NFL Week 4 Predictions: I Don’t Care If Aaron Rodgers Is Clutch

This has been quite the week. Four years after first quantifying a quarterback’s record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, I finally saw that work transfer to the TV set this week on ESPN’s First Take with this graphic:

2013-09-24_11-38-24_225

Little did I expect what would follow. In true First Take style, right after debating whether or not Peyton Manning was the greatest QB in the history of the NFL, the next segment was fully devoted to whether or not Aaron Rodgers was still the best QB in today’s NFL. You know, ahead of the guy they just said might be the GOAT.

The surreal event of watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless hold a printout copy of my Insider article on Rodgers so they could argue about it is something I never would have expected and never will forget.

FT0924

The fruits of my labor made it like Christmas morning for Bayless, as he has argued his ridiculous “lack of clutch gene” narrative — ridiculous in that no gene exists for anyone — on Rodgers for years without doing the research to support it. He has something now, just as anyone should when I first wrote about the front-running Packers before the 2011 season started. This is nothing new to long-time readers, but it took a push by ESPN to finally get the numbers out there.

So if Green Bay’s historic struggles to win these games is a story going forward, then I have done my job.

The problem is when a large audience catches on to something completely new to them, there’s going to be a strong negative reaction too. That’s what I want to address here. You can consider this version 2.0 of “The Truth About the Front-Running Green Bay Packers”

First, allow me to expose a little secret:  Monday’s article was a last-second backup plan after the events of Sunday’s early games made a piece I did on the AFC null and void. So after the dramatic game ended between Green Bay and Cincinnati, I pitched a topic I’m very familiar with and have plenty of research on already.

Now, let’s understand this is a business. You need some controversial headlines that will generate clicks. Any good business will tell you that, not just ESPN. People can twist headlines all they want, but if you read the article:

I never said Rodgers is not clutch. I don’t write about the “clutchiness” of QBs. I write about what happened in clutch situations. Clutch is a history, not a skill.

I never said the 5-24 record at comebacks or 9-26 record at game-winning drive opportunities is all Rodgers’ fault. In fact, my first mention of this goes right to head coach Mike McCarthy.

“These close-game failures have been the hush-hush hallmark of coach Mike McCarthy’s otherwise successful tenure as Packers head coach. While the blame should be distributed everywhere, why are we not looking at the quarterback more?”

Here are some other direct quotes from the article that do not put the blame all on Rodgers:

“It’s always the same story for Green Bay: win big or lose close”

“Sunday was a perfect opportunity, but it was the latest in a long line of failures for the league’s best front-running quarterback and team.”

“There is some historical data to show the crunch-time disconnect in Green Bay.”

I understand the article is behind a pay wall, so not everyone was able to read it (hint: try Google). But there are claims out there on things I never wrote in the piece.

I also did not write the line “Recurring fourth-quarter failures prevent him from being NFL’s top QB” under the title, however I agree with it 100 percent. I’m not going to put Rodgers ahead of Peyton and Tom Brady, who have the gaudy stats, records, MVP awards and Super Bowl rings too. They also have a larger body of work. But the main difference comes in that I can still trust those QBs when the game does not start as planned and they have to win it late. I don’t trust Rodgers in the same fashion, which is why I had little faith he would get the go-ahead drive on Sunday in Cincinnati.

I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words on this topic before, so anyone thinking this was a knee-jerk reaction to Sunday’s game just doesn’t know my work on the topic. By the way, I’m limited to around 1,500 words on Insider, so any thought to being able to fully explain away every loss in the 9-26 record is a pipe dream.

Stephen A. Smith said he didn’t see a list of the games where Rodgers led the Packers to a fourth-quarter lead, but the defense gave it back. HOWEVVVVA, it does state this in the article:

“Of course, some of the 26 losses speak well for him. He has put Green Bay ahead seven times in the fourth quarter when trailing, only for the team to go on to lose the game. The defense is certainly deserving of blame for this.”

I make sure I cover my bases. So that’s what I wanted to say about the Insider piece itself.

As for any fan criticism or written defenses that have come from other writers this week, now I will respond to those.

I’m not as nonchalant about things as Rodgers, who responded with “Yeah, I’m not worried about that at all” when ESPN’s Jason Wilde asked him point blank about the lack of success in these games. I probably need to get that way to survive in this business, but I probably like arguing with people too much to stop completely.

There were many comments, e-mails and articles this week in response to my work. I’m not going to link to any of the articles as I didn’t see any that attacked me personally. If I did, I would have responded accordingly. I’m just going to go over some of the general faults I found.

No one’s done the same study I have done. It’s hard to compare (straight up) any past study of close games if you’re not looking at things the way I do, which is 4th quarter/OT, tied or down by one score. What I do takes an eternity for one person to compile, so I don’t think anyone could have accomplished that the last few days.

Stats in the final 5:00 – Sure, we can look at these, but that leaves out a lot of what goes into the 5-24/9-26 records. It’s not just about what you do when you’re behind, but it’s how you protect that lead or how you avoid getting into these situations late in the first place.

Win-loss record at 4QC/GWD should not be thrown away like trash – You can read my rant on this from FO here. We can take these stats and just look at how good a guy is at scoring a TD when he’s down 4-8 points in the 4Q, or scoring a FG when he’s tied or down 1-3. We can break them up that way and maybe get something useful out of that. The only reason I haven’t done it is because I’m still trying to put together a full database for every single opportunity in the last 30+ years. That takes time.

However, the record, the wins and losses (and sometimes ties), is the starting point for knowing which games to look at. We can’t just ignore it. While we can break the games down and see why the team won or lost, we need to be taking 4QC/GWD, which are situational drive stats at the heart of it all, and not just focus on the scoring drive(s).

Rodgers probably could have avoided last Sunday’s 4QC opportunity if he didn’t throw a bad INT early in the quarter in scoring territory. And people talk about the Johnathan Franklin fumble on 4th-and-1 losing the game, but I can tell you any advanced stat (DVOA, QBR, WPA, EPA) will give Rodgers two negatives for the sack on 2nd-and-6 and the 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-12 that set up that 4th-and-1 in the first place. He’s still accountable in that loss for things that took place before he was even trailing in the 4Q.

With a stat like TD passes, we don’t care about what happened on the drive before and after. It is what it is. These 4QC/GWD stats are different because what happens before and after them will usually decide if they stand up or not. Just taking a 1-point lead with 14:50 left to play does not put you in good position for a GWD. You will likely need to do something the rest of the game too.

Even before I became the guy who corrected 4QC stats for people like Elway and Marino, I was tracking successes and failures for active QBs for years. Eventually I started combining the two files to develop records for how successful QBs/teams are at such games. It was only natural for me to start quantifying things like one-minute drills, two-minute offense and the four-minute offense. I want to develop a new win probability model this offseason so I can use things like WPA and Expected Points Added (EPA) for QBs in these situations. I want to quantify late-game performance and strategy as well as anyone ever has, but it’s a process and you’ll just have to bear with me.

I don’t think the W-L record, especially for a QB, is the best way to judge these things, but I know it’s not meaningless either, especially for those who sit at the extreme ends of the chart. There’s something there that’s worth exploring and talking about.

