Oct 022013
 

Rats RankingsAbout midway through the third quarter on Monday night, I just couldn’t help myself anymore. So I texted Country Preacher the now famous quote from Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were,” signaling the demise of the Miami Dolphins in their road showdown with the New Orleans Saints. The truth is that the Dolphins are a much improved team over last season, but they still aren’t quite ready for prime time. Their linebackers and secondary got torched by Drew Brees, and the offensive line gave Ryan Tannehill another difficult day at the office as the Saints trounced the Fins 38-17.

Week Five still provides us with a host of unbeaten teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs, who throttled the Giants, aggravating an already tense situation in the Big Apple. Giants’s safety Antrel Rolle tried to boost morale by predicting that the G-Men would win their final twelve games, but it’s not a convincing act; the Giants aren’t just making mental mistakes. Instead, they are getting physically dominated, which is something that can’t be corrected. The plight of the Giants is being mirrored in Pittsburgh, where the proud Steelers have tumbled into anonymity in their own city now that the Pirates have made the post-season for the first time since Bill Cowher started as Head Coach of the Steelers. Unlike the Giants however, the Steelers seem to be doing themselves in, and the team appears entirely capable of coming out of their funk, even if they lack an elite roster.

As for my Patriots, they handled the Falcons on Sunday night, but lost Vince Wilfork for the season. The offense is showing signs of life while awaiting the return of both Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, but they are winning on defense, which is a wonderful thing for a Patriots’ fan to be able to see. Wilfork’s loss places pressure on the defensive line, but as always it is simply “next man up.” The Pats face the unpredictable Bengals this Sunday in Cincinnati.

With the Dolphins’ loss, the Preacher has come back into the fold and is no longer the outlier. Here are your Week Five Power Rankings.

1. Denver Broncos (4-0, 6 first place votes) [1] – Is there a record (or a defense) that Peyton Manning hasn’t broken?
2. Seattle Seahawks (4-0) [2] – They benefited from a Texans’ collapse, but 4-0 is 4-0.
3. New Orleans Saints (4-0) [4] – Brees to Graham should be trademarked.
4. New England Patriots (4-0) [5] – Coaching and defense still wins championships.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) [7] – The Preacher’s not a believer yet, but the rest of us are.
6. Indianapolis Colts (3-1) [12] – Luck + Richardson = Dangerous.
7. Miami Dolphins (3-1) [6] – Give them a pass for running into a buzzsaw, but no so sure that was an aberration.
8. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) [8] – Still poised for big noise in January.
9. Detroit Lions (3-1) [14] – Is it just irony that the Lions are calling the Bears a bunch of thugs?
11. Tennessee Titans (3-1) [16] – This may be the peak with Locker on the shelf.
12. Houston Texans (2-2) [9] – At least Matt Schaub still looks great in his letterman jacket.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) [10] – Which team shows up to face the Patriots?
14. Green Bay Packers (1-2) [14] – Potentially dangerous, but we think flawed.
15. Atlanta Falcons (1-3) [11] – They may be better than their record, but they are still a 1-3 team.
16. Dallas Cowboys (2-2) [15] – Just like the Bengals, but with less potential upside.
17. San Diego Chargers (2-2) [22] – This sleeper team is now on our radar.
18. Carolina Panthers (1-2) [19] – Will the early bye help propel them back into the race?
19. Baltimore Ravens (2-2) [17] – Just another .500 team.
20. Cleveland Browns (2-2) [27] – Have they finally found a quarterback? Hoyer projects confidence for a surprising rise.
21. Arizona Cardinals (2-2) [23] – Any given Sunday.
22. Minnesota Vikings (1-3) [25] – Hopefully they don’t have to wait four more weeks for a second win.
23. Buffalo Bills (2-2) [24] – Solid win over the Ravens; this team is showing improvement.
24. St. Louis Rams (1-3) [18] – A visit from the Jags offers the promise of a Week Five wake-up call.
25. New York Jets (2-2) [20] – New quarterback, new butt fumble.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (1-3) [21] – Still a few players away from being competitive.
27. New York Giants (0-4) [26] – First a Yankees’ collapse, and now this. Boston fans are loving this.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4) [28] – Who knew Pittsburgh was a baseball town?
29. Washington Redskins (1-3) [31] – Might still win the division, thanks to the Cowboys’ consistent mediocrity.
30. Oakland Raiders (1-3) [30] – This is actually a decent team that will surprise some people.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-4) [29] – Once again the Bucs pulls defeat from the jaws of victory.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-4) [32] – Hopeless.

