The Sunday Recap: Separating the Contenders From the Pretenders

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.

 

Contender or Pretender? Are the Bucs, ‘Fins, and G-Men as good as advertised? 

Twelve weeks down. Time flies, doesn’t it? Here are some things we can confirm about this NFL season:

However, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. I mean, we sort of  know some things. For instance, I think we can confidently say that Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback now. Do you lock him up for over $100 million, though? I don’t know. Glad I’m not Washington’s GM.

Is Houston terrible? No, they’re 6-5! Yeah, well, their point differential suggests they should be 4-7 instead. Plus, they entered Week 12 ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and that was before  they laid an egg against the Chargers. Can you imagine having to see this team play in the Wild Card round again? Come on Tennessee! Or anyone. Even you Jacksonville!

Speaking of the Jaguars, is Blake Bortles terrible? A few weeks ago, I would’ve said he isn’t a top 20 QB. Now I’m thinking he’s a bottom five starting signal-caller. Take a look at his numbers this year coming into Week 12:

  • 31st in yards per pass attempt (6.32)
  • 28th in quarterback rating (80.0)
  • 27th in completion percentage (60.2%)
  • 29th in Total QBR (49.9)
  • T-1st in interceptions (13)

Sure, he threw 35 touchdowns last year. But many of those came during blowout losses. Plus, he was the quarterback of a 5-11 team in 2015. Oh yeah, what’s Jacksonville’s record this year? 2-9. I don’t care if Bortles is surrounded by complete garbage (he’s not). Good quarterbacks don’t quarterback 2-9 football teams. Bad ones do.

But you know what else we really  don’t know? Whether these three teams on lengthy winning streaks are for real: Tampa Bay, Miami, and the New York Giants. The Buccaneers pulled off their second consecutive upset as one-touchdown underdogs over Seattle in an unusual 14-5 final. That’s three straight wins for Tampa in total, as they now find themselves back in the playoff race after a blowout loss to Atlanta a few weeks ago put them at 3-5.

Their South Florida counterparts, meanwhile, won by the skin-of-their-teeth against a poor 49ers team. But a win is a win for the 7-4 Miami Dolphins, as they’re now tied with Kansas City for the second wild card spot in the AFC. Like the ‘Bucs, the Dolphins were also left for dead after a 1-4 start had many wondering whether Ryan Tannehill should be benched.

And then there are the Giants. They too won their sixth straight game yesterday in workmanlike fashion over a horrible Cleveland Browns squad (more on the winless Browns later). At 8-3, they now have a 1.5 game lead over Washington for the NFC’s top wild card spot.

Are any of these teams serious contenders in their respective conferences? Let’s start with the Buccaneers. Without question, they have one of the more impressive resumes in the league. With their two recent upset victories, Tampa now has wins over Seattle, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Carolina–although they beat the Panthers when they were without Cam Newton. Let’s not forget that they almost upset the 9-2 Raiders as well.

Jameis Winston may have the ‘Bucs moving in the right direction, but I’m actually not buying into any playoff hype. For starters, they’re too inconsistent. Tampa Bay had the 3rd highest variance in performance entering Week 12; in other words, this means they have been one of the league’s most erratic teams. The Buccaneers also don’t measure very well in many important metrics. Entering Week 12, they ranked 19th and 17th respectively in total offense and defense according to Football Outsiders. While their defense completely shut down Seattle by allowing only 4.0 yards per play, they still came into the week ranked 28th in that same category. Erratic much?

Another reason why I’m selling high on Tampa Bay: Their schedule. They technically only play one more team that is currently over .500 (Dallas); but with upcoming road tilts at San Diego and New Orleans in addition to home games against said Saints and the Panthers, the Buccaneers will have a tough time going 9-7. Given how inconsistent they’ve been this year, it’s unlikely they make the playoffs.