Final-score analysis is heavily flawed to study the closeness of games. Because it takes too long to do this, most close-game studies have always been about the final score. Those can be very misleading. The Colts/49ers from last Sunday played a game that was a tie or one-score difference for 93% of the game before the Colts pulled away 27-7. A final-score study would reject that as a close game, but it would accept trash like MNF Eagles/Redskins from Week 1 when Washington made it 33-27 late and failed to recover the onside kick. That game was not close and the only drive involving a one-score game in the 4Q that night was Michael Vick taking two knees. Forget about the final score.

Rodgers is 20-22 (.476) in games decided by one score, and I hope it’s assumed when I say Rodgers I mean “the Packers with Rodgers at QB”. Because the record with Matt Flynn or Brett Favre (under McCarthy) would be different.

Anyways, 20-22 is a hell of a difference from 9-26 (.257) at GWDs, so you can see it’s two completely different studies. That’s the one thing I would like to change in how I’ve been writing about this. It’s not so much a close-game issue for Green Bay as it is a failure to win games when they have to score the winning points in the 4Q/OT.  Behind Rodgers they’re 9-26 at doing that, but 49-5 in all other games. No one has been able to explain that absurd gap in winning percentage, which is the largest in NFL history.

There is no simple explanation as teams lose games for various reasons. Sometimes it’s the QB, sometimes it’s the defense and once in a while it’s a kicker. You can count how many times Mason Crosby missed a clutch kick (four games and three were long attempts) that led to a loss, but what about Tony Romo (5) or Tom Brady (once)? You can’t just adjust Rodgers’ record for these things, because they happen to all other QBs too. If you want the article that will show that, stay tuned to Football Outsiders this season.

No matter who you want to blame, the Packers are 9-26 at GWDs with Rodgers at QB and that is a terrible record, especially for such a good team. Rodgers is the headline, but the Packers’ problems are the real story, and too many people are glossing over that aspect of this.

As for criticism of my “Phil Simms analysis” that 4QC show the cream rising to the top, well you find fault with the 10 guys who have held the record for most 4QC wins since 1950: Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield, Bobby Layne, Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, John Elway, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. That’s a who’s who of the best QBs through the years with Joe Montana (5th all time) only excluded because he missed too many games in his career. The 1970s are not represented, but wouldn’t you know Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Ken Stabler all lead the decade with 15 4QC wins. Throughout NFL history, the best QBs dominate this stat as much as any other stat you can pick. But for Aaron Rodgers, he’s still somehow behind John Skelton and Tim Tebow. If that doesn’t make you scratch your head, nothing will.

Enough with the “lack of opportunity” argument – I hammered on this before, but again some people think Rodgers has a lack of 4QC/GWD for a lack of opportunity. 29-35 games is plenty of opportunity. It’s not the opportunity, it’s the bad winning percentage. Here’s an updated list with a few more notable QBs and how many 4QC opportunities they have had by start.

4QO

Rodgers is just above average at 32.6%, so stop it.

Statistical significance vs. real significance – I want to tread lightly on this topic as this alone could be 5,000 words out of me. I fully understand the small sample size issues with covering football. I’ve done hundreds of articles and looked at many things over the years, so I know as well as anyone when we don’t have enough data to make good conclusions. How many comeback opportunities does Rodgers need before we can statistically conclude his record is bad? 30? 50? 100? I don’t know, but I will work to find out in the offseason.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep doing my job as a football analyst to present the patterns and trends that aid our coverage of the game. They may or may not have statistical significance, but once you start talking about 29-35 games, that seems rather foolish to brush everything off as being random.

We can all agree the final minutes of a close NFL game are different from the rest of the game, right? The rule book changes in regards to clock stoppages and things like advancing the ball after a fumble. Time actually becomes a factor with using timeouts and managing the clock. No one cares about the game clock unless it’s the end of a half. Offenses will use all four downs while playing three-down football most of the time otherwise. There’s that sense of “if this drive is not successful, we will lose the game” that just does not come early in the game. It’s a different experience in crunch time.

So how many times does a team need to experience this before they learn how to adapt to the situation? Think of your own real-life experiences in adverse situations: driving up an icy hill on your way home from work, flying on an airplane or going to a funeral parlor. Yeah, I’m going to go with the darkest analogy I could think of.

Do you have to go see 80 dead people before it becomes statistically significant in how you will handle the situation? Or does it take a few trips before we know what to expect and act accordingly? That could be anything from the smell of the place, the demeanor of mourners, dealing with the image of the person in the casket, proper dress attire, etc. Sometimes we may get thrown a curve ball like a person laughing hysterically or someone throwing themselves onto the casket. In football, some unexpected things can come up too like a seven-man blitz or a dropped pass.

In other sports we have seen teams like Michael Jordan’s Bulls or Sidney Crosby’s Penguins have to climb the ladder of success before winning a championship. That means getting your feet wet in the playoffs, learning how to adjust for a best-of-7 series and going further each time before eventually completing the journey to the top.

Why can’t it be the same in the NFL where you have to learn to adjust to adverse situations? It shouldn’t take years upon years to do that either. I think we’ve seen enough from the Packers to reasonably conclude they struggle a lot in these types of games.

If you honestly see zero significance and only randomness to the Packers being 5-24 at 4QC behind Rodgers — possibly 0-20 against winning teams — then maybe following the NFL is not right for you. That record is unlike anyone else’s record when we’re talking about an annual SB contending team. Now if you want me to break the records down to adjust for opponent, or dig deeper into the causes, then that’s fine. I’ve done such things in the past. I know the few wins the Packers do have have often been unimpressive (bad opponents, small deficits). There are patterns. I’ve done enough to know something is not right with how the Packers win and lose football games.

Not to harp on it, but the comments made this offseason by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver about Rodgers’ leadership is another layer to this story. Cue the smoke/fire line. We don’t see receivers for QBs like Peyton, Brady and Matt Ryan question their leadership. We also see those QBs with great success in these close games. Maybe there’s something there, but let’s stick to numbers.

I have seen all 26 losses by GB. They happened and it didn’t take a stroke of bad luck every time. This team has issues late whether it’s the QB’s unwillingness to throw interceptions so he takes drive-killing sacks, the lack of a running game, the struggling OL, McCarthy’s playcalling, Dom Capers’ defense or Mr. Crosby’s kicking. There are baselines already established. For an elite QB, a 9-26 record at GWDs is bad and no one will convince me to say otherwise. Should it improve, then credit to the Packers.

But as long as it stays where it is, we have a problem here, and remember it’s a problem that has already and will continue to cost the Packers wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, playoff wins and Super Bowl rings.

2013 NFL Week 4 Predictions

After hesitantly picking the 49ers, that makes me 4-0 on the Thursday games this season. My record’s much better than the quality of those games. I’m still stinging from another difficult Week 3 that saw an 8-8 record. Onward and upward this week as we try to figure these teams out.

Winners in bold:

  • Giants at Chiefs
  • Cardinals at Buccaneers
  • Steelers at Vikings
  • Ravens at Bills
  • Bears at Lions
  • Bengals at Browns
  • Colts at Jaguars
  • Seahawks at Texans
  • Jets at Titans
  • Eagles at Broncos
  • Cowboys at Chargers
  • Redskins at Raiders
  • Patriots at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Saints

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Season: 31-17

Good god I have 10/14 road teams winning this week. Even if we don’t count Pittsburgh (neutral site), that sounds like trouble. Upset watch for Seattle, Cincy, Baltimore and Chicago?