Feb 032013
 

NFL AwardsSuddenly our picks for the post-season awards aren’t looking so far off of the mark.

The NFL announced it’s post-season award winners last night, and we have a recap of the award winners, along with the Gridiron Rats recipient.Um… yeah… we might have pretty well.

Here’s a summary of the award winners.

PetersonMOST VALUABLE PLAYER –  ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Adrian Peterson was elected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, gaining 30.5 of the 50 votes cast by an Associated Press group of NFL writers. Coming off an ACL tear in December 2011, Peterson fell just nine yards short of the single-season rushing record, gaining 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. Peterson also captured honors for offensive player of the year, capturing 36 of the 50 first place votes. Peterson is only the third player to win both the MVP and the player of the year honors in a single season, joining Alan Page and Fran Tarkenton.

For the MVP voting, Peyton Manning received 19.5 first place votes. For the Offensive Player of the Year, Peterson finished ahead of Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Calvin Johnson.

Gridiron Rats also gave both awards to Peterson.

JJ WattDEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – JJ WATT, HOUSTON TEXANS

JJ Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday night, with a near unanimous 49 out of 50 first place votes (Von Miller got the lone dissenting vote). Watt had a monster season with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections, to go along with 81 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. There is little question that “JJ Swatt” was the league’s most disruptive defensive player in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Gridiron Rats award went to Watt as well. (That’s 3 for 3 if you’re keeping score at home)

Robert-Griffin-IIIOFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – ROBERT GRIFFIN III, WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Perhaps our most controversial pick, Griffin earned the AP’s recognition with an impressive rookie campaign as he helped transform the Washington Redskins into a playoff team for the first time since 2006. Griffin landed 29 of the 50 first place votes, followed by Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Griffin finished the season with 3,200 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, only five interceptions, and he ran for another 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

We are now four for four, as the Gridiron Rats award went to Griffin as well.

Luke KuechlyDEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – LUKE KUECHLY, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Luke Kuechly picked up 28 of 50 first place votes to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Kuechly tallied 164 tackles as a rookie, to go along with one sack, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and eight passes defensed. Kuechly received the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award in December, recording a league-high 59 tackles over the final five games of the season. Bobby Wagner of Seattle finished second with 11 first place votes, followed by Casey Heyward, Janoris Jenkins, and Lavonte David.

Kuechly also got the nod from Gridiron Rats, meaning we are five for five. Sensing a trend yet?

ManningCOMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR – PEYTON MANNING, DENVER BRONCOS

Anyone who thought Peyton Manning’s best days were behind him proved to be very wrong in 2012, as Manning returned from four neck surgeries and a missed 2011 campaign to lead the Broncos to a 13-3 record and first seed in the AFC playoffs. Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 105.8. Manning beat out Adrian Peterson for this award. Sadly for Manning, his brilliant regular season was once again tarnished by a post-season meltdown.

Not surprisingly, Manning also captured the Gridiron Rats award, placing us one award away from a perfect record. (Can you tell we are a little pleased with ourselves?)

Bruce AriansCOACH OF THE YEAR – BRUCE ARIANS, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

It’s quite a story when an offensive coordinator wins the Coach of the Year Award, but there is no coach more deserving of this award than Bruce Arians. Arians took over when Head Coach Cuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and he guided the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth just one year removed from finishing with the league’s worst record, allowing the Colts to draft Andrew Luck with the first pick in the NFL Draft. Chuck Pagano finished second in the voting, followed by Pete Carroll and Leslie Frasier.

Arian was our first award winner at Gridiron Rats, meaning we were a perfect seven for seven in foreshadowing the AP winners. Mind you, that wasn’t our goal; we were simply recognizing the players and coaches that we thought were most deserving of these honors. But apparently the AP voters felt much the same way about each award, and if we are to be criticized for our selections (and there is plenty of debate to be had for some of these awards), then at least we have the satisfaction of being supported by the “official” awards.

Jan 072013
 

WilsonThey saved the best for last on wildcard weekend, with the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks giving us the most exciting game of the post-season’s opening weekend. Here’s a quick recap of the four games from Saturday and Sunday.

