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 big storylines from Week 16.
Who are the top Super Bowl contenders? A penultimate edition of The Elite Eight
They say the cream rises to the top. And with only one week remaining in the regular season, it’s clear that only a handful of teams remain in Super Bowl contention.
Of course, this brings me to the big story of Week 16: The injury to Derek Carr. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much to say. It’s simply a devastating blow to Oakland, and it means their Super Bowl hopes are shot. Plain and simple. There is a chance, however, that they can still win a playoff game. Matt McGloin may not be Carr, but he has plenty of weapons with the likes of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and a stout offensive line in front of him. But I think most Oakland fans realize that the odds of McGloin leading the Raiders to a divisional round win over, say, Pittsburgh, are small. That’s why I’m sure the priority for Raiders nation is that Carr gets healthy, and that he returns ready to lead Oakland on a deep playoff run in 2017.
It’s a shame we won’t be able to see what the Raiders can do this postseason, but the NFL stops for no one. Without further ado, here’s my ranking of the top eight teams in terms of how likely they are to win the Super Bowl along with a thorough analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.
Boy, watching Eli Manning play last Thursday night makes you wonder how he ever ripped off two of the greatest playoff runs in NFL history. He was downright awful against the Eagles and you can’t really call that performance a fluke, either. After all, Manning ranks just 26th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks in Total QBR this season.
However, the Giants are still capable of making a run to Houston thanks to their elite defense. Yes, their elite defense. New York is third in defensive DVOA despite having played the league’s fifth toughest schedule of offenses. Plus, they’re the only team in the NFL to rank in the top five against both the run and pass.
Pair Manning with an elite defense in the playoffs and you have one dangerous team. But until Manning actually starts to play well, the Giants are a dark horse rather than a serious contender.
The Chiefs are a tough team to get a read on. On one hand, you can’t deny the fact that they are 11-4. They’ve beaten some formidable teams on the road, such as Oakland, Denver, and Atlanta, and they’re also very balanced; that is, there really isn’t anything that Kansas City doesn’t do well.
But what do the Chiefs do well? I suppose they’re good against the pass, where they rank 8th in the NFL in pass defense DVOA and 4th in average team passer rating. But aside from that, they’re merely 25th at stopping the run; and on the offensive end, they have the 13th ranked passing offense and the 21st ranked rushing attack.
Despite these relatively average rankings, two things separate the Chiefs. First, as mentioned, is their ability to dictate the turnover battle, as they lead the NFL in turnover margin per game entering Week 16. The second is their skill at scoring non-offensive touchdowns, as they lead the league in that statistic as well.
As impressive as these two strengths are, I’m not sure they’re sustainable. And while the Chiefs have demonstrated that their ability to alter the momentum of games in a rather unconventional way isn’t necessarily luck, I’m not convinced that they can continue to make these plays at their current rate when they run into teams like Pittsburgh and New England in January. That will put pressure on the other facets of Kansas City’s game, and ultimately determine whether they make a deep run in the AFC playoffs.
Seattle’s strength has always been their defense. But without Earl Thomas, the Seahawks’ defense is no longer elite. In the three games they’ve played without their leader at free safety, Seattle has surrendered the fifth most yards per pass attempt in the NFL. With many of the NFC’s projected playoff teams possessing quality quarterbacks, the Seahawks once vaunted defense will certainly be tested; and, for once, it might not come through when needed.
This means that Seattle may go as far as their offense takes them this postseason. That’s not necessarily good news, though. This is the shakiest Seattle’s offense has been in the Russell Wilson era, as they currently rank 18th in offensive DVOA–They’ve haven’t fallen below 9th in offensive efficiency since 2012.
Nonetheless, the Seahawks still boast enough talent on both sides of the ball to still make a run in January. They might not be as formidable as they’ve been in recent years, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet.
What’s that cliche saying, you have to be playing your best ball come playoff-time? Well, I could point to many instances where that’s not even remotely true (e.g. the 2012 Ravens, losers of four out of their final five, and the 2009 Saints, losers of their last three games). But I suppose it doesn’t hurt to be hitting your stride at this time of year, and there’s no team that’s been quite as hot as the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers promised that his team would rip off six consecutive wins after falling to 0-6. He’s certainly held true to his word, throwing fourteen touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last six contests. Green Bay has also managed to rediscover their running game with platoon-man Ty Montgomery, while also managing to patch some holes in their once-shaky secondary as well.
Green Bay would be higher on this list if they didn’t need to beat Detroit in order to secure a playoff spot. Yet if they do manage to get into the dance, the Packers will be on the short list of teams likely to hoist the Lombardi trophy, regardless of their seed.