Also, back in April I had Pittsburgh beating Minnesota in London with the premonition of Adrian Peterson being contained, Christian Ponder coughing over some turnovers, Big Ben finding Sanders/Brown deep down the sideline for scores. Just a good day for the Steelers in London. Now with both teams at 0-3, I barely feel like watching this one. Though with Matt Cassel stepping in at QB, I can’t imagine the takeaway-less Steelers do not get a few this week. And I still expect the Steelers to win, dropping a Minnesota team I railed on more than any other team this offseason to 0-4.

With Carolina and Green Bay on the bye week, there’s no chance to blow a late lead this week. But if there’s anyone I don’t want to see need a fourth-quarter comeback in Week 4, it will be Breaking Bad. I’ve noticed a lot of big-time series finales in recent years (Dexter and Big Love especially) waited too long to get things going and tried to rush it for a botched ending. I’m counting on big things from AMC here.

If Walter White escapes the country to become a lumberjack, I’m going to lose my sanity and quit watching these series since we never get closure or final satisfaction anymore.

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NFL Week 3 Predictions: Crystal Blue Polian and My Dark Passenger

You may have heard the Colts traded a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Richardson this week. While still trying to process that mind-blowing trade, one speck of analysis about it did catch my eye.

The more I hear from Bill Polian as an analyst, the more I wonder how he had a 25-year successful run as general manager in the NFL. Oh yeah, he had players like Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly and Peyton Manning. Still, he made some good moves at times too. While claiming Landry Jones was the best QB in the 2013 draft because “he’s a winner” was bad from Polian, this latest thought is probably worse when it comes to the general understanding of football.

Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith’s Twitter feed had the quote from Polian: Trent Richardson’s 3.5 yards a carry is good enough because “3.5 plus 3.5 puts you at 3rd & 3. Andrew Luck can convert those.”

WELL IF IT’S 3RD-AND-3, WHY NOT RUN RICHARDSON AGAIN FOR THE FIRST DOWN? SORRY PAT MCAFEE, YOUR SERVICES WILL NO LONGER BE REQUIRED. NO WONDER THE BROWNS WERE AN UNSTOPPABLE JUGGERNAUT LED BY RICH…OH, wait.

No wonder Polian hates the “stat geeks” as he’s expressed in the past. He fails to understand simple statistical concepts. Yes, Richardson averages 3.5 YPC, which is very low compared to the league’s baseline, but that does not mean he picks up 3.5 yards every play. So far this season Richardson has gained 3 yards or less on 17 of his 31 carries.

It gets better. Since 2012, no offense has been in 3rd-and-3 more than the Colts (27 plays). They have the third-best conversion rate too. That’s without Richardson, who was in Cleveland, who had just 12 plays on 3rd-and-3. That’s tied with the Giants for next to last. D’oh.

Polian was the decision maker on deals that involved millions of dollars and the hopes and dreams of franchises’ long-term success. Yet he can’t even figure out what a 3.5 YPC average says about a running back or how that would function in an offense?

I’ve said it before but the stupidity of experts is a big reason I got into the sports writing business. If I ever hit the Powerball like some lucky jackass did this week, I would write nothing but scathing attacks on the so-called experts when they say something dumb.

I’d never run out of material.

Steelers or Dexter: Which do I hate more right now?

I have watched every Steelers game live, in its entirety, since at least the 2003 season. It may even be since sometime in the 2001 season but I seem to recall missing the first three quarters of 2002 Week 17 against Baltimore. Might have went to church or something that would be laughable now on a Sunday morning for me.  So yeah, I’ve never missed a live snap of Ben Roethlisberger’s career.

But this week when the 0-2 Steelers play the Bears in prime time, I think come 9 P.M. I am going to turn the channel to Showtime to watch the series finale of Dexter, which is another thing in my life that has gone from a favorite to a like to a “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore” chore. The writers have butchered mostly everything with this show ever since the brilliant Trinity storyline (season 4). They could have made this 8-season show into six seasons. Seasons 5 & 6 had the exact same setup at the end, but different outcomes. I hope seasons 7 & 8 do not follow that, and they better not even think about having Dexter kill Deb. Michael C. Hall’s already been in the best series finale ever (Six Feet Under), so hopefully he doesn’t regress to the mean with a dud.

After that’s over — and I probably bitch about it on Twitter — I’ll take a quick look at the game, which should be heading to halftime, then I’ll start Breaking Bad on the DVR. That’s 75 minutes this week. I’m not even going to DVR the game thanks to the brilliance of Game Rewind. I’ll just watch it later.

Will I miss the Steelers game? Not if it’s anything like the first two miserable weeks. I’m doing my dark passenger a favor as watching the 2013 Steelers puts me in a rotten mood. Of course, I’m doing the unthinkable and picking them to win, so I’ll see what happens, but not live. There’s simply better TV options, or standards, this Sunday.

Hurry-Up

I posted some records as starters on Twitter on Friday. Matt Schaub is a perfect 29-0 when the Texans allow 0-19 points, but watch me jinx him in Baltimore on Sunday in what could be a low-scoring game between two teams who do not look that impressive so far.

019

My Trent Richardson Week 3 prediction in San Francisco: seven carries for 24 yards.

Good test for Green Bay’s offense: Cincinnati has not allowed more than 24 points in its last 11 games. They allowed 31 to Denver at home last year, so the elite QB/weapons can get the job done against this defense.

Will the Jaguars cover the 20-point spread in Seattle? Yes, barely, though it will be good to see a team not named the Patriots in this situation. Seattle shouldn’t allow more than single-digit points, but the offense needs to get rolling here in 2013. I’m thinking 24-6 final.

2013 NFL Week 3 Predictions

Last year I went 4-12 in Week 3, so hopefully this will be better. Off to a good start picking the Chiefs and their defense  on Thursday.

Winners in bold:

  • Texans at Ravens
  • Giants at Panthers
  • Lions at Redskins
  • Rams at Cowboys
  • Packers at Bengals
  • Chargers at Titans
  • Buccaneers at Patriots
  • Browns at Vikings
  • Cardinals at Saints
  • Falcons at Dolphins
  • Colts at 49ers
  • Bills at Jets
  • Jaguars at Seahawks
  • Bears at Steelers
  • Raiders at Broncos

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Season: 23-9

Game-Winning Drive Progress for FOX?

On November 13, 2011, the Saints and Falcons were playing in overtime. This was the game where Mike Smith went for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 29 and failed. This graphic from FOX came up about Drew Brees and his game-winning drives:

vlcsnap-2011-11-14-13h41m36s22

The fact I have this saved in a folder means I probably ripped them for this in Captain Comeback that week. For one, the semantics are ugly as “game-tying” should never appear in the text. As for the number, it even says including postseason, yet it should have been 27 instead of 25.

Indeed, Brees picked up his 28th game-winning drive that day. Flash forward to Sunday between the Saints and Buccaneers, and FOX had this graphic at the end of the game:

brees

Now it’s up to 31, and Brees was in fact going for his 32nd game-winning drive, which he got after a dagger to Marques Colston to set up the field goal.  Notice it also kept the language much simpler and accurate.