Houston Texans 19 Cincinnati Bengals 13
The Texans didn’t look great, but the Bengals looked worse in the opening contest. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown as the Texans held on to win. Matt Schaub went 29/38 for 262 yards, but threw a pick six that accounted for Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the day. Andy Dalton was not sharp, going 14/30 for 127 yards and a pick. The Texans’ defense limited the Bengals’ rushing game to just 80 yards on the day. The Texans now travel to New England to face the Patriots, where they lost 42-14 last month.

Green Bay Packers 24 Minnesota Vikings 10
Clay Matthews walked the talk as the Green Bay Packers not only stopped Adrian Peterson from again eclipsing the 200 yard mark, but held Peterson under the 100 yard mark as he gained 99 yards on 22 carries. Joe Webb was the Vikings’ emergency starter due to an injury to Christian Ponder, and Webb was just 11/30 for 180 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Aaron Rodgers had another solid outing, throwing for 274 yards and a touchdown on 23/33 passing. The Packers were able to cruise despite only gaining 76 yards on the ground, and must now travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, a team that they lost to in Week 1.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Indianapolis Colts 9
The Colts hung around for the first half, but the Baltimore Ravens’ passing attack was simply too much for Indianapolis in the second half as the Ravens whipped the Colts 24-9. Anquan Boldin caught five passes for 145 yards and one touchdown to spark the Ravens and extend the career of linebacker Ray Lewis by another game. Rookie running back Bernard Pierce partially stole the show on Sunday, running for 103 yards on just 13 carries, while Ray Rice rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries. Joe Flacco threw for 282 yards and two scores, outdueling rookie Andrew Luck, who threw for 288 yards, but no touchdowns and one interception. Vick Ballard ran for 91 yards as the Colts shredded the Ravens’ defense for 152 rushing yards, but turnovers and sacks on offense and poor run defense stifled the Colts’ chances to pull off the upset. The Ravens now square off against the Denver Broncos. Denver beat Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Washington Redskins 14
The Redskins raced out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Seahawks fought back and scored an unanswered 24 points to lead Seattle into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Russell Wilson threw for 187 yards and one score and ran for another 67 yards, while Marshawn Lynch pounded the Redskins’ defense for 132 yards and one touchdown. Robert Griffin III left the game after injuring his knee midway through the fourth quarter, though it was obvious that he was still feeling the effects of his earlier injury. Griffin went 10/19 for 89 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Seahawks now travel to Atlanta to square off against the Falcons. This will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams.

Jan 072013
 

Rat's Awards ImageOur final award this season is for the Most Valuable Player. Here is where we take the statistically amazing years by some players and factor in their overall value to the success of their team. This year’s MVP vote was a close one, with the winner getting 4 first place votes and the runner-up receiving the other three. And we bet you can guess who those players are.

Our MVP nominees included: Tom Brady (NE), Arian Foster (HOU), Robert Griffin III (WAS), Andrew Luck (IND), Peyton Manning (DEN), Adrian Peterson (MIN), Aaron Rodgers (GB), Matt Ryan (ATL), Aldon Smith (SF) and JJ Watt (HOU).

Tom Brady3rd Place – Tom Brady, New England Patriots
The numbers: 4,827 yards, 34 TD, 8 INT, 12-4 record
Arguments for: Tom Brady had another stellar season as the Patriots’ signal-caller, with a TD:INT ration of better than 4:1 as he threw for over 4,000 yards and led the Patriots to yet another division title and second seed in the AFC playoffs. he did it with a revolving corps of receivers yet again as the Patriots struggled with injuries to key players throughout the season.
Arguments against: Despite some uneducated opinions, Brady is not the product of the Patriots’ system, but rather the driver behind it. None the less, the talent surrounding Brady is extraordinary, particularly the tight end duo of Hernandez and Gronk, the phenomenal slot receiver Wes Welker, and a highly competent group of running backs. Had Ryan Mallett been forced to take over this team due to injury, there is a very fair chance that the Patriots still win the division.

