in points scored, totaling just over 25 points per game. In 2014, after bringing in more talent to aid Colin Kaepernick’s growth, the 49ers rank 26th and score just under 19 points per game. The popular scapegoat is Kaepernick. While Kaepernick has certainly underwhelmed this season, he wasn’t devastatingly bad until the last two weeks. The offense’s problems have persisted all season. I’m not absolving Kaepernick. He deserves a healthy share of the blame, just not all of it. Maybe a large dose of blame should go to the disappearance of San Francisco’s run game? Last season they ranked 3rd in rushing yards per game. Currently they’re 16th. In 2013, San Francisco’s leading rusher for the week totaled 80 or more yards ten times. Only five times did the team’s leading rush fail to rush for 50 yards. In 2014, San Francisco backs have surpassed 80 yards only four times while failing to get to 50 yards six times. I’m hardly a Kaepernick fan. I’ve been down on him since the jump, but to blame him solely for this nightmare of a season isn’t fair to him or the others responsible for the mess… cough, cough … Jim Harbaugh.
Man, the Cleveland Browns found so many ways to choke away a win over the visiting Colts. Missed field goals, inept offense, and ultimately, lousy defense featuring poor tackling. Though, it’s hard to blame the defense for falling apart in the final 20 minutes after they did so much to give Cleveland a 21-7 2nd half lead, including two defensive scores and even setting up the Browns offense on the Indianapolis 23 early in the 4th quarter. Of course, Brian Hoyer and Co. could only muster a field goal, but the defense at least provided the opportunity. To date, I don’t think I’ve had a strong opinion either way on the Brian Hoyer/Johnny Manziel debate. I’m ready to back Manziel now. Hoyer was bad Sunday, borderline inept…
On that note, I don’t understand what certain teams are doing at the quarterback position. For example, why are Colt McCoy, Brian Hoyer and Kyle Orton playing at all? The argument for Hoyer and Orton all along has been keeping their respective teams in the playoff hunt. Given what I’ve seen of Hoyer the last two weeks, I find it hard to believe Johnny Manziel could be much worse. As for Orton, he had two good weeks back in October and has been downright awful since. Sure, he may not make a ton of mistakes that cost you the game, but he certainly isn’t making any plays to win you the game, either. Again, as bad as EJ Manuel was at times, he was never worse than Orton’s been. If Buffalo had even a semi-competent quarterback they may have won in Denver Sunday. The Bills defense had Peyton Manning on the ropes for most of the day, limiting him to his worst game as a Bronco.
Then there’s the Redskins. Ok, it was cute to give Colt McCoy another chance as a “thank you” for beating Dallas earlier in the season, but come on. McCoy isn’t a starting NFL quarterback. We all know this. To bench Robert Griffin III because someone else is better makes sense. To bench him for McCoy is just being spiteful. Yes, RGIII has been awful, but do you really think Washington is going to abandon him this early after all they surrendered to get him? Griffin needed a week off. He got that. Time to let Griffin learn and suffer some more if you have any hope of him returning to the player he was in 2012.
My Power Rankings after Week 13:
2. Green Bay
3. New England
8. San Diego
With their season on the ropes and trailing in the 4th quarter at Cincinnati, the Steelers went ahead and ran off 25 unanswered points in a win over the Bengals. Now Pittsburgh controls its own destiny in the tightly contested AFC North. However, Pittsburgh’s remaining schedule is hardly a cakewalk. They travel to Atlanta next week to face a Falcons team also in control of its own playoff destiny. Given how Pittsburgh struggled with the Saints offense last week and then AJ Green this week, Julio Jones and Matt Ryan may be too much to handle. After Atlanta, Pittsburgh hosts Kansas City and then Cincinnati. With both teams likely fighting for their playoff lives, the Steelers toughest task lies ahead.