So it took a few years, but maybe FOX has it sorted out now. Or maybe I’ll just watch a different game with a different production staff next week that tries to use the same “game-tying” mess I’ve seen in the past.

But I’ll try to be optimistic for a change.

NFL Week 2 Predictions: The Toilet Bowl and the Manning Bowl

Another NFL week, another high-profile game with the Denver Broncos as they take on the Giants in what should be the final Manning Bowl. Now I like statistical analysis as much as the next guy, but sometimes you have to also factor in more human elements to the game.

Is Eli Manning really going to go 0-3 against Peyton in the NFL? He should get the one win, and the last one for that matter. After a horrible game with two fumbles, David Wilson is all but playing for his career in New York. He should play better because he flat out has to. Denver had 7 TD passes last week while the Giants had 6 turnovers. Those numbers will both come down, favoring the Giants, who at 0-1, cannot really afford another loss to start the season.

There are plenty of real football reasons to like New York in this one. The Giants are at home. They just had three receivers go over 100 yards and Denver’s defense is still missing it’s two best players. Remember when the Broncos couldn’t rush Joe Flacco early? Well now they’ll play an offense with the weapons to take advantage the way Baltimore couldn’t. Jack Del Rio is the master of the “no rush, no coverage” defense. Expect to see a huge day from Eli, who threw for over 500 yards in a similar spot in Week 2 last year against Tampa Bay.

Denver’s offense is still going to be tough to stop, but the running game is not there and this team does get off to slow starts, which is when the Giants need to build a lead. I expect a lot of points in the end, but I also think Eli will be in a similar situation to Sunday: having the ball late with a chance to win, and this time he’ll get it done. Giants win 34-31.

Of course this is self-serving as I picked the Giants to win the NFC East and had Denver starting 1-1, so this probably means the Broncos by 14 points, but we’ll see. I just think this is the game where not having those players on defense will hurt Denver the most.

First Quarter Knockout

Here’s something to watch for on Sunday afternoon. The San Diego Chargers, a Pacific time zone team who just lost a heart-breaker on late Monday night, have to play across the country at Philadelphia in a game that starts at 10:00 A.M. PST. With Chip Kelly’s high-tempo offense, can you see another first quarter knockout in the works? The Chargers may get so far behind that Philip Rivers will have no chance to blow it in the fourth quarter this week.

Toilet Bowl

Based on last year, Chiefs at Jaguars and Jaguars at Raiders sounds like the worst possible start to a season for a NFL fan to suffer through. This Week 2 game looked like a good one for the fast track to the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, but now it looks like it’d be an upset if the Raiders lost this one at home. Terrelle Pryor did a lot of exciting things in Indianapolis while the Jaguars were downright embarrassing against the Chiefs. Out with Blaine Gabbert and in with Chad Henne, but here’s a stat from Week 1 I never would have expected in a billion simulations:

The Raiders lead the NFL in offensive yards per drive (44.62) while the Jaguars are dead last (9.87).

I still don’t plan on saying this that often this season, but give me the Raiders on Sunday.

2013 NFL Week 2 Predictions

I’ll always take a 11-5 record in Week 1, which is usually one of the toughest to predict. Week 2 can be even harder if you pay too much attention to what happened last week, or too little and not recognize it’s a new year and some teams just aren’t as good (or bad) as you expected. I had the Patriots winning 20-10 on Thursday night, but they somehow got it done by going scoreless in the second half.

  • Browns at Ravens
  • Vikings at Bears
  • Rams at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Colts
  • Cowboys at Chiefs
  • Titans at Texans
  • Panthers at Bills
  • Chargers at Eagles
  • Redskins at Packers
  • Lions at Cardinals
  • Saints at Buccaneers
  • Broncos at Giants
  • Jaguars at Raiders
  • 49ers at Seahawks
  • Steelers at Bengals

No matter how much I try to tell myself to “trust my gut” I end up picking 14 home teams (counting NE) and practically all the favorites. No chance in hell of that happening, which tells me I should probably pick the Steelers, the Broncos, the Panthers and maybe the Vikings. But I won’t do it. Why? I must just be a *****.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

The 2013 NFL season opener would make for a good source of SAT questions.

The Baltimore Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions. Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokley, Marlon Brown, Ricky Wagner, Chris Canty and Elvis Dumervil are Baltimore Ravens. Which of the following statements are true?

That may be the reason no defending champion has won even a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots. It’s a much different team just seven months later. Many of the key Ravens on Thursday night — Clark and Stokley combined for 22 targets — had nothing to do with the team’s 2012 season.

Meanwhile the Broncos could supply the math questions as Peyton Manning had one of the most prolific passing games with 462 yards and 7 TD. Finally a post-merger QB hit the 7 TD mark and it took an absurdly stupid play by linebacker Danny Trifflin’ Trevathan to set up the situation for it to happen.

Manning (42) and Flacco (62) combined for 104 pass attempts, which set a record for the most combined pass attempts in a non-OT game in NFL history. In fact, it’s the second-most pass attempts ever in regulation as only these overtime games had as many or more attempts:

  • 11/13/1994 New England vs. Minnesota (OT) – 112 attempts (106 in regulation)
  • 11/22/2012 Detroit vs. Houston (OT) – 109 attempts (90 in regulation)
  • 10/18/1987 Miami vs. NY Jets (OT; replacement game) – 104 attempts (82 in regulation)
  • 9/6/1998 NY Jets vs. San Francisco (OT) – 104 attempts (95 in regulation)

If we included playoff games, then the 2011 NFC Divisional between the 49ers and Saints would be second with 105 attempts in regulation. This is probably a sign of things to come.

Manning now sits comfortably in this list that shows the leaders for having the most games with a certain number of TD passes (including playoffs):

SGTD

A historic opener indeed, and a good start to my “year of the Broncos” prediction.

I will no longer be doing a writing recap in my weekly predictions as I am not writing for as many sites this season (though I did appear three places this week). Instead I will do a weekly update in the archives, so be sure to check that section out. It was the reason I started this blog.

2013 NFL Week 1 Predictions

Last season I went 168-87-1 (.658). Let’s shoot for better since I’ll have even more data to crunch this season. It’s a 1-0 start as I obviously had Denver beating Baltimore.

Winners in bold:

  • Buccaneers at Jets
  • Patriots at Bills
  • Vikings at Lions
  • Raiders at Colts
  • Titans at Steelers
  • Chiefs at Jaguars
  • Seahawks at Panthers
  • Bengals at Bears
  • Falcons at Saints
  • Dolphins at Browns
  • Packers at 49ers
  • Cardinals at Rams
  • Giants at Cowboys
  • Eagles at Redskins
  • Texans at Chargers

I am not brave enough to pick it, but do not be surprised if the Chargers give Houston all it can handle late Monday night. Also it would not shock me if the Jets win and Rex Ryan can have a “shut the frack up!” week to the media.

Be sure to enjoy Sunday Week 1 as we only get to experience a finite number of these in our lifetime.

2013 NFL Predictions

It’s time the tale were told…of how I see the 2013 NFL season unfolding. With some help from The Smiths, each team gets a song title to summarize the theme of their season, a key fact and the record I predicted by going through each game of the season.