Manning2nd Place – Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
The numbers: 4659 yards, 37 TD, 11 INT, 13-3 record
Arguments for: All Peyton Manning did in returning from a missed season is lead a new team to a 13-3 record, division title, and first overall seed in the AFC Playoffs. He finished sixth in passing yards, third in touchdowns and co-led the league in completion percentage.
Arguments against: Tim Tebow led this team to a division title last season. While the Broncos had the fourth rated offense in the NFL, they also had the second rated defense, so there is a fair argument that another quarterback still gets this team to the post-season the weak AFC West, though it’s doubtful that the Broncos would have gotten the #1 seed.

PetersonWINNER – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
The numbers: 2,097 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 217 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown
Arguments for: Simply put, the Vikings don’t come close to the playoffs without the performance of Adrian Peterson this season. Minnesota had the 20th rated offense in the NFL and the 16th rated defense, so neither unit propelled this team to a 10-6 record and a very unexpected wildcard bid. Nor was it the performance of quarterback Christian Ponder, who had a passer rating of 81.2 and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, but who was inconsistent in his performances throughout the season. By comparison, during the Vikings’ four game winning streak at the end of the season to make the playoffs, Paterson amassed 651 yards, or an average of 162.7 per game. In the Vikings’ ten wins, Peterson ran for 1,235 yards, or 123.5 per game. No Peterson, no playoffs, and likely another losing record in Minnesota.
Arguments against: We’re not sure there is a good argument against Peterson being this year’s MVP. While there is at least one other player who is arguably equally deserving, there is no one more deserving. Yes, the Vikes got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but this is a regular season award, voted for prior to the playoffs.

Jan 062013
 

Rat's Awards ImageOur next to last award acknowledges the game’s offensive difference-makers. Adrian Peterson had an amazing season running the ball and seemingly willed the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs after a horrific 2011 campaign. Peyton Manning returned from a one year hiatus and multiple neck surgeries and looked to be in mid-career form as he led the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 record. Tom Brady was, well, Tom Brady and once again put up numbers that most quarterbacks can only dream of. Calvin Johnson had monstrous numbers in receiving yards, and Robert Griffin III breathed life back into the Washington Redskins franchise. Those were just some of the amazing offensive exploits for 2012 in the National Football League.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Our nominees in this category included Tom Brady (NE), Drew Brees (NO), Robert Griffin III (WAS), Calvin Johnson (DET), Andrew Luck (IND), Marshawn Lynch (SEA), Peyton Manning (DEN), Doug Martin (TB), Adrian Peterson (MIN), and Matt Ryan (ATL).

3rd Place – Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Ho hum. Another year, another 34 touchdown passes versus only eight interceptions. Brady threw for 4,827 yards as the Patriots won the AFC East yet again with a 12-4 record. And, as happens almost every season, Brady aired it out with seemingly a different receiving corps each week, as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Julian Edelman all lost significant time to injuries. Through thirteen NFL seasons Brady remains the model of consistency for NFL quarterbacks, yet he is still tough enough to regularly grind out short first yard runs to keep the chains moving.

2nd Place – Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
We’ve noted Manning’s exploits in the Comeback Player of the Year piece, but the stats are worth repeating given the fact that he missed all of last season with multiple neck surgeries. Manning threw for 4659 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record. He finished sixth in passing yards, third in touchdowns and co-led the league in completion percentage. So much for being washed up.

Adrian PetersonWINNER – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

Nine yards. That’s all that separated Adrian Peterson from the single greatest rushing season in NFL history. Peterson ran for 2,097 and 12 touchdowns, plus 217 receiving yards and one touchdown through the air. Even more impressively, Peterson did this even when other teams built their defensive game plans to stop him. He ran for 210 and 199 yards against the Packers in two games, for 182 yards against the Seahawks’ stout defense, for 212 yards against an improved Rams’ defense, and 262 yards in two games against the Bears. And all of this following a torn ACL and MCL, coupled with a highly inconsistent quarterback, makes Peterson our clear choice for this award.

Jan 052013
 

Rat's Awards ImageThis year’s crop of offensive rookies promise to reshape the futures of franchises in Indianapolis, Washington, Seattle, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay as we move toward the 2013 season. While Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were expected to compete for this award, it was the surprising Russell Wilson who took away a near certain job from Matt Flynn in Seattle and put the Seahawks on the map.

