The Sunday Recap: The AFC’s Best are Already Setting Themselves Apart

Welcome to the latest edition of the Sunday Recap, a weekly column dedicated to thoughts on the previous day’s NFL action. Here are the top storylines from yesterday’s games.

Some Things Never Change: The AFC’s Pecking Order Remains the Same 

You’d think a new football season would bring about a lot of change. And yet, not much has changed, at least in the AFC. The Broncos, Patriots, and Steelers–not necessarily in that order–remain a cut above the rest of the thirteen teams in the conference.

I’ll start by discussing Denver. It would have been hard to imagine the Broncos improving  after losing both Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler in the offseason, but that’s exactly what has happened so far: the defending Super Bowl champions are even better than they were last season. Even though Trevor Siemian’s numbers may not look great–he only has one touchdown and three interceptions through two games–he has the Broncos offense performing better than they did in 2015. Siemian’s Broncos are currently averaging 5.8 yards per play. With Manning and Osweiler last season, Denver’s per play clip was only 5.2, which was 26th in the NFL. Granted, only two games have been played; but the Denver offense is turning the ball over less, running the ball more effectively, and continuing to generate big plays from Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Moreover, while we knew what to expect from the Broncos defense entering this season, it should be noted that there hasn’t been any sort of regression from that unit thus far. Against two of the NFL’s better offenses–Carolina and Indianapolis–the Broncos held them to an average of 4.4 yards per play. That number is even better than their 4.5 mark from a year ago. Simply put, Denver is still a force to reckoned with; and, if anything, they might become even scarier as Siemian gets more comfortable as the season moves along.

Then we have my Patriots, who also moved to 2-0 after yesterday’s 31-24 win over Miami. I’ll discuss the ramifications of Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury in due time, but for now let’s look at the positives to come out of New England’s first two weeks. Even without the likes of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, and Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots not only are unbeaten, but they haven’t really missed a beat. Before getting injured, Jimmy Garoppolo was off to an outstanding start to his starting career, posting a superb 98.9 Total QBR in his last start against the Dolphins. New acquisitions Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan have each added another dimension to the New England offense as well. Plus, second half slippage against Ryan Tannehill aside, the Patriots defense has been stout. Particularly after Arizona dropped forty points on the Buccaneers, their performance against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals in Week One looks all the more impressive. It makes you wonder how scary the Pats could be once Brady and company all return to the field.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are also off to a 2-0 start after beating the Bengals in an important early-season contest. Like Denver and New England, Pittsburgh’s start has been the result of excellent contributions from their above-average offense and defense. DeAngelo Williams has helped make up for Le’Veon Bell’s absence, as he leads the NFL in rushing after two weeks. In addition, neither the Redskins and Bengals surpassed the twenty-point mark in the first two weeks against Ryan Shazier and the Pittsburgh defense. If the Steelers can continue to get those kind of defensive efforts, they’ll be tough to beat, especially when Bell returns.

Even though the Texans and the Ravens–who are no strangers to the playoffs–are 2-0, there is a clear division between even some of the AFC’s playoff-caliber teams and the three squads I just mentioned. What else is new?

 

What to Expect from Brissett-led Patriots 

Of course, arguably the biggest headline from yesterday was Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury in the second quarter against Miami. After lighting up the Dolphins to the tune of three first-half touchdown passes, Garoppolo was drilled into the turf by linebacker Kiko Alonso. It’s a hit I’ve seen quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Tony Romo take on numerous occasions and not make it back onto the field for at least a few weeks. But I’m not a doctor…

Nonetheless, Bill Belichick and the Patriots will at least have to prepare for life with rookie Jacoby Brissett under center as they have a quick turnaround with a Thursday Night game against Houston this week. Even though Garoppolo exceeded expectations in his first six quarters in place of Tom Brady, it’s hard to expect Brissett to do the same. Not only is he a rookie, but given the circumstances surrounding Tom Brady’s suspension this offseason, I doubt Brissett has had much work at all with the first-team offense. This could certainly affect New England’s rhythm, especially against a stout Texans defense.

With that said, there is reason to believe the Patriots can survive life with Jacoby Brissett as well as they survived life with Garoppolo. First things first, let’s not underestimate their coaching staff. Belichick aside, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel is one of the more creative play-callers in football and I trust that he’ll design a gameplan that includes many safe passes for Brissett to get his confidence going while also letting New England’s best playmakers make plays in space. Take Brissett’s longest completion against the Dolphins, for instance. All it required was a simple fake hand-off and dump pass in the flat to Martellus Bennett, and off he went for a 37-yard gain.

Let’s keep something else in mind: Brissett could  have Rob Gronkowski back to throw to. Obviously that would be a huge benefit to New England’s passing game, but let’s not overlook not only Gronkowski’s, but Benett’s impact on their run game as well. With Bennett sealing the edge, LeGarrette Blount was able to overpower the Dolphins in the second half. If Gronkowski is back, that will make the Patriots run game even tougher to stop and it will likely set up some great play-action opportunities for Brissett as well.

Yet even if Brissett and the offense struggles, a) I wouldn’t underestimate the Patriots defense’s ability to carry them to victory and b) New England’s 2-0 start has put them in a position where even if they falter in their final two games before Brady returns, they’ll still be in a good position to claim a first-round bye. Sure, at 2-2 New England would likely behind Denver and Pittsburgh, but they’ll have more than enough time to make up that lost ground once Brady returns in Week Five.