Here are last year’s picks. You can bookmark this and shove it in my face when it goes horribly wrong, but I was not accounting for future injuries and at least I stuck my neck out there with a vision of what is virtually unpredictable.

NFC EAST

1. New York Giants (10-6)

The Smiths say: “What Difference Does It Make?”

The Fact: Tom Coughlin’s Giants have started 5-2 or better in nine consecutive seasons, tying the NFL record (1975-83 Cowboys).

Every year we know this team gets off to a strong start, hits a midseason slump, then it’s a matter of recovering for a Super Bowl run or missing the playoffs entirely. The Giants have actually missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. Many of the key pieces return, so that should help. At the end of the day, it does not matter what happens all season. With the NFC East, it will come down to the Week 17 game in New Jersey between the Giants and Redskins. I have the Giants winning that one, hence the division title.

2. Washington Redskins (10-6)

The Smiths say: “These Things Take Time”

The Fact: According to Football Outsiders, the 2012 Redskins used play-action passing more than any offense since 2005 (about 42%).

Operation patience indeed. However, the Redskins are wasting no time in bringing Robert Griffin III back from the ACL injury. He did not finish three games due to injury last season. That’s as many as Peyton Manning (0), Tom Brady (1) and Aaron Rodgers (2) have combined for their careers. I want to see him take better care of himself as he took many big hits when running. I also want to see him improve in obvious passing situations. RG3 saw his passing YPA drop to 5.84 on third down compared to 8.98 on all other downs. That’s a massive difference. The offense will still be efficient and balanced, the defense should get better with Brian Orakpo’s return, but I still have too many questions about this team before picking them to reach the next level. These things do take time.

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

The Smiths say: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (video)

The Fact: Jason Garrett has coached 40 games for Dallas (21-19 record). Twenty-eight times the Cowboys and/or their opponent had the ball in the fourth quarter in a one-score game. Eleven times the Cowboys lost by surrendering a game-winning drive.

I was drinking the Dallas Kool-Aid last season. They sure sweeten it each year as no matter if the team is coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons or the fact they have one playoff win since 1997, the Cowboys are always in the spotlight. I know Romo’s better than most give him credit for. He is the highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in NFL history (100.7 passer rating including playoffs) and he did have five comebacks last year to make Week 17 relevant. Dez Bryant’s a star, Monte Kiffin should get more out of the defense than Rob Ryan ever could, but there’s still too many holes on the offensive line and the general inconsistent play from this team that I cannot pick anything better than 8-8 again for them.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”

The Fact: When expanding out the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree, 28 of the 32 current head coaches fit on its branches. Chip Kelly is the only to have no NFL coaching experience.

I know there’s real excitement for Oregon’s Chip Kelly making the jump to the NFL, but I just do not see the impact in year one, especially with a declining quarterback like Michael Vick as the starter. Turnovers have killed the Eagles since the late portion of the 2010 season. This must be cleaned up, but Vick running a quick-decision, gimmicky offense sounds like a recipe for disaster. Three-and-out much? I hope Kelly finds himself the right quarterback as I would like to see what innovations he can bring to the NFL.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

The Smiths say: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

The Fact: Patriots have played all 12 teams to make the Super Bowl since 2006. They are 5-11 in those games (0-5 since 2011). They are 2-9 against the eventual champion.

You can put 12 wins in the bank for New England. A white, undrafted slot receiver from Texas Tech will lead the team in targets and receptions. Rob Gronkowski will return, dominate and probably get hurt again. The running game and offensive line will be great. The defense will play a bend-but-don’t-break style and rely on takeaways and big stops. Then in the playoffs, the Patriots will lose in a game they were favored to win over a team they played much better against in the regular season. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is in large part what the team has done over the last eight years since last winning a Super Bowl. This year just throws in a murder plot to shake things up. The seven playoff exits have all come to teams the Patriots played in the regular season. New England will play Denver, Houston, Baltimore and the NFC South this season.

2. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

The Fact: Dolphins are the only team since 2000 to not have a quarterback pass for either 4,000 yards or throw more than 20 touchdowns.

The falsely reported demise of the Patriots seemed to favor Miami more than anyone in the East, but this division looks awful to me once you get past New England. Mike Wallace is a high-priced signing the Dolphins will learn to regret. Sure, he’ll help out an offense who had three touchdown passes to wide receivers in 2012, but he will not run every route and will not adjust to the ball as well as Brian Hartline did last year. Ryan Tannehill’s improvement is the biggest factor for this team, but I still see the offense holding them back from doing anything significant.

3. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

The Smiths say: “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” (video)

The Fact: Buffalo is the only NFL team who has failed to make the playoffs since 2000.

But sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.

Honestly, the Bills corrode my soul. For as long as I have been following the NFL closely, they are as boring as any team. They are onto their sixth era in terms of a coach/quarterback since having Marv Levy/Jim Kelly. This team did spend many resources on the defensive line, fired defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt (always a good idea) and they have some exciting skill players in Stevie Johnson and C.J. Spiller. There’s something to build on here, but where’s the quarterback? EJ Manuel was an iffy pick as the first quarterback off the board at No. 16, which usually means bad things, and now he’s hurt. Jeff Tuel? An impending Week 1 massacre at the hands of the Patriots could send this team on a downward spiral to where they are wondering how good Teddy Bridgewater would look in Buffalo.

4. New York Jets (3-13)

The Smiths say: “Bigmouth Strikes Again”

The Fact: Games involving the 2009, 2010 and 2012 Jets account for the three lowest completion percentages (team and opponent combined) in the NFL since 2005. The 2011 Jets rank 10th. That’s a sample size of 256 teams.

With Miami’s offense in the post-Marino era, the Bills and the Jets, it’s no wonder New England has owned this division since 2001. I think this is the end of the road for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez in New York. It almost has to be. They made a run at it the first two years, but it’s time to blow this thing up and start over. Trading away your best player in Darrelle Revis was one of those steps, but there’s more to be done. Ryan should stick to being a defensive coordinator. Sanchez may want to see if ESPN will start him over Jesse Palmer in the booth.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

The Smiths say: “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”

The Fact: Aaron Rodgers is 0-18 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better.

As long as Rodgers is playing at a high level, you have to like the Packers in this division. One of the most competitive teams in the league, there were some cracks last year against the Giants and 49ers. That’s worrisome as we already know too well about this team’s failure in close games. They usually do not get blown out, but the stunningly bad playoff loss in San Francisco was an eye opener.

It looks clear that 2010 was the outlier for Green Bay, especially in regards to Dom Capers’ defense. In 2009, the Packers were lit up by elite quarterbacks and allowed 45 points in regulation to Arizona in the playoffs. The Giants scored 37 in Green Bay in the 2011 NFC Divisional, including a Hail Mary before halftime. Then last season, Colin Kaepernick ran for a NFL QB-record 181 yards and piles up 45 points and 579 yards in his playoff debut. The regular season is not a big challenge, but good luck to this team avoiding all those talented NFC teams in the playoffs who have the right pieces to beat them.

2. Chicago Bears (9-7)

The Smiths say: “Well I Wonder”

The Fact: Marc Trestman has worked under 11 different NFL head coaches before finally getting his first crack at the job.

