The Sunday Recap: Talk of “Lackluster” Season Ended This Weekend

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.

 

Dramatic Week 8 finishes put talk of lackluster season to rest

Amidst the NFL’s continued struggle in fighting the perception that the sport is too dangerous, there’s one storyline from this season that I’m sure many people did not anticipate: A noticeable ratings drop. Had that  many people’s attitudes towards football change so suddenly due to the increased knowledge about concussions? Some think so. But others say that the NFL’s smaller viewing audience–at least relative to past seasons–was due to the fascinating presidential election. And there are those that say the league, which has expanded its viewing palate to add more Thursday night and early-morning London games in recent years, has been oversaturated to the point where there is too much  football.

Yet the most surprising argument I’ve heard some people make is that the season hadn’t been intriguing so far, with awful Thursday night contests, mediocre primetime games, and a shortage of star power being their main arguments. Well, even if you believed that was true before, Week 8 proved that this NFL season will not be short on suspense. Eight of yesterday’s eleven games were decided by one possession or less, and every marquee game yesterday came down to the wire.

The day began with an exciting affair in London between Cincinnati and Washington that ended in a tie after Dustin Hopkins missed a 34-yard field goal to win the game for the Redskins in overtime. The result is a bitter pill for both teams to swallow. The Bengals now sit two games back of Kansas City, who currently owns the second wild card spot in the AFC, and must wait at least one more week before returning to .500. The Redskins, meanwhile, missed an opportunity to move into sole possession of the first wild card position in the NFC. Although Green Bay, New York, and Philadelphia each have one game in hand on the ‘Skins, a win over the Bengals would have been crucial for Washington, who now has a brutal five-game stretch beginning this week against Minnesota.

The day was just getting started. In New Orleans, the Seahawks had a chance to win the game with two seconds to go and the ball deep in Saints territory; but an overthrown Russell Wilson pass couldn’t allow Jermaine Kearse to get both feet down in the back of the end zone, sending Seattle to 4-2-1 and keeping New Orleans’ albeit slim playoff hopes alive. Over in Tampa Bay, the Raiders overcame 23 penalties to upend the Buccaneers on a game-winning touchdown pass from Derek Carr to Seth Roberts in the waning moments of overtime. Oakland now sits at 6-2; and if they can find a way to knock off the Broncos next Sunday night, the Carr-for-MVP talk will get even louder as the Raiders look ahead to their first trip to the playoffs in over a decade.

Later in the afternoon, the Falcons rallied to beat Green Bay in what certainly might have been a preview of a potential NFC playoff clash come January. The good news for the Packers was that Aaron Rodgers–who tossed four touchdowns on the day–and their offense looked to be back in sync. It still wasn’t enough to beat Atlanta, though, as Matt Ryan found Mohammed Sanu for the game-winning score with under a minute to play. This was a game the Falcons really needed to win, especially after two frustrating losses in recent weeks. Even though their NFC South rivals refuse to fold, Atlanta cemented themselves as the favorite in that division with a win over the potentially-playoff bound Packers as the season heads into November.

Of course, these games paled in comparison to the nightcap between Philadelphia and Dallas. Carson Wentz had the Eagles rolling through the first 50 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to hold off their NFC East foe. Dak Prescott, who struggled for most of the game and had what was clearly his shakiest performance as a pro, rallied the ‘Boys by finding Dez Bryant for the tying score late in the fourth quarter and then by hitting a wide-open Jason Witten for the winning score in overtime.

At 6-1, Dallas now has a two-game cushion in the NFC East and has a light road over the next few weeks, as they face the 0-8 Browns, the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers, and the reeling Ravens in their next three games. The division is now there’s for the taking, and since they could be looking at a 9-1 start, we should all circle a December 1st tilt between them and the Vikings: It could decide who has home-field throughout the NFC playoffs. So much for the stakes of the 2016 NFL season not being high enough.

 

Brady’s surprise MVP campaign continues 

You would’ve thought that Tom Brady’s four game suspension would have disqualified him from any sort of awards consideration. Yet through eight weeks, Brady is certainly on the short-list of MVP candidates, especially after throwing four more touchdowns in New England’s 41-25 rout over Buffalo.

Statistically, Brady entered Week 8 as the league’s best quarterback. While he was far behind in many aggregate statistics such as passing yards and touchdown passes, Brady ranked first in nearly every other important category. Here’s the breakdown:

  • First in yards per attempt (9.94); Matt Ryan second at 9.62
  • First in completion percentage (75.2%); Dak Prescott second at 68.7
  • First in passer rating (132.6); Matthew Stafford second at 113.6
  • First in Total QBR (90.3); Dak Prescott second at 82.8

Sure, at first Brady’s numbers benefitted from having a smaller-sample size than his peers. But after another excellent performance against the Bills, the distance between Brady and the rest of the NFL’s quarterbacks in these categories will increase.