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
The nominees for this award included Luck, Griffin, Wilson, Matt Kalil (MIN), Doug Martin (TB), Alfred Morris (WAS), Trent Richardson (CLE), Ryan Tannehill (MIA) and Brandon Weeden (CLE).

3rd Place – Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts didn’t suffer much in the transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. In fact, other than a lost 2011 season and the end of the Colts’ reign in the AFC South, there seems to be little difference in the overall performance of the team, despite a rookie quarterback, a lack of a running game (still) and a change in defensive philosophy. Luck finished the season with 4374 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions while leading the Colts to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. Only Luck’s proclivity for throwing interceptions prevented him from placing higher, but Luck is clearly set as the next franchise quarterback in Indianapolis.

2nd Place – Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. The 75th pick in the 2012 draft was expected to hold the clipboard for Matt Flynn, and instead displaced Flynn and led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. As the year has gone on and the coaching staff has grown more comfortable with Wilson, he has become an even greater threat, running the Read Option offense and demonstrating that he is a threat to run or throw. Wilson finished the regular season with 3118 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 489 rushing yards, and four rushing touchdowns.

Robert-Griffin-III1WINNER – Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
Talk about a game changer. Robert Griffin III turned around a long-suffering franchise in the nation’s capital, leading the Redskins to a 10-6 record and the first playoff game since 2006. Although Griffin had plenty of help from Alfred Morris, it was his double barreled threat of running and passing that opened up defenses and allowed the Redskins to put together the top rushing attack in the league this season. When Griffin was hurt, fellow rookie Kirk Counsins proved his worth, insuring that momentum towards the playoffs wasn’t halted. But there is little debate that it was Griffin’s prowess that set this team on fire this season, and Griffin seemed to mature before our eyes on the field, learning the lessons that previous running quarterbacks have been unable to grasp. Griffin finished the season with 3,200 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, only five interceptions, and he ran for another 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

Jan 052013
 

Bengals-TexansCincinnati’s 23-17 drubbing of the Baltimore Ravens marked the completion of a 7-1 second half and allowed them to notch their first back-to-back winning seasons since the Paul Brown and Bill Johnson eras of 1975-1977 and repeat post season appearances since 81-82. More importantly, it marked the complete turnaround from a 3-5 start and earned them a return trip to Houston—the site of last season’s 31-10 playoff loss. Last season the Bengals were an upstart team with a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, leading the way. This post season the expectations are different for the Bengals. An only slight underdog, Cincinnati has a year of seasoning under their belt, an aggressive defense, and could very easily be riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs. A rematch with Houston will provide a year-over-year litmus test and the 2011 goal of making the playoffs has been replaced by strong hopes that the Bengals can deliver their first playoff victory since 1990 when Sam Wyche patrolled the sidelines.

For the Houston Texans expectations coming into the season were set with all eyes on a February trip to New Orleans. 2011 saw Houston get over the hump by winning the AFC South and entering the post season for the first time. However, expectations were quickly tempered when a season ending injury limited Matt Schaub to 10 starts. A subsequent injury to backup QB Matt Leinhart gave way to TJ Yates—even further dashing Super Bowl hopes. The Yates led Texans managed to notch the first playoff victory in franchise history against the Bengals before bowing out to the Ravens. This year, fully loaded and healthy, Houston started 11-1 and appeared a virtual lock to earn some wild card weekend rest and home field advantage through the playoffs. Then, four consecutive matchups against teams currently playing in this post season led to three losses and Saturday’s once unlikely rematch. Nonetheless, Houston enters this weekend boasting both an offense and defense ranked in the league top ten.

The Keys for Cincinnati
For the second consecutive season Mike Zimmer’s defense is amongst the top 10 in the league and particularly strong against the run. However, in the first playoff game against Houston the Bengals defense was gashed for over 150 yards by Arian Foster and a Houston offense that lacked their starting quarterback and typically strong passing attack. Geno Atkins and company cannot afford such a letdown this season and must limit the production of Foster by all means necessary. If Cincinnati can limit Foster’s production and also put pressure on Matt Schaub they will find an offense that is not as dissimilar to their own despite what the numbers indicate. While the Bengals have limited downfield receiving options beyond AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham, the same can be said for Houston beyond Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. If Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and company can be effective up front versus Foster and also apply pressure then the Bengals and their talented secondary will gain advantages over all receivers not named Johnson.