Chicago is one of the teams that interest me as there are some real unknowns here with Trestman coming over from the CFL. Yes, he has plenty of NFL experience, but this is his first year on the job and the first time Chicago’s gone offensive-minded at coach in decades. There’s no more Brian Urlacher on the defense and Jay Cutler may have his best offense in place. This team has potential to make the playoffs, but Cutler’s lack of career progression and the expected regression on defense keeps them at 9-7 and out of the playoffs for me. But this is a major dark horse candidate who could be exciting to watch.

3. Detroit Lions (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Pretty Girls Make Graves”

The Fact: Matthew Stafford is 1-23 against teams with a winning record.

I wanted to pick a few more wins for this team after last year’s close losses, but the schedule was too tough, which brings us to the fact. I wanted to pick something different since I have used this one so much this offseason, but it’s still very much a defining part of this Jim Schwartz/Stafford era. Detroit cannot beat the good teams and the Lions will likely be playing many of them this season with this schedule. The song title references how the Lions have a history of a great skill player (Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson) dominating each year in stunning fashion, but at the end of the day that individual greatness cannot compensate for overall team weakness.

4. Minnesota Vikings (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Accept Yourself”

The Fact: Minnesota played with the lead 58.7 percent of the time (credit to Chase Stuart’s research) in 2012, which ranked second.

This is one projection I have not sugarcoated. I think the Vikings overachieved with the 10-6 record. I think the defense is mediocre and not improved enough or good enough to play with the lead as often this year. I do not believe in dink-and-dunk Christian Ponder, who has to shine for this team to take the next step as Adrian Peterson will not be as great this year. He’s superhuman if he does. The “constant eight-man front” stuff is still a myth. I also hated the Cordarrelle Patterson trade-up pick and the Greg Jennings signing for that matter.

I do at least love second-year kicker Blair Walsh. Add it all up and I see double-digit losses with that schedule and this roster.

AFC NORTH

1. Cincinnati Bengals (13-3)

The Smiths say: “The Headmaster Ritual”

The Fact: Cincinnati’s 22-year drought without a playoff win is the fifth longest in the Super Bowl era.

It’s not even funny how uncomfortable I feel giving the Bengals 13 wins, but it’s probably just me trying to build too specific of a story in the AFC as you will see. I do think this team has the potential to field the best defense in the league. Andy Dalton was horrific on third down (converted 28.3%), but maybe adding TE Tyler Eifert and a third year with stud A.J. Green and others will aid a breakout season. The AFC is very top heavy.

It also should be do-or-die time for Marvin Lewis as I cannot see him returning without either a first-round bye or a playoff win. Ten years in one place without a playoff win has only been done by Jim Mora (New Orleans). Lewis would be at 11 years if the Bengals fail again this postseason, assuming they get there. It would be a franchise first to make the playoffs three years in a row.

2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

The Smiths say: “I Know It’s Over” (video)

The Fact: Baltimore has won a playoff game in five consecutive seasons. Only the 1991-96 Dallas Cowboys won at least one playoff game in six consecutive seasons.

The last seven defending Super Bowl champions have failed to win a single playoff game. It truly is a whole new season, and it should be easier for the Ravens to accept that last year was the past. Look at the partial list of players who have left the team: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, Stringer Bell, etc. Everyone’s leaving Baltimore, which might make it the rich Joe Flacco’s team, but is he great enough to carry them? Fortunately the defense may be better and Terrell Suggs probably has a big enough mouth to fire the team up before the game.

I still have Baltimore making the playoffs, but they will not advance once this time. I think last year was reaching the summit after a five-year journey and things will be much different moving forward as they try to return.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

The Smiths say: “Cemetry Gates”

The Fact: Steelers have been on a pattern of playoffs-playoffs-no playoffs every year since 2001. Last year was the “no playoffs” year.

My uncle does not have the internet and he wanted me to let you know that “you heard it here first” that the Steelers will not even be a .500 team, which last happened in 2003 (6-10). Even if they finish 7-9, he may end up more right than I am as I already regret this pick of 10 wins. I just think the schedule is very favorable, though when do the Steelers ever capitalize on all of the winnable games on their schedule? The offensive line also looks to be as bad as ever, which is really saying something given past standards. It’s also not smart to pick three teams to win 10+ games in the same division, but so be it.

The AFC has, at best, eight quality teams, and I still have the Steelers missing the playoffs on tie-breakers with teams like the Ravens and Colts. The core talent is here to win now, but the problem is so much of it is brittle and susceptible to injury at any moment. Then without proper depth, you lose games. This defense is on borrowed time and Ben Roethlisberger’s not getting any younger. Any shot at doing something great must be realized now before it’s too late.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Unloveable”

The Fact: The Browns have lost 11+ games in five straight seasons.

Different year, same old shit. Okay, so a few more touchdowns, a better year from Trent Richardson and an improved defense, but still a very incomplete project.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

The Smiths say: “How Soon Is Now?” (video)

The Fact: No team has won the NFC South in consecutive years, but the Falcons (5) now have the longest streak ever of consecutive winning seasons by any of the four teams in the division.

How soon is now? Clearly it’s Super Bowl or bust as Tony Gonzalez plans to retire after the year (for good, I assume). That will leave an awfully big hole in this offense without any real replacement or great receiver depth after the great Roddy White and Julio Jones. This is Matt Ryan’s year to shine (again). If he is the next Peyton Manning, then year six (2003) was a huge climb to MVP status, so let’s see what Ryan can do with a familiar offense that has added Steven Jackson, who should only be a marginal upgrade to Michael Turner. The defense is shaky, but they usually play well at home. I do not expect them to repeat as the No. 1 seed as no team has claimed the league’s best record in back-to-back years since the 1989-90 49ers.

I expect big things from this team.

2. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The Smiths say: “Back to the Old House”

The Fact: Games involving the 2012 Saints included 13,616 yards of offense; the most in NFL history.

Sean Payton’s back, so is everything okay in New Orleans? Not quite if we are talking about Super Bowl aspirations. The defense is very much a work in progress, and Rob Ryan was a terrible hire if you ask me. Losing so many players to injury (Victor Butler, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma) is a bad start to the year for a unit who will likely hold the team back in the end. Expecting a more efficient year from Drew Brees now that he has a real coach again.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (video)

The Fact: Since winning Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay is 69-91 (.431) in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs.

Last year the offense was revamped by bringing in Vincent Jackson and drafting Doug Martin. The Buccaneers went at it again on defense this time with the trade for Darrelle Revis and big signing of Dashon Goldson. Stealing those assets from other teams should help a defense who really struggled against the pass. This is another team I wanted to pick more wins for, but it’s hard to predict much more than six. The schedule’s tough and Josh Freeman’s wildly inconsistent. Maybe an improved defense will help him settle down, knowing he has a running game and does not have to score as many points to win.

4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Nowhere Fast”

The Fact: Cam Newton is 2-15 (.118) at game-winning drive opportunities; the worst record among active starters.

The Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era has been plagued by an inability to close games. I was surprised to come back with a 5-11 record, as I see a team who improved on defense, but changed really nothing on offense. For that reason, the offense should be very similar, which is sometimes a good thing. Do not buy into the read-option myth. If this team could have closed more games in crunch time the last two years, they would have won 9-10 games. If they play the same way this year and do close, they can win 9-10, but still I come up with 5-11. We must see improvement from Newton and the bleeding must stop late in the game or else Rivera will be fired. I also fear for this offense should Steve Smith (34) suddenly fall off. They have not developed any other receivers and the running backs are overpaid and underutilized.