Teams like last year’s Broncos, and even the 2013 Seahawks, have questioned whether it’s necessary to have a great offense in order to win the Super Bowl. But those teams are still outliers in this day in age: Great offenses, and great quarterbacks in particular, tend to have the most success come playoff time. And if we’re talking about great offenses, then Atlanta’s certainly comes to mind. Sure, you could make a case for New England or Dallas for being the league’s best offense. But can everyone agree that the Falcons are in the mix? After all, they’re first in DVOA despite playing the league’s toughest slate of defenses. They’re first in passing and tenth in rushing according to Football Outsiders too, so they’re obviously not one-dimensional. Oh, and they’re also number one in points per game.
I know, I know. They don’t have a defense. If Atlanta doesn’t end up making a deep run this January, their 25th-ranked scoring unit will ultimately be the reason why. But there’s no denying that they have an offense capable of winning the Super Bowl. And with home-field in the divisional round in sight, it’s certainly not crazy to think that the Falcons can hold serve at the Georgia Dome and then potentially upset Dallas at AT&T Stadium.
After surviving a scare from their rival, the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers project to be the biggest threat to a certain team based out of Foxboro. There’s simply no other team with a quarterback, running back, and wide receiver combination like Pittsburgh’s. Ben Roethlisberger is certainly no stranger to January. Le’Veon Bell’s been the league’s best rusher since mid-November. And Antonio Brown…well, we all know what he can do.
Yet what has gone unnoticed during Pittsburgh’s six-game win-streak is their defense. For instance, over the past three weeks, they’re allowing only 4.6 yards per play, good for 5th in the NFL. Granted, the Steelers haven’t played a top offense since Dallas in Week 10; but Pittsburgh doesn’t necessarily need a shutdown defense in order to win games. Not with their offense.
With the Steelers settled into the three seed, they’ll need to go on the road for at least one, likely two, playoff games in order to return to the Super Bowl. Though that’s not an easy task, few will be surprised if Big Ben ends up making his fourth Super Bowl appearance.
After a glitchy stretch a couple of weeks ago, let’s officially brush aside all of the “Bench Dak” talk. The Cowboys’ rookie fourth-rounder can feel secure about his job now, and that should allow the NFC’s number one seed to focus on taking care of business at home in hopes of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in over twenty years.
Their offense is beyond reproach, at this point. Dallas is at the top in nearly every key passing and rushing statistic, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given how dominant their offensive line is. It will likely take a dominant defense in order to bring the Cowboys down. Aside from the Giants, who we know have given Dallas fits this year, I’m not sure there’s another defense in the NFC–or even the AFC, for that matter–up to that challenge.
Will their defense hold up their end of the bargain, though? I’m not so sure. The good news is that the Cowboys have allowed the fifth-fewest points per game this season. But if you look more closely, they don’t rank as well in other important statistics. For instance, they’ve allowed the fifth-most passing yards per game this season. That could be problematic if they run into Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan. Nonetheless, Dallas is so strong offensively that they’re the best bet to win the NFC.
There’s really no debate: The Patriots are the current favorite to win Super Bowl LI. No other quarterback has played as well as Tom Brady this season on a per-game basis. Plus, with better health at the running back position and the emergence of multiple weapons at receiver, the Patriots don’t appear to be as reliant on Rob Gronkowski, who we know is out for the remainder of the season, as they have in year’s past.
The real surprise, though, has been their defense, which currently leads the NFL in points against. Yeah, go figure. You can’t really call this a fluke, either, because New England ranks a very respectable 10th in yards per drive. This suggests that they haven’t merely been getting lucky by holding teams to field goals in the red zone.
The Patriots aren’t necessarily without challengers in the AFC this year (i.e. Pittsburgh, Kansas City). But with usual foes such as Denver and Baltimore out of the picture and with Oakland weakened due to the loss of Derek Carr, the path to another Super Bowl appearance looks clearer than usual for New England.
Is the Siemian experiment coming to an end?
Week 16 also marked the nail in the coffin for the defending champion Denver Broncos. It may also have marked one of the last times we’ll see Trevor Siemian start at quarterback for said Broncos, as the former seventh-round pick finished just 17-43 with 183 yards and no touchdowns.
It hasn’t been a bad year for Siemian, especially when you consider that this was his first season as a starter. Of course, that’s not going to cut it when you have a defense as good as Denver’s. I mean, they managed to win the Super Bowl with even worse quarterback play last year from Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, so why couldn’t Siemian pull off similar heroics?
Well, for one thing, Denver’s regression can’t all be blamed on Siemian. Their regression, believe it or not, was simply due to luck evening out. In early July, I outlined the many reasons why the Broncos’ Super Bowl run was almost too good to be true. In other words, they had many relatively random elements, such as superb success in close games, work in the favor. This season, however, was a different story. For instance, after going 11-3 in one-score games in 2015, Denver was just 3-4 in those same situations this year.
