Super Bowl LI Preview

Before the playoffs started, I picked Atlanta to beat New England in Super Bowl LI. I’m 9-1 this postseason, and have found the games to not be very enjoyable for the most part. This is the first time since 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers when both teams entered the Super Bowl after winning each of their playoff games by 16+ points. Yeah, that 2002 postseason was a bit of a bore too outside of wild-card Sunday, and the Super Bowl was a joke.

Super Bowl LI should be a competitive game, because I see two great offenses that are never out of a game, and two vulnerable defenses. In fact, this is probably the most offensive-oriented in Super Bowl history, so the record-setting O/U makes sense. I don’t think the score will be really high, but we could see long drives and a high points per drive average in this game. The Patriots deserve to be 3-point favorites, but don’t play that “Atlanta has no shot” noise. This game is a pretty strong step up in competition for both teams, and both teams belong in this year’s Super Bowl.

Supplemental reading:

Film Room: Receiving Backs in Super Bowl LI – a look at every pass thrown to a RB in games with NE and ATL this year

Sneaky stats that could swing SB LI – ESPN Insider article that basically serves as a mini-preview from me on things like the scoring defenses, blitzing the QBs, YAC and comeback ability/holding leads.

Super Bowl LI Preview – Aaron Schatz’s game preview at FO

Super Bowl LI in a Nutshell

The wrong framing for this game is to call it the No. 1 offense (ATL) vs. the No. 1 defense (NE). We had that in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Dan Quinn’s defense (Seattle) prevailed in a big way over Denver. We had the same thing last year, but I thought Carolina’s offense was a fraudulent No. 1 scoring offense, and Denver’s defense was very legit. I see the same thing this year, but flipped around. The Falcons are a strong No. 1 offense, but the Patriots might be the biggest frauds to ever claim a scoring defense title. That matchup is likely going to determine who wins this game, which is really a meeting of the top two offenses. However, while the Patriots may not be a great D, they are clearly better than the Falcons on that side of the ball, and that is why you should trust the Patriots more to win this game. Well, that and the better head coach. While both offenses can be great, there’s just an easier path (of less resistance) to success for the Patriots, who can get big games from a variety of players depending on how they choose to attack a young defense. With the Falcons, guys like Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman are going to have to deliver, because I don’t think it can just be a big Julio Jones and/or Devonta Freeman evening. When both teams should score a good amount, it’s a game that comes down to turnovers (both very good here), red zone (advantage: NE) and third down (advantage: NE).

It will be very difficult for Atlanta to win this game without a stellar offensive performance, and while the offense has been so good this year, we have seen so many top offenses crash and burn on this exact stage through decades of NFL history. I don’t think that will happen, but I think you’ll be hearing at the end of the night how “defense wins championships” even if there was no such thing as a truly great D in this postseason. It’s just going to come down to being the best on Sunday night, and that should be New England again.

That’s really my summary of the game, but continue on reading if you want to see the statistical support and research, as well as some ranting about legacies, weapons and such bullshit. If not, then scroll down to the bottom to see my final score.

New England’s Misleading Defense

The Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Fewest per drive too, though this was nowhere close to the caliber of your usual No. 1 scoring D. The Patriots only ranked 16th in DVOA, which is a far cry from where No. 1 scoring Ds have ranked in the previous 19 seasons.

neno1

Since 1997, a total of 60 teams have ranked in the top 3 in Points per Drive allowed. Only the 2007 Patriots (11th) and 2016 Patriots (16th) ranked out of the top 10 in DVOA. This is Bill Belichick’s bend-but-don’t-break shining through. Fundamentally, it’s a flawed, if not illogical style of playing defense, but the Patriots tend to make it work. It’s even easier to pull off when you play the easiest schedule of offenses in the league, and then you draw the worst offense in the playoffs (Houston), and then you get a team that’s been leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell, only to see him go down after six carries in the first quarter. The Patriots also lucked out in the postseason when Brock Osweiler finally threw a great pass, only to see Will Fuller drop a touchdown in the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger’s best throws down the field in the AFC-CG were also not caught by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton. If the Falcons can get their skill guys to make the big plays that Matt Ryan should find down the field, then the offense is going to continue scoring as it has all season.

Credit to Denmark NFL writer Soren Hygum Hansen for sharing with me weeks ago that the Patriots are the first team since the 1970 merger to make the Super Bowl without playing a QB that finished the season ranked in the top 10 in passer rating. They’ll get the best QB in 2016 in Ryan, so if they want to make their mark defensively, they’re certainly going to get a shot with the Falcons coming in hot. The Falcons do have some banged up players in Julio Jones and Alex Mack, but neither injury appears to be a serious one in the vein of what Dwight Freeney (2009), Rob Gronkowski (2011), or the whole Legion of Boom (2014) went into past Super Bowls with, limiting their effectiveness. All of those teams lost by the way, because an injured star isn’t much help.

Matt Ryan’s 2016 vs. “Curse” of MVP/500-Pt Club

Matt Ryan has been playing the best football of his career, and you could see it from an early point in the season.

Well, three months later, here we are. Ryan has been phenomenal and consistent. His YPA has been at least 7.91 in all 18 games — the previous benchmark for every game in a season was 6.87 by Kurt Warner in 2001. It’s that consistency that makes Ryan’s season one of the best in NFL history by a quarterback. Yes, it’s been that good. He does have the benefit of using the most play-action passing in the league, but he has been great in almost every situation this season, and has done so against a schedule that ranked as the second toughest in the league defensively. In the playoffs, the Seahawks were missing Earl Thomas and the Packers were really banged up in the secondary too, but again, Atlanta has been more battle tested than NE this season. The game is a step up in competition for both sides though.

Ryan is trying to become the first MVP winner since Kurt Warner in 1999 to win the Super Bowl in the same season. The Falcons are also trying to become the highest-scoring team to ever win a Super Bowl with 540 points. Only four of the NFL’s 500-point club has won a Super Bowl. The losers averaged 16.7 PPG in their playoff loss. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” indeed. Big-time offenses tend to fall apart in the playoffs.

500club

Now these MVPs and high-scoring teams aren’t cursed. It’s actually a simple explanation for why they keep losing in the playoffs. The team is not balanced enough, and too much reliance is put on the quarterback to play great. In the playoffs, you usually can never get a quarterback and offense that play at a high level in each game. There’s usually that one off game, and these teams tend to not have the defense or running game or special teams to save their bacon when those off-days occur.