AFC SOUTH

1. Houston Texans (13-3)

The Smiths say: “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”

The Fact: Against playoff teams, Matt Schaub is 11-24 (.314) as a starter, including a 7-11 record since 2010.

Before the Colts find more talent to put around Andrew Luck, these are crucial seasons for Houston, who has gone from expansion to .500 to a team who expects to be in Super Bowl contention. Matt Schaub was hurt in 2011, while the defense had no answers for Tom Brady and similar quarterbacks last year. That’s a problem when you play in the AFC. Houston has to get over the hump by beating a team better than Cincinnati in the postseason. This year should provide another chance as I think they should have a better team after finally adding a wide receiver to pair up with Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL, Brian Cushing is back and the running game is still going to be very good. They just need to finish the job and play some more home games in January. Falling to the No. 3 seed was a killer in 2012.

2. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

The Smiths say: “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”

The Fact: Indianapolis has 32 takeaways since 2011; the fewest in any two-season span in NFL history.

Many will want to pick the Colts to regress sharply after last season’s crazy results, but this schedule looks pretty favorable to me. In fact Football Outsiders predicts it to be the easiest in the league. The Colts may start no better than 4-4, but there’s not a game in the second half of the season they cannot win. I see 10 wins and another Wild Card as Andrew Luck plays more efficiently under Pep Hamilton, T.Y. Hilton takes some of the torch from Reggie Wayne and at least one of the young tight ends explodes. It would be nice if the defense could actually get some takeaways for a change, but that unit’s going to be a work in progress as will the marginally-improved offensive line.

This is the team of the future in the AFC, but they just do not have the talent or track record right now to be in serious contention for Super Bowl XLVIII.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

The Smiths say: “London” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

The Fact: Cecil Shorts and Vincent Jackson (TB) were the only receivers with at least 50 receptions, 900 yards, 7 touchdowns and 17.0 YPC in 2012. (Hey, we’re looking for a positive.)

The Jaguars get two songs, because the jokes about moving the team to London have not stopped. It’s a sign that this team needs to get back to winning to end that silliness. They seem to be moving in the right direction with a new coach and some franchise-type talent on the offensive side of the ball, but it’s going to come down to the quarterback. I do not believe in Blaine Gabbert as the long-term answer, but the next quarterback may be. How would Tajh Boyd feel about Jacksonville?

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

The Smiths say: “Panic” (video)

The Fact: Tennessee was odd in that it had a 3-2 record at comeback opportunities, yet finished 6-10 overall. That is due to having six losses by at least 21 points, which was the highest total in 2012.

As has been my customary line on the Titans lately, I have no idea what Mike Munchak wants from this team. Jake Locker is a mobile, inaccurate quarterback, yet they keep drafting all kinds of receivers for him to miss. Chris Johnson is annoyingly boom-or-bust and the defense was dreadful last season. There’s just no sense of direction here and nothing on this roster that gets you excited about the future. Maybe this is the Jadeveon Clowney destination.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

The Smiths say: “You’ve Got Everything Now”

The Fact: Seattle outscored its last eight opponents 272-111 (+161). Only the 2010 Patriots (+174) and 1984 49ers (+177) finished a regular season in more dominant fashion.

Well, I did pick Seattle to be the league’s next dynasty, so winning a division title would be a step in the right direction. The Seahawks are loaded and could be the league’s most balanced team in terms of the run and pass over both sides of the ball. They finished 2012 in great fashion with Russell Wilson playing out of his mind. He’s not a rookie anymore and you can win a Super Bowl with a sophomore quarterback. They return the same offense for the most part. Should Percy Harvin return late in the season, that’s just an added dimension to this offense. If this team gets home-field advantage, watch out NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

The Smiths say: “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours”

The Fact: Including playoffs and excluding kneel downs, Colin Kaepernick averaged 8.77 YPA passing and 8.75 YPC rushing in 2012.

No team may have a more poetic song choice than the 49ers, for if they would have called better plays in the red zone in the Super Bowl, they may have been 6-0 in the big game. The red zone has been a serious issue for this offense the last two years. It’s really one of the few flaws for Jim Harbaugh’s squad, which dominates the trenches, turnovers and running game. Colin Kaepernick was incredible in his shortened season, making his first full year as a starter one of the most anticipated ever. With some offseason injuries, I think Seattle pulls out the head-to-head games to allow for them to win the division, but we could see a third matchup between these two.

3. St. Louis Rams (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Stretch Out and Wait”

The Fact: After beating the Cardinals to go to 3-2 last season, the Rams ended a 71-month streak of not being over .500.

Sort of like the Dolphins of the NFC. This is just not a team I believe in right now. Sam Bradford must show franchise-caliber play, because if it does not happen by year four (where he’s at now), then it rarely ever does. Bradford is 2-21-1 (.104) when the Rams allow more than 17 points. They have added more weapons around him, but he is still the one operating things. The defense should keep them in many games, but I think most teams on the Rams’ schedule are better than they are, hence another losing record.

4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

The Fact: Arizona led the league with a 71.2 defensive passer rating; the highest rating ever for a league leader.

This is another one I feel strongly about. If Bruce Arians does not adjust his usual style of offense, it will be a disaster in Arizona. Carson Palmer cannot do the things Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck did under pressure. The king of garbage time will find Larry Fitzgerald with the ball quite a bit, but issues in the red zone and a lack of a good tight end will hurt the scoring numbers. Not to mention the offensive line still stinks and guard Jonathan Cooper is done for the year with a broken leg. The defense is also going to regress from last season, so any offensive improvement will likely be negated. I can’t see any more than six wins from this team.

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)

The Smiths say: “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (video)

The Fact: In games where he had a fourth-quarter lead since 2006, Peyton Manning is 74-5 (.937) in the regular season and 6-5 (.545) in the playoffs. The 74-5 includes a 40-5 record when protecting a one-score lead.

Teams give us a million reasons to not pick them to win the Super Bowl, but only a few reasons to pick them. If you did not already know, Denver has been my Super Bowl pick all year. They certainly had a discouraging offseason from executives with DUIs, Elvis Dumervil’s fax fiasco, Von Miller’s six-game suspension, injuries to notable players and more bad fumble luck in the preseason. Brandon Stokley has joined Dumervil in Baltimore, so Wes Welker cannot afford to get hurt.

Is it not all about finishing in the playoffs for this team? We know Manning can lead a team to 10 wins blindfolded. Miller will be back soon enough and fresher. Denver will play many notable games in the regular season.  It’s just a matter of finishing in January, because Manning will put this team in a position to do so. He’s had a fourth-quarter lead in 11 straight playoff games. That’s never been done. The fact his teams are 6-5 in those games is appalling. Just look at the fact above.

Good times for a change. See, the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad.

What more can I say about the BS Manning playoff narrative? (Don’t worry, I will have more in January on it). No quarterback has had more bad luck with things happening out of his control. It’s gotten to the point where in a big game, you should expect him to play well, but something unusual is going to happen that will lead to a loss. Rahim Moore was about as unusual as it gets last season, but that also got me thinking.