With injuries crippling Baltimore’s defense, the Ravens’ season appeared on life support heading into Miami. Despite the injuries, it was the Raven defense that led Baltimore to the season-saving victory, limiting the Dolphin offense to less than 250 yards while sacking Ryan Tannehill six times. With the win Baltimore remains in the AFC playoff hunt. While they’ll need help to get in via the Wildcard or division title, the Ravens own the easiest remaining schedule of the remaining 8-win teams vying for Wildcard berths (and the AFC North title). Of course, Miami’s inability to stretch the field was a huge advantage for Baltimore. With a patchwork secondary, the Raven defense has proven vulnerability to aggressive passing attacks since the Jimmy Smith injury. While Tannehill is efficient, he’s one of the league’s worst passers when it comes to passes over 20 yards. That weakness loomed large Sunday. Miami mustered only one drive of 40 or more yards the entire day. Even the putrid Redskins squeezed out two drives of at least 40 yards (though barely).
The Detroit Lions are lurking in the NFC. While I don’t count them as a real threat to win the conference, the “nobody believes in us” element is certainly in play because no one, and I mean no one, is talking about what a different team they are with Calvin Johnson back and healthy. Granted, it’s hard to measure exactly what difference Johnson makes because he’s been great against bad opponents the last two weeks after struggling against the Patriots and Cardinals the two weeks prior. It’s likely he wasn’t totally healthy after missing a month, especially against the Cardinals, but it’ll be interesting to see the difference he makes in the postseason, because it appears the Lions will be there for the 2nd time in three seasons.
I’m not sure who’s to blame for Kansas City’s passing attack … or lack thereof this season. Has Andy Reid lost his mind or has Alex Smith been so bad that Reid simply can’t trust him. I’ve watched most of Kansas City’s games and never thought Smith was awful. It’s one thing to fail in your attempts to throw the ball downfield but to not try at all is alarming. Watch any Chiefs game and you’ll see Smith throwing 4 yard check downs on 3rd and long. It’s no mystery why Smith ranks 29th in yards per attempt. Here’s a perfect example of the frustration Chiefs fans feel: While trailing Arizona by 3 with 69 seconds remaining and zero timeouts, Smith completed the first 3 passes of the potential game-winning or tying drive. The Chiefs gained a total of 12 yards. More than 40 seconds ran off the clock.
I’ve heard too many professional football people refer to Thursday night’s contest between the Cardinals and Rams as almost certain defeat for the Cardinals. I am the furthest thing from an Arizona supporter, but the Rams are overrated right now. They shutout the Raiders and Redskins. If you asked any NFL fan or media member in the know who the three most dysfunctional franchises are in the league, you’d get the Raiders and Redskins every time. I’m not saying the Rams stink. They play in the NFL’s toughest division and would be a playoff lock in either South division, but they’re not good enough to simply write off the Cardinals this week. While a 76-0 margin of victory over two weeks is an amazing feat, style points must be deducted given the opponents.
The final three weeks of the regular season will be fascinating in regards to where Seattle and Green Bay finish. If I’m the Packers, the only team I fear in the NFC is obviously the Seahawks. Given the strength of Arizona’s remaining schedule and the relative weakness of Green Bay’s (though not that weak), it’s likely the Packers win the NFC’s top seed. As weird as it sounds, winning the top seed is a risk for Green Bay unless Seattle can snag the NFC’s 2nd seed. Otherwise, it’s a near certainty the Seahawks travel to Green Bay in the Divisional Round as they’ll likely be the lowest seed remaining. At this point, Seattle not winning the NFC West is a long shot given their recent play, but stranger things have happened. If Seattle wins the NFC West, Green Bay can breath easy until championship weekend.
AJ Green (11 catches for 224 yards and a TD) was unstoppable Sunday but not quite as unstoppable as Julio Jones (11 catches 259 yards and a TD) was on Monday. The NFL is bursting with game-changing talent at the wide receiver position, and that doesn’t include the 2014 crop that has taken the league by storm.
MVP: Cam Newton.
Runner Up: JJ Watt & Julio Jones.
Not on the ballot: Peyton Manning.