Atlanta is a perfect example of imbalance. The 11 wins were the most ever for a team that allowed 400 points in a season. The six wins in games where the Falcons allowed at least 28 points are another single-season record. These reflect well on the offense Ryan was able to lead this season, but it’s not a good sign for him to pull out a high-scoring win over the Patriots, a defense that rarely ever allows a 30-point game, especially without return scores involved. In fact, just look at the MVP race this year where Brady was the runner-up. NE did allow the fewest points and still went 3-1 without Brady. Do you see Atlanta going 3-1 without Ryan? Of course not. The Patriots could still beat Houston by 18 points with a subpar Brady performance, but if Ryan has a game where he throws two picks and completes fewer than 50 percent of his passes, then you can bet the Falcons are getting their ass kicked. OK, maybe it wouldn’t happen against Houston, but if Ryan is just “alright” on Sunday night, the Falcons will not win this game. He has to be great; one of the best games of his career.

Yet, in keeping with my 2006 Peyton Manning = 2016 Matt Ryan comparison, I think Ryan is going to have to probably lead a high-scoring comeback win to knock off these Patriots, much like Manning did in the 2006 AFC-CG and the 2009 “4th-and-2” game. In fact, in his last game against NE in 2013, Ryan nearly led a Manning-like 17-point comeback in the final 6:18. He trimmed a 30-13 deficit to a 30-23 game, and the Falcons reached the 10-yard line in the final minute. Belichick had his defense double team Tony Gonzalez, basically holding him out of the play, and the Falcons failed in the red zone again (shades of 2012 NFC-CG loss vs. 49ers). That game is ultimately meaningless to Sunday night, but I just think Ryan is going to have to throw for at least 350 yards in this game and be on point.

New England’s defense ranked 28th in DVOA in Late & Close situations, so if he can get the opportunity, then we know he’s good at delivering in these moments. We also know the Patriots are the best at preventing comebacks, though not quite as good at it away from home.

The Falcons had more than one turnover in just one game this season (at Seattle), though technically Ryan did throw two picks to Eric Berry, including a pick-two that provided the winning score for Kansas City, the last time the Falcons lost. Still, I always get nervous with these low-turnover teams imploding in the playoffs. 11 giveaways in 18 games is crazy low. The Falcons will have to win the turnover battle here to win this game. The Patriots probably capitalize on mistakes better than any team.

Atlanta’s Defense

Simply put, the Falcons are in the conversation for the worst defense to reach a Super Bowl.

Before the season, I did a three-part study on building a Super Bowl winner, looking at balance since 1989.

The conclusion was that balance is a little overrated, and it doesn’t hurt to have one really dominant unit (offense or defense). Well, the Falcons would be the most imbalanced SB winner yet with the No. 1 offense and No. 27 defense. Yes, that’s DVOA, but the Atlanta defense also ranked 27th in points per drive allowed. They were dead last in red zone TD%, and 29th in red zone DVOA. They were 27th on third down, while the NE O was No. 1. This is a huge problem.

Even without Rob Gronkowski, the NE offense is still scoring at a high level. They can beat the Falcons in a variety of ways. Brady has eaten up the blitz this season, but I don’t think Quinn will blitz him much at all. Seattle didn’t, and was able to get decent pressure in the only win over the Pats with Brady this season. Quinn likely studied the heck out of that tape, and the only issue is that his D just isn’t as good as Seattle’s. Vic Beasley had a lot of sacks, but overall it’s not that strong of a pass rush. The Falcons will have to tackle well, which has not been a strength for them, and mix things up against Brady.

In a game like this, it’s about getting timely pressure. We can reasonably predict that the Pats will hold up pretty well against Atlanta’s rush, but it’s going to come down to when the Falcons can get pressure. They got Aaron Rodgers on some key third downs last time out, but that was also their most aggressive (read: blitz happiest) game of the season. They can’t afford to do that against Brady, but they have to pick some spots. Atlanta was 7-1 when getting a pass pressure rate of at least 30 percent.

Let’s say the Atlanta defense registers five pressures all game. Not a good number by any means, but what if one produces a takeaway, one produces a drive-killing sack, one forces a field goal attempt, one brings out the punting unit on fourth down, and one makes it third-and-10? That’s all extremely helpful to a defense that will need a lot of help in this game. So it’s about timely pressure.

Also, the Atlanta defense has improved in the second half of the season. In starting four rookies, gains in experience should matter. After allowing 26+ points in eight of the first nine games, the D has only done so in one of the last nine games, and that needed a late Drew Brees TD drive to happen in Week 17. Kansas City scored 29 points, but that was 9 points by Eric Berry on pick returns. Now you can choose to look at the whole season as being more telling, but the Atlanta defense has gotten better.

#QBWeaponz Rant

I’ve tried to avoid a lot of the pre-game coverage for the last two weeks. Namely, I don’t leave NFL Network on as much as I usually do, because I’m sick of hearing about the underdog Falcons against the planned coronation ceremony for the Patriots. Yes, we get it, the Patriots have a lot more experience at this sort of thing than Atlanta.

But I still had the TV on enough to hear Deion Sanders talk about how Ryan has the Julio’s and “the Gabriel’s” while Brady has the “Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s.” Yes, Deion is the kind of guy who wants you to think Brady still doesn’t know who Hogan is, while at the same time praising Brady’s leadership and work ethic. Well, if he was that hard of a worker, wouldn’t he be getting on the same page with his new teammates in the offseason? It’s a contradiction, as well as a lazy narrative that “Brady makes his receivers better.” As if he’s the only QB capable of doing this.

Meanwhile, apparently the Falcons signed two mega stars this offseason known as Tyler Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. The state of Ohio wasn’t interested in keeping them around, and while neither has ever cracked an 800-yard receiving season, apparently they give Ryan a cast better than when he had Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White.

Huh? Since when is Taylor f’n Gabriel a gem to have?

Oh, but what this really is is nothing more than the way quarterbacks get perceived differently based on playoff success. If you win a ring early as a starter, like Brady did, you get a pass for failures and extra credit for your team’s success. If you take too long to win a ring, like Ryan in his ninth season and first Super Bowl, then you have years of blame being placed on your shoulders for not getting that done. Without question, Ryan’s career season is fueling this offense more than the supporting cast, which I wouldn’t rank that high at all among QB MVP seasons.

Sure, Julio is great, but he also was the target of more than half of Ryan’s picks this year, including some pretty big drops in key moments.

This is really old hat. Star receivers are put on this pedestal, and it’s as if they can do no wrong, and people refuse to credit the QB when playing with one of these guys. Meanwhile, Ryan had better stats when throwing to players not named Quintorris in 2016. He had two awesome games, albeit against weak competition, when Julio was out entirely. Sure, then it turns to “oh, but Kyle Shanahan!” but we can save that for another day. Yes, Shanahan has done a great job for his career this season, but Ryan is the one driving this offense at a historic level. He has a lot of good guys along for the ride this time, but he is still the driver.