BenJarvis Green-Ellis is banged up and even healthy it would be unlikely that the Bengals could gain an advantage against the Houston front seven to sustain a strong rushing attack. The key for the Bengals is for the offensive line to limit JJ Watt and the Houston pass rush long enough for Green, Gresham, and a supporting cast of supplementary receivers led by deceptively talented Andrew Hawkins to do damage in the secondary. Andre Smith must do his best to contain Watt who devastated the Bengals in last season’s matchup. If Dalton is to reverse the results of his 0 touchdown 3 interception performance in his playoff debut it will start with pass protection.

The Keys for Houston
As Houston limps into the post season the key elements to reverse the recent course of failure are very similar to the pertinent areas of focus documented for Cincinnati to pull off their own victory. If the Bengals need to hold up to Watt and win at the line of scrimmage the same can be said for Houston. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have accounted for 33 of the Bengals 50 sacks on the season and Schaub has found himself on the receiving end of nearly a dozen sacks in the last three games—this will need to change for Houston to be successful. The Texans zone-blocking scheme will need to find its early season success so that Foster and the running game can run the ball to protect Schaub. It will also be useful in setting up Foster both in the red zone and allow him to be successful on screens in the flat. Like the Bengals, Houston is going to be hard pressed to find a consistent third vertical threat against the talented opposing secondary—but that does not mean they will be unable to do enough to make Johnson, Daniels, and Fosters big enough threats in the passing game to be victorious.

Defensively, Houston will have to use their pressure game. Watt, quite possibly the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, leads an attack that is duly adept at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. They must both pressure Dalton and render the already injured Green-Ellis a non-factor. If they do so the matchup of Jonathan Joseph, with some help from Danieal Manning, against Green becomes much more manageable.

The Outcome
This game has all the makings of a classic defensive battle pitting two of the NFLs finest defensive units and coordinators in Wade Phillips and Mike Zimmer against each other. Cincinnati has been superb with its season on the line—which it was from the point they fell to 3-5 until they clinched a post season spot in week 16. Andy Dalton looks more like a QB poised to take the next step than the rookie who faced the harsh reality of playoff football a year ago. However, one needs to take a deeper look at the Houston late season slump before dismissing them as a team bound to finish the season with a fizzle. In two of the three late season losses they faced mad bombers Tom Brady and Andrew Luck both of who trump Dalton’s deep passing prowess. In the other loss, one in which they contained the passing game, they were dominated by the juggernaut that is Adrian Peterson—of whom Green-Ellis is not.

Houston’s season has resembled a powerful heavyweight prizefighter that dominated early on in battle only to run seemingly out of gas late in the fight. Fortunately, they racked up enough points on the scorecard to survive to win a decision and live to fight another day. The playoffs mark a new fight and Houston should have enough in the tank to win an early round home game.

Houston Texans 21 – Cincinnati Bengals 14

Jan 042013
 

Ravens-ColtsThe disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.

For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.

The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.

The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.

The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.

The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.

Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.

The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.

In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.

There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.

The Outcome
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.

Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.

Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21

Dec 202012
 

christmas-treeMy goodness, Widows. We are nearing the end of the road on this year’s regular NFL season. I am sure that your fan is eagerly awaiting the most exciting day of the year. The day that fills a football fan’s home with sounds of cheer and delightful smells of food from the kitchen. The day when friends and families gather to celebrate that which is truly important…FOOTBALL! Oh, wait…did you think that I meant Christmas? Sorry, Widows. I meant the Superbowl.

Just so all of you know that I have not been truly converted from Widow to Fan, I turn to one of my tried and not-so-true methods of choosing my teams for this week. Quarterbacks. In particular, which one that I would rather see in my stocking this year if Santa were giving me a cute Quarterback for Christmas. To be short, sweet and to the point so that I can get back to wrapping presents and baking cookies- I appreciate the ability to see nice looking young men when I watch the games and if you can’t be grateful during the holiday season, when can you?

This week, due to the way the holiday falls, we have no Monday night game. In fact, no more Monday night football until next fall. (pausing for any shouts of joy…). Instead we have a Saturday matchup between the Falcons and the Lions. I find Matt Ryan more aesthetically pleasing, so I choose a Falcons win.

Here’s the rest. Happy Holidays to all three of my readers!