 

The 7-4 Dolphins are also a pretender, yet of a different variety. Let’s start with why I’m not completely sold by Miami’s six-game win streak. Yes, they are rated as the 6th best team in the NFL by my beloved Football Outsiders. It pains me to say it, but I think the advanced metrics are overrating Miami. Six of their seven wins have come by less than a touchdown. They’ve been flat-out lucky in many of these contests, too. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Week 3: A missed Cody Parkey field goal at the end of regulation prevents the Browns (the Browns!) from upsetting Miami; the Dolphins would later win in overtime
  • Week 9: Trailing 23-20, a Kenyan Drake kickoff return gives Miami a late lead over the Jets; the Dolphins, who also benefitted from an endzone interception from Ryan Fitzpatrick, would hang on to beat the hapless Jets
  • Week 10: With the help of four Phillip Rivers interceptions (one of which–a pick six–that occurred as San Diego was driving to take the lead in the final minute), Miami overcomes a late fourth-quarter deficit to shock the Chargers 31-24
  • Week 11: Trailing 10-0 deep in the fourth quarter against the Rams, Ryan Tannehill rallies the ‘Fins; his touchdown pass to DeVante Parker in the final 30 seconds put Miami over the top
  • Week 12: A goal-line stand prevented San Francisco from sending the game into overtime, securing Miami’s seventh win of the season

What stands out about many of these wins is not just that they were close, but that they came against subpar competition. Moreover, Miami’s one convincing win came against a Steelers team minus Ben Roethlisberger for more than half the game. Credit to the Dolphins for putting together an above-average campaign. They’ll need to do more than narrowly defeat teams like San Francisco before I consider them to be a threat in the AFC.

Unlike the Buccaneers, however, I’m high on Miami’s chances to make the playoffs. It’s not because I think they are very good. Rather, since they already have seven wins in the bank, they look poised to reach nine or ten wins. Their schedule is manageable from here on out and the AFC West, specifically Denver and Kansas City, will likely beat up on each other. The odds Miami makes a deep playoff run are very slim; but at least they have a better shot than the ‘Bucs to get there.

 

Last but not least, the Giants. A couple weeks ago, I would’ve said they were a pretender, too. Now I think the opposite. Reminiscent of those Super Bowl teams of the past, this Giants squad has the potential to make a deep playoff run.

Does this make me a hypocrite? I’ll explain why. I just wrote a dissertation as to why I wasn’t impressed by Miami’s close wins over non-competitive teams. The same argument could be made for the Giants. With the exception of their most recent win over Cleveland, every one of their eight wins  this season have come by less than a touchdown. Some of those victories came against under .500 clubs like Chicago, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles. Clearly they’re not a juggernaut.

But I’m a believer in the Giants for a few reasons. It starts with their defense. New York entered Week 12 ranked 7th in the NFL in opponent yards per play. After allowing a measly 4.8 yards per play against the Browns, they should rise up that leaderboard. They really don’t have a weakness, either: They’re top ten against both the run and the pass. New York’s pass rush is even starting to come around as well, with Jason Pierre-Paul registering a three sack game this weekend.

However, the Giants are obviously most known for their strong passing attack. Odell Beckham Jr. is a matchup nightmare, and he’s joined by the likes of Sterling Sherpard and Victor Cruz. New York’s passing game isn’t necessarily the NFC’s best; but they’re top ten in yards per game through the air, so they’re certainly a force to be reckoned with.

But since we’re talking playoffs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eli Manning. Would you bet against him in January? After all, he’s 8-1 in his last nine playoff starts. He also arguably hasn’t had a receiving core as good as the one he has now. You could even argue he hasn’t had a defense  like this one, either. Both Giants Super Bowl teams had outstanding front-fours; but as a whole, they ranked just 13th and 19th overall in defensive DVOA. For the record, this Giants defense currently ranks 8th.

The one thing New York doesn’t have is a good running game. That could come back to haunt them in January, where the pressure on Eli Manning to keep pace with some of the NFC’s prolific offenses might be too much. With that said, New York has similar ingredients to the teams that won Super Bowl titles. It will be an uphill battle for the Giants, who will almost certainly be a wild card, to get past all  of the NFC’s best. Nonetheless, they’re still a threat to a team like Dallas regardless of their seed.