We know if Gabriel was in NE, Brady would get all the credit for his season. Same with Sanu. It’s basically the David Givens and Deion Branch thing there, yet Ryan won’t dare get that kind of credit just because his team hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet. It’s nonsense, and we need to stop acting like one great receiver dictates everything in this game. Matthew Stafford, as I predicted, just had arguably his best season without Calvin Johnson. There’s an advantage to playing with several good receivers that the defense can’t key on versus that mega-star who runs the deeper routes down the field, draws the toughest assignments and faces the most complex coverages to beat. Try forcing that guy the ball when you need to versus throwing to a guy that’s so wide open just because the defense doesn’t understand he should be respected.

And the Patriots make a killing out of those types (the Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s). They take talented players inferior franchises discard, and use them properly to maximize their talent. You can add LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to that list too. Hogan had Julio-esque stats in the game against Pittsburgh, because it looked as if the Steelers had no clue how to defend the guy. He was wide open all night, and it was all about scheme and defensive breakdowns more than the talent of the passer and the receiver himself. Without Gronkowksi, the Patriots don’t have great weapons right now, but they have a lot of very good ones who can do a variety of things.

Sunday night is an opportunity for the non-Julio players on Atlanta to step up and prove that they can be as good as advertised. I’m not of the belief that Belichick will be able to take Jones away. The Patriots were just 20th in DVOA against No. 1 WRs this year. Jones can do a lot of things from different spots on the field to have an impact. Still, even if he is contained, the Falcons were 4-0 this season when Jones was held to 35 yards or fewer (6-0 counting the games he missed entirely). In fact, domination by Jones might be a bad thing for Atlanta if it means his teammates aren’t stepping up. Atlanta was 2-4 in Jones’ top six receiving games this season.

X-Factor: The Running Backs

The running backs could be huge in this game for both teams, and that’s why I spent time doing a Film Room study of them in the passing game in particular. With the Patriots, it could be LeGarrette Blount on the ground AND Dion Lewis/James White through the air. You never know with NE, but the Falcons need to tackle much better than they have this season. Still, Atlanta is 8-2 when allowing 100+ rushing yards this season, which is a very good record in that situation. Obviously they have the firepower on the other side to counter.

If Tevin Coleman, who led all NFL backs with 3 catches of 40+ yards, doesn’t go deep against these linebackers at least once, then I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan was watching the last two weeks. 49ers lowlights? The LBs are a weakness in this defense, and I would be using Freeman and Coleman together (only played 5 pass snaps together in 2016) to exploit that. I really do like that matchup more than one of the non-Julio wideouts against an Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan. Freeman could be good on the ground too, but I really think this game is about Ryan and the passing game, and I would be making sure the backs are a huge part of that.

The Forgotten Tight Ends

Without Rob Gronkowski, this position is a bit of a dead zone in this matchup. The Falcons’ best tight end is whichever one is open, and there’s not much attention drawn to Levine Toilolo or rookie Austin Hooper. Now Hooper might turn into a good player down the road, but he’s not really established yet. I feel like Kyle Shanahan does a really good job of scheming these guys open more than their own skills, but they have to get them involved at some point here. I still think it’s asinine that the Seahawks did not throw a single pass to a TE in SB XLIX even though the NE D was 32nd in DVOA against tight ends. Can’t ignore the position even if most of American can’t even guess a name of a TE on Atlanta. No, Jacob Tamme is on IR.

As for Martellus Bennett, he’s only surpassed 35 receiving yards once in his last nine games since Gronk got hurt. That’s surprising, though it seems like he has to scrape himself off the field once a week, so health is an issue. Is this the game where he explodes for 100 yards? Doubtful, and the Falcons were a solid 11th in DVOA against TE, but you never know with the Patriots.

Protection, Blitzing and YAC

Talked about NE O/ATL D earlier on this, but the Patriots might want to consider blitzing Ryan, who had the third-highest pressure rate when blitzed this season. Of course, he still killed it with 9.5 YPA, but he took 15 sacks vs. blitz compared to two for Brady. Performance under pressure is a tricky thing. We know guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson are usually good each season in a messy pocket, but a lot of performance under pressure is inconsistent. After all, pass pressure leads to chaos on the field with QBs scrambling, receivers making new routes on the fly, improv plays, backyard football.

Ryan has been great this year when pressured, and it’s the highest pressure rate of his career. Yes, the OL is quite good for Atlanta, but that’s moreso in the run blocking department. Ryan has seen his share of pressure even though the Falcons still have him get rid of the ball quickly as he always has. So if the Patriots can get some timely pressures of their own, they might get a game-changing turnover out of it. Sometimes, it just takes one of those to decide a game. So it’s a fascinating chess match with how these defensive coaches will approach these varied offenses, but aggression is going to have to come into play at some point. You can’t just sit back the whole game, though the Patriots were far and away the leaders in 3-man rushes this season. It just so happens that Ryan was below league-average against such rushes, so maybe that’s the strategy again to maximize the defenders in coverage against these receivers. You know Belichick likes to have his defenders get grabby with great passing offenses, and I’d expect that again on Sunday.

Ryan and Brady led all QBs in YAC per completion, though Ryan did throw deeper passes. Both offenses have a lot of skill with the ball in their hands, so tackling is crucial. This is just another area where I see an advantage for the Patriots. Including the playoffs, Atlanta was 10-0 when allowing less than 4.2 YAC per completion, but only 3-5 when quarterbacks surpassed that mark. Brady has surpassed that YAC mark in 12 of his 14 games this season, and in 83.0 percent of his games since 2011.

Brady Legacy Rant

My thoughts on this are really the same exact thing they were two years ago. There’s really nothing that Brady could do on Sunday evening to change my opinion on his place in history. He can’t go up or down with this one game. Why should he, or any player be judged so strongly by one game’s outcome? You already should have known going into Sunday night where you had Brady ranked all time, and I still think I’d have to put him fifth all time behind Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning. I can definitely see myself putting him ahead of Marino after some offseason reflection, but I doubt I’d go any higher than that unless he really does continue playing at a high level into his mid-40’s. That would be a first.

Now there are definitely degrees of how impressive a win here could be. I don’t think 5 SBs free of context proves anything. After all, Bart Starr won 5 championships as a starter, yet we don’t hear about that just because three weren’t called Super Bowl. It was still the same decade though. But obviously playing a huge game and winning a high-scoring game will reflect better on Brady than slumping to a 21-14 win just because the D’s were unexpectedly great, and Brady’s D was again the best on the field. Maybe he does get the Montana treatment here. Montana twice played against MVP QBs on the No.1  offense in the league, but Marino’s 84 Dolphins and Boomer Esiason’s 1988 Bengals failed to crack 17 points in the Super Bowl. Montana, dropped pick in the red zone aside, was great, but didn’t even need to score many points to get those wins. If the Patriots shut down Ryan and this prolific offense, then I think that’s a much stronger statement for Belichick more than anyone here.

After all, Belichick is constant that has been there for every game during this run for the Patriots, not Brady. If anyone should be cemented with GOAT status from one game, it could be him on Sunday night. Of course, you should already have strong feelings about this either way and one game against Atlanta shouldn’t be your last needed piece of evidence.