Does this mean Brady is an MVP candidate even after missing a quarter of the season? As we know, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Eight of the previous ten MVP awards have gone to quarterbacks; and in each of those instances, not only did those quarterbacks put up terrific numbers, but they led their team to at least twelve wins. Six of the last eight quarterbacks to win MVP also led their team to the best record in their respective conference. Barring a dramatic turn of events, Brady is on track to fulfill both of those unwritten requirements.

Yet here’s the question that makes Brady’s MVP case so compelling: Was his value diminished by New England’s success without him? As we know, the Patriots went 3-1 in those first four games, notching an impressive road victory at Arizona behind a clutch performance from Jimmy Garoppolo and a blowout win over Houston with a third-string rookie quarterback in Jacoby Brissett.

Clearly the Patriots would be just fine if they were without Brady for the whole season. They’re simply too well coached and too talented, particularly on the offensive end. However, they wouldn’t be this  fine without Brady. In short, his return has transformed New England’s offense into the league’s best, making them the prohibitive Super Bowl favorite.

It’s too difficult to isolate the true impact of any NFL player. That’s why the MVP award almost always goes to the NFL’s top statistical quarterback on an elite team. If that quarterback is Brady by the end of the regular season–and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be–he deserves to take home his third MVP award regardless of the Patriots’ early-season success without him.

 

 

The Panthers are still alive, mainly because their maligned defense never left 

Carolina’s season isn’t over yet. They trounced the Cardinals–who they beat in last season’s NFC Championship game–yesterday thanks to two Jonathan Stewart touchdown runs and a scoop-and-score from Thomas Davis.

At 2-5, it’s still not likely that the Panthers make the playoffs. It doesn’t help that they face the league’s 5th hardest schedule over the next nine weeks, either. With that said, I wouldn’t put it past the defending NFC champions to be in the playoff mix come the end of the regular season. The main reason why is because of their defense. Yes, that  defense–the one that everyone, including myself, has criticized so much this season. I think we were a bit too harsh on them. To be clear, Carolina’s defense is not as good as it was in 2015 when they had Josh Norman. However, we all lost sight of the fact that the Panthers’ two horrific defensive performances came against Atlanta and New Orleans, two of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL. Against those two teams, they allowed an average of 8.1 yards per play and over 10.5 yards per pass attempt. But against all other teams they played through seven weeks, Carolina only allowed an average of 4.6 yards per play and 5.8 yards per pass attempt.

On Sunday, the Panthers limited the Cardinals offense to 5.3 yards per play and kept Carson Palmer completely in check, holding him to just a 34.6 Total Quarterback Rating. They also produced two turnovers, including the aforementioned defensive touchdown from Davis.

In short, Carolina’s defensive struggles were overblown. They’re secondary may still be a weakness; but with the likes of Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short up front, their front seven is still as good as it was a year ago. That, along with more production from Cam Newton and the offense, will be enough to keep the Panthers in playoff contention despite their poor record.

 

 

2016: The year of the kicker…or not

Add Dustin Hopkins and Sebastian Janikowski to the list of kickers who have blown it for their teams this season. Hopkins yanked a short 34-yard attempt that would’ve given the Redskins a crucial victory over Cincinnati to move to 5-3. And while the Raiders managed to beat Tampa Bay in overtime, it was not thanks to Janikowski, who missed two 50-yard attempts, one with a chance to win at the end of regulation and the other on the first possession of overtime to give Oakland the lead.

Special teams is often the most overlooked component in football, and it’s clearly been a key determinant of many teams’ success (or failure) through eight weeks. Arizona, for instance, is two Chandler Catanzaro field goals away from being 5-3. Seattle, however, could point to the fact that their kicker, Steven Hauschka, missed a chip shot that would’ve put Seattle four games up on their division rival in the NFC West. But neither has been as unlucky as Carolina, who not only has been victim to two game-winning field goals that actually were converted, but had their very-own Graham Gano miss a kick that would’ve given them a victory over Denver on opening night. Could Gano have put the Panthers’ season on the right track if he had made that field goal? Hard to tell. One thing I do know, though, is that I can’t remember a season in which kickers have let their teams down more than this one. But this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. After all, this was how one of the first NFL game’s of 2016 ended:

 

 

 

Get rid of ties

One final observation before I move on to this week’s Elite Eight: The NFL should get rid of ties. Granted, it’s rare for their to be two ties in consecutive weeks. But what’s the problem with playing another overtime? Other professional sports leagues, like the NBA and MLB, do it; and in those leagues, players usually don’t even have much time to recover from their overtime battles. In the NFL, teams almost always have a full week. Moreover, this isn’t hockey, where games frequently go to overtime. Long OT games like the ones we have seen in recent weeks are so infrequent that you might as well declare a winner when it’s all said and done. And if you think going to double or perhaps even triple overtime would be too taxing for players, than tell them to settle things before the first overtime ends!