Simply put, things were likely to even out for the Broncos, regardless of who was at quarterback. That’s why I wouldn’t lose faith in Siemian if I was John Elway. He showed enough potential for Denver to build around him, and if he didn’t suffer a couple of injuries during the course of the season, I felt he was playing well enough to lead the Broncos to the playoffs. Not only that, but it’s always nice to have a competent quarterback making fewer than $1 million per season under team control until 2018. That gives the Broncos cap-flexibility to devote resources to other key positions.
Paxton Lynch, Denver’s first-round pick a year ago, did not look very good in his two spot-starts for Siemian. This isn’t to say that he may not have a bright future ahead of him; but at this point in time, Siemian is the certainly the better young quarterback to build around. And as for the elephant in the room, no I do not think Denver should consider signing Tony Romo. In contrast to Peyton Manning, who had never missed a game before having neck surgery in 2011, Romo is habitually injured. Given the fact that Denver would have to pay him upwards of $10 million, minimum, I don’t think Romo is worth the risk. Not even in the short-term, especially when you have a young quarterback who showed flashes of brilliance in his first season as a starter on a team that was bound to regress regardless of who was at quarterback.
Promising season ends miserably for Titans
Who was the big loser of Week 16? Undoubtedly the Tennessee Titans. They came into their game against the 2-12 Jacksonville Jaguars with the highest odds of any team in the AFC South to make the playoffs. They left with their playoff hopes shattered after Houston squeaked past Cincinnati to capture the division.
But I’d wager that the Titans would have gladly settled for this outcome beforehand if it meant that their franchise quarterback would not have gone down with a serious injury. Unfortunately that’s exactly what happened though, as Marcus Mariota suffered nearly an identical leg injury as Derek Carr–a broken fibula–on a third quarter sack with the Titans trailing 25-10.
An otherwise successful season for Tennessee now concludes on a sour note. This is a team that took a massive step forward in 2016 after a miserable 3-13 season in which they were horrible on both sides of the ball. Ironically, Mariota–the former number two overall pick–wasn’t even the main driver of their success. Adding former rushing champion DeMarco Murray allowed the Titans to jump from being an average-at-best rushing offense to one of the league’s best this season, as they ranked fourth in rushing according to Football Outsiders entering Week 16. It helps that their offensive line has improved dramatically as well. After grading out as the league’s 29th ranked unit in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus, recent first round picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin have progressed quicker than expected to give Tennessee an above-average line.
Murray’s reemergence behind a young, talented offensive line doesn’t take away from the improvement Mariota showed in his second season, though. After a respectable rookie campaign, Mariota managed to increase his Total QBR by nearly ten points from 56.6 to 65.2. He also saw his interception rate decline, throwing only nine picks in 2016 compared to ten last year despite playing three more games.
But the important thing to keep in mind with regard to Mariota is his age. The twenty-three year old’s solid play through two seasons clearly resembles that of other precocious quarterbacks in recent memory such Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, and even Russell Wilson. Whether the Titans made the playoffs or not this season, the future still would be bright.
Now, of course, there’s concern about Mariota moving forward. Of course, it’s way to early to declare that Mariota’s career could be altered similar to that of Robert Griffin III, or even Teddy Bridgewater. But it’s a disconcerting end to a season in which the Titans improved by five wins and made it clear that they are ready to take the reigns of the AFC South as early as 2017.
As for this week’s big winner? The Cleveland Browns
Good for the Browns. I really don’t find it amusing when any team struggles as much as they have–unless, of course, it’s the Jets. So I’m happy that Cleveland avoided becoming the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 and finally gave their fans something to cheer for after beating the Chargers 20-17.
Yet as the Browns sealed their first victory, I couldn’t help but think that maybe winning wasn’t in their best interest. A win, coupled with a 49ers loss, would’ve put San Francisco in the driver’s seat for the number one pick in next year’s draft. Of course, Colin Kaepernick and the Niners ultimately came back to beat the Rams in dramatic fashion, ensuring that the Browns wouldn’t go winless and wouldn’t lose the number one pick. What a year for Cleveland sports, indeed.
Monday Night Prediction
Detroit Lions (9-5) vs Dallas Cowboys (12-2)
Spread: DAL -6.5 Over/Under: 45.5
’16 DVOA: DET (26) < DAL (3)
Public Betting: DET 60%
This is a bad matchup for the Lions. Their below average defense (they’re just 24th in opponent yards per play) will have their hands full containing all of Dallas’ weapons. Detroit’s only hope is that Matthew Stafford plays efficiently and keeps the Cowboys offense off the field. That’s going to be too tall of a task, particularly given the way Dallas’ defense has improved in recent weeks.