Special Teams

Both units are pretty solid here, and not spectacular on returns. I trust both kickers, though I like Matt Bryant a tad more with the game on the line. He is 35-of-40 on clutch field goals in his career. He just has to hope that Belichick doesn’t have a voodoo doll prepared for him to add to the collection with Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff.

Comeback?

Atlanta has scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games, which is a very impressive streak. If the Falcons can do it again to get an early lead, it would be New England’s first deficit since Week 12 against the Jets, the longest span in the NFL without trailing by a team since the 2005 Colts. Of course, the Patriots haven’t been challenged much in that stretch, but it’s an impressive streak since even a 3-0 deficit would count for ending it. The Falcons need a good start here, and New England has historically had very slow starts in Super Bowls under Brady and Belichick. Of course, even a 10-0 start by Atlanta would be far from game over like it technically was for Carolina against Denver last season.

I post this table in every SB preview, because no team has won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 10 points.

sbcbw

This could be the matchup for it to happen, and you can see several New England games already on this list. Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowls have had a 4QC opportunity. The Falcons have also blown four 4Q leads this season, so keep that in mind.Brady has the best active 4QC/GWD record at 50-37 (.575), but Ryan is fourth at 34-37 (.479), and Ryan has the most one-minute drills (5) to win a game in NFL history. This is the kind of game where you definitely want the ball last.

And you want to run the f’n ball from the 1-yard line, four times in a row if you have to. Hopefully Dan Quinn has learned that the hard way.

FINAL SCORE

I see another precarious New England lead hanging in the balance in the final minute, and while no Malcolm Butler interception this time, a stop in the red zone happens again. Because you know who willed it to happen.

Final: Patriots 28, Falcons 24

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2016 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

An offensive-driven team is going to win the Super Bowl this year, but the defense that plays the best over the next two games is still going to be the one holding the trophy. I would expect a game-changing turnover to highlight this weekend.

Green Bay at Atlanta

Both games are rematches, but I think this one is more likely to resemble the first matchup, a 33-32 shootout won by the Falcons in Week 8. I think both offenses and quarterbacks are going to be very good, but I do have some concerns with the health of Green Bay’s receivers; Jordy Nelson in particular. I also think in a game with two bad defenses, Atlanta should be able to run the ball better with the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman compared to Green Bay with Ty Montgomery. This isn’t going to be a game where one defense surprises everyone with a dominant performance. Both offenses are going to move the ball and score frequently. It’s just a matter of situational stops, like on third down, forcing a field goal attempt or coming up with an unexpected fumble recovery. If the Packers get the hot start they so need like in Dallas last week, Matt Ryan can’t afford to press and throw a terrible pick like he did to Tramon Williams before halftime in his last playoff meeting with the Packers. But that was a long time ago, and Ryan is playing the best ball of his career. He’s been the MVP this season. Aaron Rodgers has been on an incredible hot streak, but this is the time of year where I start looking at how teams have done against good teams. With Green Bay, you’re talking about a team that’s 9-18 on the road against teams with a winning record since 2011. There was a 2-15 stretch going there before these last two wins in Detroit (31-24 in Week 17) and Dallas last week (34-31). Last week was the first time Rodgers won a game in his career as an underdog when Green Bay allowed more than 26 points. He was 0-17 before that. The Falcons are favored at home and have scored at least 24 in every single home game this year. Similar research also led me to this crazy stat.

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

ar035

We knew Rodgers had the 10-34 record at 4QC opportunities, but I was reminded this week that only two of the 10 wins came against teams with a winning record (2014 Cowboys in Dez Caught It game, 2015 Seahawks), and both of those were 1-point deficits erased early in the quarter. Throw out a 2008 Minnesota game where he only trailed by 1 late (28-27 loss after long FG missed by Mason Crosby) and a 2008 loss in OT to the Bears in which he only had the ball in a tied game, and that’s how you end up with 0-35. Matt Flynn led GB’s only win in this situation against the Lions in 2011 (his 6 TD game).

It’s very important for Atlanta to start hot. You might recall Ryan had the Falcons up 17-0 in his last NFC Championship Game (2012 against the 49ers), but that lead was blown and the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, or maybe Harry Douglas keeping his feet away from the big game. This time is the last game in the Georgia Dome. I think the crowd will understand the magnitude of this one and help the home team to victory in another high-scoring game.

Final: Packers 28, Falcons 34

Pittsburgh at New England

I already cranked out over 4200 words on this one at FO, so please read that. I rarely read my own articles, but I read this one on Friday evening and thought it came together very well. If you know me well, you know that I am sometimes not truthful in my game predictions in big games involving the Patriots. I always pick them anyway, but it’s hard to tell when I honestly believe them to win or I’m just conjuring up a reverse jinx. I think the first paragraph in my outlook for this game subtly hints at my real feelings about this one on Sunday night. But as I wrote back in Week 7, Tomlin vs. Belichick is like checkers vs. chess. If Tomlin wants to win this game as an underdog, he’s going to have to make some ballsy calls, whether it’s a fourth-down attempt at midfield or a two-point conversion try to win the game. And when Antonio Brown drops the game-winning 2PC in the final 20 seconds, maybe I start looking for work in a different field on Monday. But I think Brown will play well, Bell will play well, and Roethlisberger usually plays well against the Patriots, but not good enough to overcome the defense. Still, the loss of Gronk should be felt in this one, and I still believe the Patriots defense is vastly overrated and can be exposed by a top quarterback. We just need to see top QB play from Pittsburgh again, and it’s rarely been there even during this winning streak.

Go figure, I like the home teams, both of which I picked to get to the Super Bowl a few weeks ago.

Final: Steelers 21, Patriots 28

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Divisional: 3-1
  • Season: 166-98

The Top 64 Quarterbacks in NFL History (2015 Edition) – Part I

This definitely won’t be short. However, I’m not wasting any time in showing you my updated list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

top64QB15

This is not created with a formula. I put everything I’ve learned and experienced from over a decade of research into creating this ranking. The only things I do not factor in are college career and time spent in other professional leagues like the AAFC, USFL, CFL, XFL, Arena, etc. So you’re still just a one-year wonder to me, Tommy Maddox.

Some players moved around from the 2014 edition, posted last August. So why is this going to be written in two parts on my blog? I figured some people won’t want to scroll through the epic length of Manning vs. Brady to read about the other players. For those who want to see the irrational debate rationalized, I promise Part II is worth the wait.

This might actually be the first time I have formally written about my list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It was a personal project I started six years ago in an effort to figure out where Ben Roethlisberger stood historically after his fifth season (2008). Such rankings are subjective of course, but sports wouldn’t be the same without this stuff. Even if “that’s your opinion!” means you can’t objectively prove Roethlisberger is a better QB than Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, you damn sure can make a convincing argument why he is better.