The new overtime rules implemented a few years ago have been great. Let’s make one more tweak to make sure we, the fans, are always fulfilled by game’s end.

 

The Elite Eight

Real simple: I’m going to rank the eight best teams in the NFL based on how strong I feel their Super Bowl chances are.

*Note- parenthesis indicates last week’s ranking

 

Dropped from Rankings: Philadelphia Eagles

 

8/ Oakland Raiders (NR)

The Raiders’ defense is still a concern. But with an offense this explosive, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish this season.

7/ Pittsburgh Steelers (6) 

Let’s still keep the Steelers fresh in our mind. After all, Roethlisberger should be healthy when it really  counts.

6/ Green Bay Packers (7)

No concern with Rodgers. Green Bay may not be as formidable as they have been in recent years, but they’ll still be a very difficult team to beat if they make it to January.

5/ Minnesota Vikings (pending MNF- 5)

Minnesota must find a better way to protect Sam Bradford. Otherwise they’ll be asking too much of their defense against the NFC’s elite.

4/ Seattle Seahawks (3) 

Wait for it: Seattle has had a knack for turning it on in the second half of the season.

3/ Dallas Cowboys (4) 

Dak Prescott finally looked like a rookie. Yet might it be a good sign that Dallas was able to overcome his mistakes anyway?

2/ Denver Broncos (2) 

A pick-six, three Phillip Rivers interceptions, a defensive stop with under two minutes to play in a one-score game: All in a days work for the Denver defense.

1/ New England Patriots (1) 

At this point, I think we take what New England does on a weekly basis for granted.

 

Fantasy Heroes & Zeroes

 

Hero: Derek Carr (35 points)

It always helps when your quarterback gets an extra quarter to pile up numbers. Too bad I didn’t start him on one of my teams (granted, I went with Aaron Rodgers over him).

Zero: Russell Wilson (9 points)

Disappointing afternoon for Wilson, who was up against one of the NFL’s worst defenses.

Hero: Matt Forte (21 points)

People said I was stupid for trading A.J. Green for Forte and Doug Baldwin. It’s all about that running back depth baby!

Zero: Spencer Ware (3 points)

I thought Ware was a must-start against a terrible Colts defense. He was having an awful day (7 carries, 19 yards) before leaving with a concussion.

Hero: Jamison Crowder (16 points)

Crowder has been a popular waiver-wire pickup in recent weeks. If you had him in your lineup, he delivered on Sunday.

Zero: DeAndre Hopkins (4 points)

What the hell’s going on with this guy? Is it Osweiler’s fault? I’m blaming Osweiler! God dammit Osweiler!

 

Predictions Recap 

Best Call: Patriots by two touchdowns over Buffalo

Worst Call: Being a little  too confident in underdogs such as Detroit, Cleveland, and San Diego

 

Straight Up: 7-4-1     Spread: 6-5-1     Over/Under: 8-4     Locks: 0-0     Best Bets: 7-5

 

Monday Night Prediction 

vs

Minnesota Vikings (5-1) vs Chicago Bears (1-6)

Spread: MIN +4.5            Over/Under: 40.5
’16 DVOA: MIN (7) > CHI (23)
Public Betting: MIN 86%
Key Stat: Minnesota is 23rd in offensive DVOA, but have faced toughest slate of defenses

The Vikings are overwhelming public favorites tonight in Chicago, yet the line has actually dropped from -6.5 to -4.5. That looks like a sure sign that the sharp bettors who do this for a living see value on the Bears. However, I think this is a mistake. Chicago has a pedestrian offense and Minnesota’s defense is phenomenal. Moreover, I think the Vikings offense will have a better showing than last week, though they must be able to contain an above-average Chicago pass rush.

Generally speaking, I believe in taking underdogs in divisional contests, particularly when they are at home. This is one of the rare times when I won’t do that. Minnesota is the superior team.

Minnesota 23, Chicago 13

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.

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