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.
Are Vikings and Packers still contenders in NFC?
The previously unbeaten Minnesota Vikings were surprisingly upset for the second straight week, this time by the Detroit Lions, who moved to 5-4 thanks to a clutch 58-yard Matt Prater field goal at the end of regulation and a 28-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate in front of a stunned Minnesota faithful.
Many were envisioning Minnesota in the Super Bowl a few weeks ago. Now they’re not even a lock to win the NFC North. Does this mean they’re no longer a contender in the NFC?
Yes it does. The Vikings certainly possess one of the better defenses in the NFL but their offense, which came into Week 9 ranked 31st in yards per play, is too poor for them to make a deep playoff run. Sam Bradford has played well this season, but the Vikings struggle to protect him (allowed two sacks again on Sunday) and they have a non-existent running game without Adrian Peterson (ranked 32nd in rushing DVOA entering Week 9). Plus, it’s not like their defense is completely immovable, either. Teams like the Bears have had success against them in recent weeks.
Even with a manageable schedule the rest of the way, it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings find themselves with a first-round bye come January. That means they’ll have to face too many of the NFC’s top teams–Seattle, Dallas, etc–in order to get to Houston for Super Bowl LI. Talk of them being this year’s Denver is misguided, too. The Broncos were an anomaly in today’s NFL. There’s enough of a sample size to determine that Minnesota’s offense is pedestrian. That all but eliminates the possibility of a Super Bowl trip.
In similar straits are the Green Bay Packers. They also dropped a home affair to a shaky Indianapolis team and now sit at 4-4 in third place in the NFC North behind the Vikings and Lions.
Are the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes squashed as well? In one sense, maybe not. Perhaps it’s too early to write off Aaron Rodgers, even though Green Bay’s offensive struggles continue to persist. Much can change from now until the end of the regular season. At around this time last year, Denver was in shambles after Peyton Manning’s horrific four interception performance against the Chiefs. They rebounded to win the Super Bowl. New England looked like they didn’t have a chance to win it all after the first few weeks of the 2015 season. Tom Brady and company ultimately turned things around. You could even point to teams like the 2012 Redskins, who were 3-6 through nine weeks, as examples of teams whose season’s changed course dramatically after no one thought they were going anywhere.
The Packers, however, have major concerns. It goes beyond their sporadic offense: Their defense has been shaky, too. They came into yesterday’s game allowing the 7th most points per drive and were ranked just 16th against the pass. Compared to other teams in the NFC like Seattle and Dallas, Green Bay lacks both balance and a dominant unit. In my view, they also have a brutal schedule. Visits to Washington, Philadelphia, and Detroit look daunting. Plus, as we’ve seen over the last year, the Packers are no longer a sure-thing at home. That makes games against the Seahawks and Vikings at Lambeau even more difficult. For those reasons, I actually think their chances to win the NFC North aren’t good. Minnesota still possess an elite defense and Detroit, with a potent offense around Matthew Stafford, looks legitimate. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Packers have another 4-4 eight game stretch to finish .500. They’ll miss the playoffs.
What about the Eagles?
Over in the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles fell short to the New York Giants yesterday 28-23. Despite having the league’s best DVOA through eight weeks, the Eagles now find themselves on the outside of the NFC playoff picture. In fact, they’re actually at the bottom of the NFC East right now. Clearly things aren’t as rosy in the City of Brotherly Love now as they were after Carson Wentz jumpstarted Philadelphia to a 3-0 start.
Speaking of Carson Wentz, what’s his deal? He looked so good during the Eagles’ aforementioned undefeated start, throwing five touchdowns without an interception. What we’ve come to learn now, though, is that Philadelphia feasted on three very weak defenses in their first few games. Granted, Chicago, who the Eagles beat soundly in Week 2, rank a respectable 15th defensively; the Steelers and Browns, however, rank just 25th and 30th. That explains why Wentz was able to look so good.