Just look at my list. Once you get past 30 or so, you’re looking at guys who maybe had six quality seasons, or a phenomenal four-year run like Rich Gannon (1999-2002) in Oakland. There aren’t many quarterbacks who sustained greatness over a long period of time in the NFL’s 95-year history. A total of 221 players have thrown at least 1,000 passes in the regular season in NFL history. Unless you mostly played before 1932 (Benny Friedman), are the latest hot rookie/sophomore (Teddy Bridgewater), or your name is Greg Cook or Cecil Isbell, you’re not even relevant from an all-time perspective. A thousand passes is about two seasons these days for a starter. Even the Browns let Derek Anderson throw 992 passes in 2007-09.

My method was to move up the list of all-time attempts, picking out which quarterbacks Roethlisberger was clearly better than, and grouping those he still has to surpass. A few years later I did something very similar to gauge where Joe Flacco stood after his fifth season (2012) led to the destruction of the QB salary market. Since then I’ve had a more concrete list and have updated it annually before the new season. The following explains some of my thought process, especially for the active players.

Five Actives in the Top 15 OF ALL TIME!?!?

I know some people are wondering how I could possibly think five of the 15 greatest QBs in NFL history are playing right now. Well, from 1991-94 we had Montana, Marino, Favre, Young and Elway active. That’s five of my top eight, so there*. Throw in Aikman, Kelly and Moon, and that’s eight of my top 28. It clearly can be done, and I think this has been a golden age of passing that’s not likely to be matched any time soon.

*Counter (because I know how to argue with myself): But Scott, were those five guys worthy of the top eight in 1991-94? This is a fair point. I don’t think Favre and Young were thru 1994, though both were well on their way. I think you could definitely have ranked Montana, Marino and Elway that high by then. My list thru 1994 would look something like Montana, Unitas, Marino, Staubach, Baugh, Tarkenton, Graham, Elway (ahead of Starr and Bradshaw). So yeah, three in the top eight with Young coming off his 6 TDs in the Super Bowl/2nd MVP award and Favre just getting ready for a 3-MVP run. This is legit.

Are the modern rules and modern medicine making it easier to sustain QB success in the NFL? I hesitate to say yes to that, because look at how many quarterbacks can’t sustain their success. Robert Griffin III had his one good year, but has been a disaster ever since. Josh Freeman (2010) can kind of relate, and I hate to see the path Colin Kaepernick is starting to head down after such early promise. Matt Schaub crumbled in 2013 after Richard Sherman picked off his confidence. Carson Palmer has fallen apart a few times, literally and figuratively. Michael Vick was never consistent and managed to have his best years four years apart (2002, 2006 and 2010). Jay Cutler and Cam Newton still can’t hit a 90.0 passer rating season in an era where it’s become common to do so. Matthew Stafford’s pretty much in the same tier, starring as the volume-heavy Drew Bledsoe of his era. Highly drafted quarterbacks are still flopping hard too (see: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.). Are rookie QBs overall more successful now? Sure, but they’re also getting more opportunities as of 2008. Try telling Blake Bortles and Derek Carr this is an easy game.

QBHOFCB

Where are all the great quarterbacks coming into the NFL since 2006? We’ve seen dips before, but this is starting to get alarming. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look like the best options, and I obviously think highly of Flacco and Ryan’s seven-year starts, but that’s about it since 2006. Save us, Tannehill, Bridgewater, Mariota and Winston. We need to start having some insurance that this next era when these HOF passers are retired will still be good.

(B)rees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger

We have clearly been spoiled from watching the highest level of sustained QB play in NFL history. We’ve known about “1812” for so long now, but the consistency of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger is also special. Brees broke out in 2004, the rookie season breakout for Ben. Rodgers didn’t get to start until 2008, but I think he just locked up his spot in Canton after his second MVP season in 2014. No, it wasn’t as good as his 2011, but it was another monster year of dominant efficiency and it moved him up from 26th to 14th for me. Roethlisberger is the first great QB I can say I’ve been able to watch every game of his career live. You could definitely make the claim 2014 was his finest season yet. He’ll always be the first quarterback to have multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to have back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. All of those games were against teams that made the playoffs.

The reasons I keep Brees ahead at 13th are that I think this 11-year run he’s been on (zero starts missed due to injury) is incredible, and he has quite arguably been better in the playoffs than the other two. He just needs to get there with more consistency, though he’s gotten the short end of the stick defensively when it comes to that top five active group. Brees was still great in 2014, but he had some bad decisions at important times. I don’t think he’s done yet by any means, though I question how much higher I could rank him on this list. He might be fifth in his era when it’s all said and done. That’s really not an insult either. This group is simply special.

Some might even put Rodgers higher than 14th, but I think that’s pretty generous for someone who has been a starter for seven years, including a debut season that was more solid than spectacular (2008) and a half-season due to injury (2013). Rodgers’ stats look off the charts right now, but that’s also the benefit of having 100 percent peak performance in this era of great stats. When you look at advanced metrics, especially ones that include sacks, Rodgers is much closer to his peers. Rodgers has led the league in Total QBR one time (2011) and in passing DVOA two times (2011 and 2014).

Any mainstream criticism of Rodgers is almost nonexistent, but I expect that to change if he continues to not shine in January as has been the case since he won a Super Bowl in 2010. His struggles against the other NFC champions in that time have been troublesome, but the good news is the Giants and 49ers don’t look to be contenders any time soon. Seattle is the defense he has to figure out. And yes, I still think he struggles more than the other top quarterbacks when it comes to comebacks or having to win in different styles. If he doesn’t start a game well, I just don’t expect him to pull it together late. Winning ugly is not on the menu yet. He needs to come out with his ‘A’ game, and his ‘A’ game is pretty much as good as any quarterback’s that’s ever played in the NFL. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s off like in Buffalo and Detroit last year or against Seattle, he doesn’t impress.

But if these other guys ever retire soon and the young quarterbacks don’t pan out, Rodgers could enjoy a nice run at various league-leads and awards if his only real competition is Luck. Going forward, I worry a little about Rodgers’ durability, because he still takes some really bad sacks. It’s hard to believe this is already going to be his age-32 season. Health is about the only thing that could stop him from cracking the top 10 soon. If his next seven years are in line with the last seven, I expect to see Rodgers in my top five one day.

apvotes

The elite MVP seasons of Rodgers are what put him over Ben, who hasn’t had years like that yet. Amazingly, Roethlisberger has never received an All-Pro vote in his career. He’s also only had three seasons where he’s started all 16 games. The main problem is his best seasons (2007, 2009 and 2014) are years where a lot of quarterbacks were standouts, so it’s understandable why he didn’t get a vote. But considering Luck and Brady got AP votes last year, you could definitely argue Ben deserved one in 2014.