Sometimes you have to suffer a bad defeat to come back stronger the next year. Baltimore’s loss in New England in 2011 was as hard as they get with Lee Evans not holding onto the ball and then Billy Cundiff missing the field goal. They rebounded. The Giants blew their season in 2010 by giving up a 21-point lead to Philadelphia (that’s bad enough) before the DeSean Jackson punt return touchdown. They rebounded. Aaron Rodgers missed a game-winning touchdown pass and then had a fumble-six in Arizona in 2009. They rebounded.

Look at Manning’s 2005 Colts, who like the 2012 Broncos, won at least 11 straight games by 7+ points. They both lost the first playoff game in epic fashion. The 2006 Colts rebounded. Manning led an efficient offense and terrible defense in the regular season, but the defense actually showed up for the playoffs. That’s all he wants to see again this year. I do think Denver’s defense will be mediocre, but if Miller comes back and they get hot late, that’s all you need to win a championship.

Manning is 77-0 in games he finishes when his team allows 0-16 points. He doesn’t even need that strong of an effort. Just protect the lead in the playoffs for a change. All five of his playoff losses since 2007 have been comebacks by the opponent.

What Denver must avoid is letting last year’s Baltimore loss beat them twice. Do not get too overly aggressive in the four-minute offense with the lead. Do not get too crazy with the blitz on defense. Just play smart, which Rahim Moore failed to do. The talent is on this team, who can be their own worst enemy at times, to win a championship. They can win any game they play.

But if winning the Super Bowl is about getting hot late, then maybe a slow start is exactly what this team needs. I still ended up giving them 13 wins, but I strategically placed them into the No. 3 seed. If winning a Super Bowl means overcoming adversity, Denver has certainly set up a path to do that this season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

The Smiths say: “Is It Really So Strange?”

The Fact: The Chiefs have gone 414 games since a quarterback they drafted started and won a regular-season game. That will continue after the Alex Smith trade.

After the worst season in franchise history and holding the No. 1 pick, the Chiefs are actually in a good position to get to .500 right away. 8-8 is the record I have consistently paired them with this offseason. There’s potential for more in a weak division and conference. The roster has been turned over a lot with new additions at the key jobs of coach and quarterback. Andy Reid and Alex Smith are a good match, but time will tell if it’s great. Reid has been mostly mediocre since the Super Bowl loss and Smith only has 1.5 seasons of quality play on his track record. Still, it should make fans forget about the misery of last season.

3. San Diego Chargers (7-9)

The Smiths say: “Still Ill”

The Fact:  Philip Rivers is 2-19 in his last 21 game-winning drive opportunities. He’s turned the ball over 16 times in the clutch in those losses.

There’s not too much that Rivers needs to fix in general. His failures have been largely situational since 2010 (red zone and close games). It’s hard to fully blame the evaporating talent around him when he can look great for three quarters and turn into a pumpkin in the fourth. Just look at that Tampa Bay game last year as a great example. Only a handful of Rivers’ interceptions have been under pressure the last two years. This team has been in position to win many games since 2010, but he has turned the ball over late in historic fashion with unparalleled consistency. I am not sure Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt are the right offensive minds to fix this, but I do think the Chargers will win about seven games again.

4. Oakland Raiders (2-14)

The Smiths say: “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (video)

The Fact: It has been 10 straight seasons in Oakland of not winning and not making the playoffs. At least the NFL record is 20 (1967-86 Saints).

How do you make an awful team (2012 Raiders who swept Kansas City to get to 4-12) even worse? You do whatever Oakland has done to chop this roster down into one of the least talented in recent memory. Two wins sounds like a good ceiling for this squad. At least it should bring in the No. 1 pick, which probably should be Teddy Bridgewater. Then again, many smart football minds had Matt Barkley going No. 1 a year ago at this time. But really Oakland, get a quarterback and then your roster moves won’t look so bad. The black hole of losing is going to continue until that guy is found.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. Houston (13-3)
  • 2. Cincinnati (13-3)
  • 3. Denver (13-3)
  • 4. New England (12-4)
  • 5. Baltimore (10-6)
  • 6. Indianapolis (10-6)

Yep, the same six teams from last year, though the AFC has been shaping up this way the last few years. Talk about some dream matchups with Andrew Luck going to Denver and a rematch of Patriots/Ravens on Wild Card weekend. Like 2006, Manning and Brady will pull off the road wins on Divisional weekend and meet in Denver for the AFC Championship. Hard to top the classic that was that game, but this could do it as Denver gets the high-scoring win.

NFC

  • 1. Seattle (12-4)
  • 2. Green Bay (12-4)
  • 3. Atlanta (11-5)
  • 4. New York (10-6)
  • 5. San Francisco (12-4)
  • 6. New Orleans (11-5)

We’ll call this the Atlanta Revenge Tour. They beat the Saints in the Wild Card game. San Francisco gets swept by the Seahawks to lose the division, but spoils their season with a win in Seattle. The Falcons make Green Bay go one-and-done (2010 payback). Then in a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship, the Falcons hold on this time to down the 49ers.

SUPER BOWL XLVIII

Denver Broncos 24, Atlanta Falcons 13

Last year’s No. 1 seeds, they overcome adversity as No. 3 seeds this year to meet in the Super Bowl. I have compared the 2012 Broncos to the 1996 Broncos before. This will be a mixture of the 1997-98 teams. You have the Super Bowl between the veteran (Manning) and the young gun (Ryan). You have Denver and Atlanta (Super Bowl XXXIII rematch). Manning will hope the “retiring player winning a Super Bowl” thing does not happen to him for a third time (Jerome Bettis and Ray Lewis) with Gonzalez.

Oh and the game will be in New Jersey in February. It’s the same site the Falcons scored 0 offensive points in a loss to the Giants. Bad weather would hurt both of these pass-heavy teams, which should hopefully signal the end of having a Super Bowl in cold, outdoor stadiums.

In the end, Manning leads Denver to the sloppy win, ensuring that detractors can complain about his Super Bowl MVP after winning the two worst weather games in Super Bowl history. Always having that distinction as being the first quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl is the best thing you can have if you were not fortunate enough to be on a team who won 3-4 rings.

More than any team, that’s a lot of specific Denver predictions, but this is just my vision, my story of the 2013 season. There are countless possibilities to get from Thursday night to Super Bowl XLVIII.

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.

Johnny Manziel Created Taunting and Pissed in Mark May’s Coffee

In case you missed it, Johnny Manziel picked up a taunting penalty in his season debut (GIF credit: SBNation).

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Alright, that was not smart, but let’s not pretend he’s the only quarterback (or football player for that matter) to do such a thing. Of course ESPN’s Lou Holtz had a major problem with it, saying he would have grabbed Manziel “by the throat.” Also blowing things out of proportions was Mark May, who had plenty of off-field trouble in his college days.

If this is the act of a “selfish knucklehead,” then let’s just say Manziel may have taken some pointers from the best.

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That’s Tom Brady taunting John Lynch, perhaps a future Hall of Famer, on the opening series of a January 2006 playoff game in Denver. Jim Nantz’s response: “He’s got a pump fist of his own.”

At least Johnny Football kept his distance.