 

 

Will the Browns win a game? 

Speaking of the Giants, they were the latest team to beat the Cleveland Browns, who fell to 0-12 with their loss Sunday. You can tell losing has not been easy for this organization. Hell, Hue Jackson basically broke down at his post-game press conference. With only four games remaining, time is certainly running out for Cleveland to avoid becoming the second 0-16 team in history.

Is all hope lost? Well, almost. Fivethirtyeight’s season simulator has the Browns winning an average of 0.8 wins over their last four games. So it’s more likely than not that Cleveland finishes 0-16. With that said, I won’t write off Cleveland’s chances of winning at least one game just yet. After their late-season bye, they’ll play an underachieving Cincinnati squad that has looked hopeless offensively in recent weeks after losing both A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard.  If there’s been one positive for the Browns in recent weeks, it’s been their defense, which has only allowed 5.4 yards per play over their last four games (17th in the NFL). That’s not a great figure, but it’s a far cry from their league-worst 6.1 yards per play clip seen earlier in the season. Even though Cleveland’s offense has looked even worse than Cincinnati’s of late, I could see the Browns defense at least keeping them in the game.

Cleveland has set an NFL record by having eighteen–yes, eighteen–rookies on their active roster. Clearly they’re rebuilding. Similar to the Philadelphia 76ers, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Browns have sunk this low. And yet, there’s no way any member of the Browns front office wanted to be a part of an organization so pathetic. I have nothing against the Browns, so it would be nice to see them breakthrough at some point this season. Unfortunately, I think their upcoming matchup against Cincinnati is their last realistic opportunity, assuming Pittsburgh has something to play for in Week 17.

 

Updated Playoff Machine

What’s the playoff machine, you ask? It’s basically the greatest thing ever. Thanks to ESPN, NFL degenerates like me can spend hours on end simulating the rest of the NFL season by picking every remaining matchup. Here’s what my playoff field projects to look like, as of now.

*Note- this simulation was done before Kansas City defeated Denver in overtime

 

AFC

1 New England 13-3;   2 Denver 12-4;   3 Pittsburgh 11-5;   4 Indianapolis 8-8;   5 Oakland 12-4;   6 Kansas City 10-6

The only real surprise here is that I have Denver leapfrogging Oakland by season’s end. I suppose it’s because I don’t see Oakland being able to beat Denver or Kansas City on the road. By virtue of a tiebreaker, the Broncos win the West.

I also tried my best to have Tennessee win the AFC South, mainly because I can’t stomach seeing Houston make the playoffs again. But at 8-8, the Colts would own the tiebreaker over them since they swept the season series. The fact that Indianapolis has that advantage doesn’t bode well for the Titans.

 

NFC

1 Dallas 13-3;   2 Seattle 12-3-1;   3 Atlanta 10-6;   4 Detroit 9-7;   5 New York 11-5;   6 Washington 10-5-1 

Again, no surprises. The only slot in doubt is the six-seed. I have Washington in there now, but they’ll need to go 4-1 over their last five games in order to finish with ten wins. They may need to reach that mark, too. I see Philadelphia approaching nine or ten wins by season’s end and I wouldn’t rule out the Vikings or Saints, either.

 

Monday Night Prediction 

vs

Green Bay Packers (4-6) vs Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)

Spread; PHI -3.5            Over/Under: 47.5
’16 DVOA: GB (22) < PHI (2)
Public Betting: PHI 56% 
Key Stat: Philadelphia is 4-0 at home with a point differential of +70

Green Bay’s recent struggles have been well-documented. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has been a powerhouse at home this season. There’s no reason to think that the Eagles can’t have success against Green Bay’s poor defense. Ryan Matthews has played well in recent weeks and if Carson Wentz can protect the football, Philadelphia should be able to have success through the air. The key, therefore, will be for the Eagles’ defense to slow down Aaron Rodgers. Since this is the best defense the Packers have seen since their Week 2 meeting with the Vikings, I expect Philadelphia to get back over .500.

Philadelphia 27, Green Bay 21 

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.