Roethlisberger is having an unusual career path. He had personal and team success immediately, but he’s been statistically better in the second half of his career when he’s had to pick up more of the slack. However, he hasn’t had much playoff success since the night he led that epic drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. This year the Steelers seem to be fielding their worst defense yet around Ben, which feels like an 8-8 season in the making. Basically, the Steelers are turning into the Saints, which is good for Ben’s fantasy numbers, but terrible for his playoff success. He definitely doesn’t need to get to another Super Bowl, but how is this thing going to end? Is he going through a rough team patch like 1992-95 Elway, only to get a better team around him at the end? Is he going to fade away like Aikman in Dallas, unable to keep the team consistently in the playoffs after their talent core declined? Is he going to have an abrupt ending after taking a shot so big he can’t recover from it?

I’ll end this section by explaining some of the decision to move Rodgers and Roethlisberger past the players previously ranked 14-25. Since most of us can agree Rodgers has had the more dominant career, we’ll just look at this from Ben’s standpoint.

Roethlisberger is entering his 12th year as a starter, which already puts him on a short list of QBs in NFL history. Jim Kelly played 11 NFL seasons. Are you really going to tell me Roethlisberger’s play in the regular season and postseason hasn’t exceeded Kelly’s? It’s not a huge difference, which is why there are only five players between them, but Roethlisberger has put together a better resume with more to come. Kurt Warner played 12 seasons, and we know only six of them really count for his HOF push. He had higher highs than Ben, but good lord did he have many lower lows.

Quarterback is a position where you need to be the full-time starter to have value for your team. This is why I don’t put much stock at all in partial seasons where a guy throws like 150 passes and wins some games off the bench, or makes four decent starts, or has a good seven-game stretch before a season-ending injury. Screw that. True value is found by suiting up every week year after year. Ben’s missed 17 games in his career for various reasons, but he’s found a way to start at least 12 games in every season. That’s important. If he does it in 2015, he’ll be the 10th QB with a dozen starts in at least a dozen different seasons. I factored this into a lot of my decisions here, as a guy like Len Dawson played 19 seasons, but you can basically chop off the first five and the last three, leaving 11 years (1962-1972). Do I think that stretch, largely done in the AFL, is more impressive than Roethlisberger’s 11 years? I don’t anymore, so I moved him past Dawson this year.

Similarly, I downplay Sid Luckman vs. Ben due to his peak coming in WWII seasons, and I don’t see any value in his final two seasons (1949-50). I downplay Norm Van Brocklin’s career for spending time in his prime in a two-QB system with Bob Waterfield and facing some suspect competition. For Y.A. Tittle, I really respect his 1961-63 seasons with the Giants, but he’s another guy with a ton of seasons you have to throw away due to the AAFC, injuries or him just being terrible (1964 swansong). He had about seven or eight really solid years overall, which again I think Roethlisberger has exceeded. So I moved him ahead of those guys.

When the worst thing you can point to in Roethlisberger’s career is his 2006 season, that’s very telling of the quality of his career. Yes, he threw 23 picks, but he still finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. He dealt with a motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and a concussion after he was getting back to form. If that’s the low point of your 11-year career, then you’re probably having a hell of a career. A lot of guys sink lower than that.

Which finally leads me to putting Ben (and Rodgers) ahead of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. Let’s get Fouts of the way quickly. He was great for eight years (1978-1985) in a record-setting passing offense, which I really respect. That’s why he’s 19th. His other seven seasons and his lack of playoff success — started and ended with 5-INT games — are why he isn’t higher. That’s a good chunk of negative that you can’t just ignore, though I admittedly don’t do a good enough job of punishing for the bad years.

Speaking of bad years, Aikman, Bradshaw and Starr had several and it’s only fitting to talk about this trio together. In fact, Starr was almost worthless without Vince Lombardi as his head coach. Bradshaw is lucky Joe Gilliam was ineffective in 1974, because he may have lost his starting job for good after an (extended) awful start to his career. Aikman was one of the worst QBs in the NFL his first two years, and his finale (2000) was on that level. Yet all three were the quarterbacks of dynasties, the best teams in their decades with great players on both sides of the ball and fantastic coaching. They all won at least three titles and had some great efficiency stats in those playoff wins. These quarterbacks had some nice regular-season numbers at times, but the volume wasn’t there to match their peers. Unitas was better than Starr. Staubach was better than Bradshaw. Young and Favre were better than Aikman if we’re just talking 1990’s NFC. But #RINGZ.

When asked to carry flawed teams, these quarterbacks weren’t capable of getting the job done. When their team’s talent wasn’t up to the level of all-time great, they couldn’t get them into the playoffs with any consistency. Now I won’t slam these guys as much as I would a caretaker like Bob Griese — they’re still in my top 18 — but they just had easier jobs in their primes. Throwing the ball 30 or 40 times wasn’t the plan, let alone a necessity.

I think Roethlisberger would have more than two rings if he had the Steel Curtain defense instead of Dick LeBeau’s “My Defense Works for 75% of the Game Against 75% of the NFL” shtick. But just to start any game with an average team, I’m taking Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, Starr and Aikman. That trio was only effective for about 8-9 years each. Roethlisberger has already surpassed that.

But without a strong finish, I think Ben is going to be stuck at 15 until someone moves ahead of him, or if his play really declines. His career has essentially peaked from an all-time perspective, but as long as the story is still being written, there’s always a chance of changing your legacy. I just don’t think the Steelers are going to build another balanced team in time for him to do so.

Change of Heart: Tarkenton over Graham

The only other change in my top 30 was swapping Fran Tarkenton for Otto Graham. Given what I value in QBs, this should have been the case years ago. Career length is a big factor. Tarkenton was essentially a starting QB for 18 NFL seasons compared to just six for Graham. Remember, I don’t care about the AAFC. What’s amazing is how Tarkenton was such a model of consistency despite his chaotic, scrambling style — he had one below-average passing efficiency season (1962) in 18 years according to Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced tables that adjust for era. Despite all his running around, he was very durable and never had more than eight fumbles in a season. While he never had the stunning peak of a Tittle or Jurgensen, Tarkenton ranks as high as anyone when it comes to the number of quality QB seasons in the NFL. He was a star for nearly two decades, and he retired as the all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdown passes. In fact, he’s held the passing yardage record longer than any player in NFL history.

PYDREC

Tarkenton amassed those numbers without throwing more than 25 touchdowns to any player. John Gilliam was his top guy. Tarkenton excelled under multiple coaches and for multiple teams (Giants and Vikings). He might have been the first great one-man show at quarterback, but unfortunately those guys don’t win rings. With or without Tarkenton, Bud Grant’s Vikings great defense (“Purple People Eaters”) was routinely run over in big games. In his 1975 MVP season, Tarkenton lost at home in the playoffs to Dallas thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson (push off?) in the final minute. It remains the only game-winning Hail Mary in NFL playoff history and it came at the expense of one of the game’s finest players.