Wentz has struggled ever since Philadelphia’s schedule tightened up; and if his struggles continue, he’ll doom an otherwise very good Eagles team from making a deep playoff run. As I said before, Philadelphia was ranked number one in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric (DVOA, for the record, measures total efficiency relative to opponent-strength) entering this weekend. It wasn’t because of their offense, though, which ranked only 23rd. Their defense and special teams both ranked tops in the league. You could argue that neither ranking is very sustainable, seeing how Philadelphia’s defense got ripped apart by the Giants as well as the fact that the Eagles have benefitted from the league’s most return touchdowns. Yet with a stout front-seven and one of the league’s most accurate field goal kickers in Caleb Sturgis, those two areas are clearly strengths for Philadelphia, potentially making them a very dangerous team in the NFC.
It will be all for naught if Carson Wentz can’t turn things around. And I don’t think he will, at least not this year. It’s not because I don’t think Wentz could have a great career; but he’s a rookie. It’s more likely that a rookie quarterback fails to come through for his team come playoff time, which at this point is far from a guarantee for the 4-4 Eagles. Sure, you could point to Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez as recent examples of rookies who proved this theory wrong. But with the way Wentz has been playing recently–tossing interceptions wildly, misfiring throws in crucial situations–Philadelphia will have to wait until next season before making serious noise in the NFC.
Time for Jared Goff…I’d Hope
The Los Angeles Rams held the Carolina Panthers to just thirteen points, but still lost. What else is new? Well, I can tell you what should be new when the Rams travel to New York to play the Jets next weekend: Last year’s first overall pick Jared Goff should be the starting quarterback.
The case for Goff, or, rather, the case against Case Keenum, is obvious. Los Angeles entered Week 9 with the league’s 2nd worst offense according to DVOA and Keenum was ranked dead last among qualified quarterbacks in Total QBR. The Rams were able to overcome their lousy offense en route to a 3-1 start. Now they’ve lost four straight, and if Jeff Fischer wants to keep his job, he has to see if he can get better production from anyone other than Keenum. The next man up, of course, is Goff.
Many have wondered, however, why Goff hasn’t seen the field already. The Rams say they’re simply sticking with their intention to have Goff sit out the entirety of the season. That logic, in itself, makes sense. People forget that it used to be common to have rookie quarterbacks sit and learn for at least one season, if not more. As quarterbacks like Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers can attest to, waiting can certainly be beneficial. Being thrown into the fire, on the other hand, has its drawbacks. Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert serve as recent examples of quarterbacks who were initially projected to sit for the whole season who instead were inserted into the starting lineup and struggled mightily in their rookie season.
But here’s what I don’t get: Jeff Fischer won’t be coaching the Rams in 2017 at this rate. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for him to stick with Keenum so as to not harm Goff’s future. For that reason, I think the reason why Goff has yet to see the field is because he is severely behind schedule. Goff played in an air-raid system at California: Quarterbacks who played in that type of system in college have often had steep learning curves when they enter the NFL. Moreover, that type of system has yet to produce a quality professional quarterback, with Nick Foles (Nick Foles!) arguably being the most successful out of a group that includes Geno Smith, Johnny Manziel, and the aforementioned Keenum. Combine this with Goff’s lack of intangibles–questionable arm strength, less-than-ideal size and strength–and it makes sense why he has not started yet and on track to be a bust.
Nonetheless, Goff should be starting for the Rams next Sunday. It’s clearly time for the number one pick to play. Whether he starts or not at this point is his fault, not Fischer’s.
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: Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
8/ Pittsburgh Steelers (7)
I’m not worried about the Steelers. Big Ben didn’t look to be at full health. Their defense–ranked 25th in DVOA–is a concern moving forward, but they’ll be around when it matters.
7/ Kansas City Chiefs (NR)
Time to respect Kansas City. Not because they beat Jacksonville this weekend, but because they continue to take care of business on a weekly basis. They’re also one of the more balanced teams on both sides of the ball in the NFL.
6/ Atlanta Falcons (NR)
Atlanta’s offense is terrific and enough to put them in Super Bowl contention.
5/ Denver Broncos (2)
They’re still the champs until someone knocks them off in the playoffs.