Week 16 Widow’s Picks

Falcons over Lions (see above)

Packers over Titans (Locker is cute. Rodgers is cuter)

Panthers over Raiders (I love a Cam Newton smile)

Dolphins over Bills (Ryan Tannehill…and his wife is gorgeous too)

Bengals over Steelers (I usually don’t go for red heads like Andy Dalton, but I can’t wrap my head around finding Ben Roethlisberger the slightest bit attractive and I certainly don’t want to wake up Christmas day and find him under my tree.)

Patriots over Jaguars (Probably not a surprise, but I NEED Tom to come through for me this week and show us that is a far more than a pretty face.)

Colts over Chiefs (Two nice looking quarterbacks, chosen by likelihood of actual winner)

Cowboys over Saints (Tony Romo over Drew Brees)

Redskins over Eagles (I am a big RG III fan)

Buccaneers over Rams (Freeman over Bradford)

Ravens over Giants (I don’t find Eli attractive. At all.)

Texans over Vikings (Matt Schaub over Christian Ponder. I just prefer his looks)

Browns over Broncos (Sorry Manning…See comment above re: Eli…)

Cardinals over Bears (I like the Cardinals’ new guy)

Seahawks over 49ers (Tough call. Colin Kaepernik is a cutie. In the end, I opted for less ink.)

Chargers over Jets (I had to change this one 6 times during the season due to the Jets quarterback crisis.)

Dec 192012
 

Chris HarrisOf course no one can stay at the top of our Power Rankings for more than a couple of weeks, so the Patriots have given way to a new #1 this week. This week’s Power Rankings capture our thoughts on each team in five words or less, so here we go. Thanks to our contributors for some wonderfully smarmy commentary. We welcome our readers to offer some smarmy comments as well.

Week 15 Power Rankings

1. Denver Broncos (11-3, W9, +1) – Tebow got them this far…

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1, W2, +1) – Pure power football

3. New England Patriots (10-4, L1, -2) – Turnovers + Short Field = Loss

4. Atlanta Falcons (12-2, W1, +1) – Who cares until the playoffs?

5. Houston Texans (12-2, W1, -1) – How good is this team?

6. Green Bay Packers (10-4, W3, +1) – QB = Good, Kicker=Bad

7. Seattle Seahawks (9-5, W3, +3) – Fake punt!?!

8. New York Giants (8-6, L1, -2) – Better turn it on quick

9. Indianapolis Colts (9-5, L1, -1) – Who would have thunk?

10. Washington Redskins (8-6, W5, +2) – RG III + Cousins = Great Draft

11. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6, W1, +2) – Best of Bad Division

12. Baltimore Ravens (9-5, L3, -3) – Injuries + Flacco = Fading Fast

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7, L2, -2) – Their history won’t save them

14. Dallas Cowboys (8-6, W3, +2) – Such a tease…

15. Minnesota Vikings, (8-6, W2, +2) – Is Adrian Peterson the MVP?

16. Chicago Bears (8-6, L3, -1) – Now I’m free… free falling…

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8, L4, -3) – Go back to creamsicle unis!

18. New Orleans Saints (6-8, W1, +1) – Sean Payton is getting paid

19. St. Louis Rams (6-7-1, L1, -1) – Silence of the Lambs

20. Cleveland Browns (5-9, L1, +1) – Fire. Pat. Shurmer. Now.

21. Miami Dolphins (6-8, W1, +3) – 2nd best in AFC East

22. New York Jets (6-8, L1, -2) – Just. End. The. Season.

23. San Diego Chargers (5-9, L1, U) – Underachievers week after week

24. Carolina Panthers (5-9, W2, +2) – Cam does good commercials

25. Buffalo Bills (5-9, L2, -3) – They have good wings

26. Detroit Lions (4-10, L6, -1) – Megatron > Suh

27. Tennessee Titans (5-9, W1, U) – Uniforms and play both ugly

28. Arizona Cardinals (5-9, W1, +3) – 1 Team, 3 Bum QBs

29. Philadelphia Eagles (4-10, L1, -1) – Dream Team playing out string

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12, L3, -1) – Ready to forfeit this Sunday

31. Oakland Raiders (4-10, W1, +1) – They beat the Chiefs!

32. Kansas City Chiefs (2-12, L2, -2) – They lost to the Raiders!