When it comes to Otto Graham, the first thing people like to mention is he led the Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons. It’s as if Graham was the only player in the AAFC, and he’s certainly the only player people ever choose to recognize the stats and accomplishments of from the AAFC. I just want to point out Graham won just as many NFL Championship Games (3) as he lost. Some of the losses were absolutely brutal too. We weren’t that far off from having Bobby Layne and the Lions as the dynasty of that time.

The truth is Graham was a great player on the league’s most loaded team (7-9 HOFers every year), with a great defense and a true innovator (Paul Brown) as his head coach. Players in such situations don’t get full credit from me, because their job was easier. I still think enough of Graham to rank him 12th, and he was the best quarterback of that era (1950-55). He also wasn’t just some caretaker as he won two passing yardage titles. When you rank first in NFL history in passing yards per attempt (8.63), albeit in six seasons, you’re going to earn my respect. I just wish we would stop padding the AAFC stuff onto his legacy, because that league was not up to par with the NFL, which actually drafted Graham in 1944 (Lions). He didn’t play then because of World War II.

Graham is a player I expect to keep dropping as some of the players in my previous section continue to have long, successful careers in a more competitive era.

Eli Manning: Why?

Every year I post this list one of the main responses is why is Eli Manning so high? It bothers me too, because he should be about 10 spots lower with the other New York guys and right there with Romo and Rivers. I just haven’t had the heart to move him since first putting him 29th after the 2012 season. He was a joke in 2013 and played much better last year, but the fact is the Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Eli and the Giants are like leap year: they strike every four years in February. 2008, 2012, and uh-oh, 2016 is next. It would only be fitting for the Giants to start with a bang (JPP), end with a bang (third title…Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed catch to beat New England of course) and for Eli to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

At least that scenario would help keep my sanity about ranking him this high. Eli really is frustrating because you see the moments of older brother-like brilliance, but then you see the plays that would make Archie shake his head. Eli’s always been very good in 4QC/GWD situations, and I still think he engineered the greatest drive in NFL history with everything at stake in Super Bowl 42. The fact that he starts every single game cannot be undervalued either. It’s not easy to have 10 straight 3,000-yard passing seasons in the NFL. Only six other quarterbacks have had more such years. I think Eli’s 2011 season was one of the finest jobs of a QB carrying his team that we’ve seen, and even then it was a 9-7 year that barely resulted in a division title. Eli just doesn’t have the same efficiency as his peers, though his offenses do well at scoring and he doesn’t take many sacks.

If Eli’s playoff record remains intact at 8-3, then that’s very disappointing for the Giants, because that means they continued to miss the playoffs. You can’t go one-and-done or throw game-ending interceptions in January if you keep failing enough from September through December. That’s probably the single most frustrating thing about Eli. His regular-season defenses haven’t been good, so he gets credit for dealing with that. But in the playoffs, those defenses were outstanding, never allowing more than 23 points in any game and shutting down some of the best offenses in NFL history. And yet the QB still gets the most credit there. I want to see some more playoff losses, Eli. Preferably wins, but just get in the damn tournament. Increase that sample size. Give us some insurance you didn’t just have two one-month hot streaks four years apart. I’m going to drop him next year if 2015 doesn’t go well. Promise.

Ken Stabler for the HOF?

As I predicted this summer, the passing of Ken Stabler has led to him getting another look from the Hall of Fame as 2016’s senior nominee. Unfortunately he won’t be able to enjoy it if he gets in (good chance), but that’s how these things work sometimes. I believe enough time has passed to where a discussion on the merits of Stabler’s HOF case wouldn’t sound insensitive.

Stabler is one of four QBs (Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson and Kurt Warner) to be a HOF finalist without getting voted in. We know there was some media vitriol going back to his playing days going on behind the scenes to keep Stabler out, so with new voters, that’s not likely to remain an issue. Personally, I can accept Stabler getting into the HOF. I’d sooner back Ken Anderson, but Stabler wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The argument for Stabler is simple: you’ve let George Blanda and Joe Namath in already. You can see I put Stabler ahead of both. Those guys had their peak years in the AFL. Stabler’s best years all came in the 1970’s NFL, the toughest modern decade of passing. He played against a lot of legendary defenses and teams, and definitely had the “Fame” part down with big plays in games with names. He was a very good postseason performer, winning a Super Bowl in 1976. He was also league MVP in 1974 and at least the second-best QB in 1976 (AP second-team All-Pro). Not many QBs can claim those accolades in NFL history. Stabler’s peak really lasted seven seasons (1973-79), but as we have looked at here, that’s still very good from a historical standpoint.

One problem for The Snake is that he threw a lot of interceptions, even for his era. In fact, here are some damning facts:

  • Most games with 4+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (14)
  • Most games with 5+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (5)

Stabler is also tied for the third-most games with at least three interceptions (29). Stabler somehow threw 20-30 interceptions in each season from 1977-1980, but still had a winning record each season. It was a different game then, but Stabler still threw too many picks. But again, that didn’t stop voters from keeping Namath and Blanda out. Stabler’s last few years with the Oilers and Saints don’t do him any favors. It’s all about the Oakland run, and that was strong enough in my book to crack the top 30. That also looks to be enough for the standards of the HOF. If you haven’t figured it out, the players in yellow in the list are in the HOF (red are active).

Marginal Moves You Probably Don’t Care About

I moved Phil Simms down four spots to 38 after becoming more impressed with the Giants’ defense and less impressed with his individual contributions.

I moved John Brodie up three spots to 32 after seeing he was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack. Not quite Marino or Peyton level, but right up there. Part of his ascension was also at the cost of moving Bob Griese down a notch. Why did I do that? Well…

The Same Guy, But One’s Slower: Tony Romo and Philip Rivers

I’ve compared Rivers and Romo a few times over the years as equivalents in each conference. They’re basically the Dan Fouts and Warren Moon of this era: the best quarterbacks to not reach a Super Bowl. It’s a shame because this is the era of the Super Bowl quarterback. A record eight active QBs have a Super Bowl ring. Rivers and Romo have some of the highest passer ratings and YPA averages in NFL history, but haven’t enjoyed much January success for various reasons.

I had these guys 53rd and 54th last year. Romo just had probably the best year of his career, and probably deserved to be MVP if he didn’t get hurt against the Redskins on MNF. He moves ahead of Rivers, who had a MVP-like start, but faded fast after a probable rib injury hampered his play.

Both of these guys became relevant in the 2006 season as first-time starters. Here’s how I stack them up.