4/ Oakland Raiders (8)
With their win over Denver, the Raiders are officially on the map.
3/ Seattle Seahawks (pending MNF- 4)
Unlike last year, Seattle should have at least one playoff game at home come January. That will help their Super Bowl odds immensely.
2/ Dallas Cowboys (2)
The Cowboys continue to roll behind the best offensive line in football. Their defense is improving on a weekly basis, too.
1/ New England Patriots (1)
The Patriots get to face a Seahawks team coming off a short week at home. If they get by them, they’re looking at a 14-2, perhaps even 15-1.
Updated Predictions for NFL’s Second Half
Every team has played at least eight games, so it’s a natural time for a reset. Here are my predictions as to who will make the postseason as well as how I like the playoffs to shake out.
1 New England (14-2)
2 Oakland (11-5)
3 Pittsburgh (9-7)
4 Indianapolis (8-8)
5 Denver (10-6)
6 Kansas City (10-6)
Not many surprises here. New England should wrap up the number one seed with ease. I like Oakland to edge out Denver and Kansas City. I think their defense has improved enough in recent weeks. I also like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis to grind out division titles simply because their competition has too many weaknesses. I’ll side with Roethlisberger and Luck given that they are the best quarterbacks in their respective divisions.
1 Dallas (13-3)
2 Seattle (11-4-1)
3 Atlanta (10-6)
4 Detroit (10-6)
5 Minnesota (10-6)
6 New York (9-7)
I like Dallas to get the one seed over Seattle, but I can’t really explain why. I guess I have enough confidence in the Cowboys’ offense to win some tough late-season battles against some of the NFC’s more formidable teams on the road. Moreover, I actually like the Lions to win the NFC North. I’m buying Matthew Stafford stock, and I don’t think Detroit’s defense will be as bad once they get healthier. Minnesota did enough early in the season to secure a wild card berth and the Giants…well, I don’t think anyone has ever confidently picked the Giants.
AFC Championship: New England over Pittsburgh
This was my preseason pick and I haven’t found enough evidence to change it. The Patriots look poised to reach their sixth consecutive conference title game since it’s highly likely they will have home-field in the divisional round. I like them to rout a Pittsburgh team that lacks a good defense.
NFC Championship: Seattle over Dallas
The Seahawks remain the NFC’s most well-rounded team. I still think their defense is outstanding, and as we saw when Dallas played Philadelphia, Dak Prescott can be forced into mistakes. Plus, things have to go south for the Cowboys at some point, right?
Super Bowl LI: New England over Seattle
Again, sticking with my preseason pick. In short, I don’t see any team finding an answer for this Patriots offense. They’re more dominant than the team that lifted the Lombardi trophy two years ago.
Fantasy Heroes & Zeroes
Hero: Dak Prescott (23 points)
Both quarterbacks on their bye week? No problem. Picked up Prescott this week.
Zero: Jonathan Stewart (4 points)
Weak performance from Stewart. He had the most disappointing day of all the top-tier backs.
Hero: Mark Ingram (28 points)
Put the team on your back Mark Ingram!
Zero: Willie Snead (3 points)
It’s always disappointing when you have a player on a team like the Saints that explodes for 40+ points and they don’t factor into the scoring.
Hero: Mike Wallace (18 points)
Wallace seemed to be in many flex discussions this week. He came through if you went with him (unfortunately I didn’t).
Zero: Greg Zuerlein (2 points)
Kickers are integral to fantasy. Zeurlein disappointed his owners with two missed field goals.
Monday Night Prediction
Buffalo Bills (4-4) vs Seattle Seahawks (4-2-1)
Spread: SEA -7 Over/Under: 43.5
’16 DVOA: BUF (9) < SEA (6)
Public Betting: SEA 58%
The Bills should benefit from LeSean McCoy’s return. They also are unlikely to look as helpless defensively this week against a Seahawks offense that has struggled to find its footing this year. Nonetheless, I like Seattle’s defense to do enough to keep Buffalo’s offense in check. The Bills could make this interesting, but Seattle is the pick, especially since they’re at home in a primetime game.