 

Other Things That Stood Out in Week Two…

 

Let’s Show Some Love for the Tennessee Defense

The Tennessee Titans pulled one of the biggest upsets of Week Two by holding off the Detroit Lions in a 16-15 battle. The crucial moment of that game was certainly Marcus Mariota’s clutch touchdown pass to Andre Johnson on a 4th & 5 to give the Titans their first lead of the day. Yet even though Mariota and the rest of the Titans offense did their part to erase a 12-point second half deficit, the real key to Tennessee’s surprising victory was their defense. Of course, any time a defense allows a mere fifteen points, they are worthy of praise. But what really stood out was how they held Detroit to just 3.7 yards per play in the second half. They were also able to come up with a big play when they needed it most: An interception by cornerback Perish Cox while Matthew Stafford was attempting to get the Lions into field goal range.

Small sample size, but this Titans defense has allowed just one offensive touchdown in two games. Remember, thirteen of Minnesota’s points in Week One came directly off turnovers. This is a terrific sign for a team that was deficient defending both the run and pass last year. If Mariota and the offense can find their rhythm, Tennessee might have the makings of a playoff team.

 

The Saints Don’t Have “It”

What is it ? I don’t really know for sure. I suppose it  has to do with the ability to come through in clutch situations. Ultimately, though, it  is basically immeasurable. Yet with regards to it , all I know is that the 2016 New Orleans Saints don’t appear to have…it.

The Saints put up 34 points in Week One, but their defense, as it has so often in recent years, let them down in a 35-34 loss to Oakland. Then, in what was easily the most surprising development of Week Two, their awful defense doesn’t allow a single offensive touchdown against the Giants. What a time for Drew Brees and the normally prolific New Orleans offense to only put up 13 points….

The Saints appear to be in the same rut they were in a year ago: They just can’t seem to put a quality offensive and defensive performance together at the same time. Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill seeing as we are only two weeks into the NFL season. Yet I think it’s reasonable to say that it was a fluke that New Orleans’ historically-bad defense (they registered the lowest defensive DVOA since 1989 last year) shut down Odell Beckham and the Giants offense. The Saints will continue to be a difficult team to play on a weekly basis simply because they still have Drew Brees. But with an unreliable defense and an erratic offense, New Orleans looks poised to miss the playoffs once again.

 

Jacksonville is Still Bad…

No team got humiliated in Week Two quite like the Jaguars. They were a trendy pick to be one of the NFL’s most improved teams in 2016, but they’re off to another lousy start after an awful showing against the Chargers. Giving up 38 points is one thing, but getting shut out for most of the game by one of the NFL’s worst defenses is absolutely pathetic. Gus Bradley is officially on the hot seat and unfortunately for him, it doesn’t get any easier for his Jaguars over the next couple of weeks against the Ravens and Colts.

 

Fantasy Heroes & Zeroes 

 

Hero: Carson Palmer (24 points)

Palmer wasn’t his usual self in Week One, but he rebounded with a three touchdown, no interception game against the Buccaneers yesterday. It appears things are back to the normal in the desert.

Zero: Carlos Hyde (2 points)

After a two touchdown performance last Monday Night, Carlos Hyde struggled to get anything going against the Panthers, which must have disappointed fantasy owners who bought Hyde stock after Week One.

Hero: Corey Coleman (22 points)

For those anticipating a breakout rookie season from the former Baylor wideout, he came through in a big way against the Ravens. He hauled in five passes and two touchdowns in what his fantasy owners hope is a sign of things to come.

Zero: Antonio Brown (3 points)

So many people’s fantasy teams are predicated around Brown’s production. It was certainly a let-down that he turned in a rare clunker.

Hero: Martellus Bennett (17 points)

Bennett rebounded after a quiet Week One to put together a very explosive, 114 yard performance on only five receptions. In short, he was Gronk-esque.

Hero: Broncos D/ST (23 points)

Is Denver’s defense ever a zero?

 

Predictions Recap

 

Best Call: Baltimore over Cleveland

Picking the Ravens to beat the Browns isn’t impressive, but my predictions was Baltimore 24-20. The final score was 25-20.

Worst Call(s): Picking Seattle & Oakland as my locks

I got a few things wrong yesterday, but I’m disappointed that two of my sure bets of the weekend, the Seahawks and Raiders, came up short in disappointing losses to what I view to be inferior teams.

 

This Week’s Records (going into tonight):

Straight Up: 8-6     Spread: 6-8     Over/Under: 5-9     Locks: 3-2     Best Bets: 3-6 

 

Monday Night Prediction 

Philadelphia Eagles (1996 - Pres)vs Chicago Bears (1974 - Pres)

Spread: CHI -3               Over/Under: 42.5
’16 DVOA: PHI (19) > CHI (29)
Public Betting: PHI 55%

Will Carson Wentz’s road debut prove to be too tall of a task? Not necessarily. Even though Chicago’s defense projects to be much tougher than Cleveland’s, Philadelphia should feel confident in the fact that the Bears are only 3-13 at home over the past two years. For that reason, along with the fact that the Eagles are ranked higher in DVOA than the Bears, I think Philadelphia will keep it close enough to cover the narrow spread. However, I’ll ultimately side with Chicago at home–their defense will do just enough to keep Wentz and the Eagles offense in check.

Chicago 24, Philadelphia 23

*Best Bet: Chicago vs Philadelphia OVER 42.5 


Miller photo courtesy of Denver Post; Brissett photo courtesy of Boston.com; Titans photo courtesy of Getty Images

Posted by Mando

Co-Founder of Check Down Sports. Die-hard Boston sports fan: Patriots, Celtics, Bruins- in that order. I haven't been that interested in the Red Sox since they traded Manny. If you're a fan of Leslie Nielson movies and/or think Entourage is overrated, we'll get along.