  • 2006: Rivers gets the edge for being the full-year starter (1-0)
  • 2007: Big edge to Romo (1-1)
  • 2008: Big edge to Rivers (2-1)
  • 2009: Romo good, but Rivers arguably at his best (3-1)
  • 2010: Not enthralled with this Rivers season, but Romo had broken collarbone (4-1)
  • 2011: Big edge to Romo (4-2)
  • 2012: Big edge to Romo (4-3)
  • 2013: Both did great things, but slight edge to Rivers (5-3)
  • 2014: Big edge to Romo (5-4)

Rivers wins the total seasons, 5-4, but Romo had more decisively better years. I also can’t help but side with Romo in the difference of styles. Romo can improvise under pressure, while Rivers can waddle towards the sideline and throw the ball away. Either way they are close, and you’d be fooling yourself to think otherwise.

These guys have been at it for nine years, and have mostly been consistent in that time. In fact, Romo has hit these bare minimums in a record nine straight seasons: 61.3% completions, 7.2 YPA and 90.5 passer rating.

These guys have winning records. They’ve led teams to No. 1 seeds and multiple 12-win seasons. They’ve had more playoff heartbreak than success, but at least they have won some games. More than Y.A. Tittle and Sonny Jurgensen for starters — that’d be none for those guys. And nine seasons as annual top 5-10 quarterbacks is really damn good. That’s why I ended up moving them past the guys with six good years or a smaller number of great years.

Yes, neither has won an MVP award like Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, Bert Jones and Joe Theismann did, but just remember the competition from that elite group. This is the hardest era to win an award like that in. You really think Theismann, who was good for six years, is a better QB than these two? Give these guys Joe Gibbs and the Hogs instead of Norv Turner and Jason Garrett and see what happens. You want to talk about playoff failures? Boomer Esiason never threw for more than 150 yards in his five playoff starts. McNair, may he rest in peace, was a dreadful postseason QB who can thank the Music City Miracle for not leaving him with a 2-5 career playoff record. Bert Jones never won a playoff game either, was a hit machine and couldn’t stay healthy. Rivers has never missed a start in his career and even played on a torn ACL.

I think Romo and Rivers can crack the top 30 with strong finishes. As you can see, there’s just not much separating these players at this part of the table. A Super Bowl for either is likely a ticket to Canton as well.

More Shit You Really Don’t Care About

I dropped Don Meredith six spots to 58 after acknowledging he’s another QB with just about six relevant years.

I dropped Dave Krieg five spots after realizing some of his best seasons were small samples due to injury or being a backup. It’s kind of amazing he made the Pro Bowl despite playing 9 games in 1988, and it’s baffling why he made it at all in 1989. That was a poor year for the AFC though.

I got Matt Hasselbeck ahead of Bernie Kosar now, because I think his run of relevance (2002-07) is underappreciated. I don’t really blame Kosar for not getting to a Super Bowl (bad Cleveland luck), but I blame him for only having about six or seven relevant seasons.

Ryan vs. Flacco (Again)

Seriously, the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debates are quite heated — or elite as fvck depending whom you ask — on the internet. I guess I’m adding to it by simply ranking Ryan one spot ahead, the same as I did last year, but these two deserve to be very close. Advanced metrics will tell you Ryan is considerably better in his career, but 2014 was a different story. Flacco was 8th in DYAR; Ryan was 7th. Flacco was 8th in DVOA; Ryan was 9th. Flacco was 10th in QBR; Ryan was 7th. Hmm, that last one seemed to change more with the new QBR system, which surprises me since it’s supposed to devalue YAC. You saw those Antone Smith touchdowns last year, right? Then again, what do you do with the Steve Smith fluky touchdown against Carolina?

Either way, they were very close last year, which was arguably Flacco’s best regular season. Of course what happens here is Flacco has the edge in the playoffs, including getting there all but one time in his seven seasons. Ryan has had strong numbers the last two years, but Atlanta is just 10-22 and couldn’t win a pathetic division last year. Advantage: Flacco.

But I really wish something major would happen to create some separation between these two. Until it does, I’m going to continue ranking them side by side. I just hope other people can appreciate the seven-year starts they’ve had to their careers. Appreciate them even more when you consider the lack of quality signal callers joining the NFL since 2006 as detailed above.

Whither Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson?

Why didn’t I include Luck and Wilson? Well, they’ve only played three seasons. Despite the lack of great all-time quarterbacks, three seasons, no matter how impressive they are as a start, are a tiny sample to get into the top 64. However, I quickly threw together some names to branch out of the top 64 and I feel like it’s very possible Luck and Wilson could join this list after 2015. I also think it’s just as possible that at least one takes an unexpected step back this year. We’ll see what happens. And really, I just kept adding to this list Saturday night, and didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on it as I’ve spent on the top 64. I can tell you Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and even Andy Dalton are a big 2015 away from showing up in the top 130. Yes, even Dalton, which just goes to show how little you have to do to be considered an all-time quarterback.

Part II Preview

Why did Tom Brady stay put at No. 5 after his fourth Super Bowl, and why is Peyton Manning still on top? That’s what I’ll tackle in Part II, along with taking down the thin margin of what makes success in the postseason possible.

If you want an advanced copy of the tl;dr version of Part II, here it is:

Newsroom_Brady

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.

NFL Week 13 Predictions, QB Turnover Rates and Writing Recap

Getting right down to business.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 12: Ray Rice 4th-and-29 Conversion Strikes a Norv – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Joe Flacco hits the first “Dump Mary” in NFL history, with Ray Rice taking it the distance on 4th and 29. NFL teams are 6/35 (17.1%) on 4th and 20+ since 2000 in clutch situations. Full table included of the successes. Also this week:  Houston wins in OT for the second straight week with the help of Walt Coleman explaining another terrible, obscure NFL rule. Matt Ryan sets more records and the Steelers make asses out of themselves in Cleveland.

WC

10 NFL Teams That Absolutely Cannot Afford to Lose Their Starting QB – Bleacher Report

It’s a slideshow, but don’t worry, it’s still over 4,100 words. A look at the 10 teams who could least afford to lose their starting QB, with some surprises in the top 5.

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 12 vs. Buffalo Bills – Colts Authority

The “Fire Wanny!” movement is understandable. Dave Wannstedt’s defense was the most vanilla up front all season out of the 11 games the Colts have played, rushing four or less on 40 of 43 drop backs for Andrew Luck. However, they did get an impressive amount of pressure, so it was not all bad. Though, Reggie Wayne was the most wide open he has been all season, and the Colts receivers had their best YAC performance of the season.

What parity? Familiar faces dot NFL playoff chase – NBC Sports

Since the NFL moved to eight divisions in 2002, the league averages 5.2 new division winners and 6.3 new playoff teams. This season, they may be lucky to only get two new division winners and three new playoff teams. The numbers could be even smaller if the Packers win the NFC North again. This comes after a season with a record seven new division winners in 2011.

Even if you don’t want to read this one, it’s a great piece to bookmark as I compiled the division winners and all 12 playoff seeds for 2002-11 into tables. Might be the only place on the internet you can get all of that info on one page.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Week 13 Predictions – Bleacher Report

This week we look at: why the Falcons need to get over (and did) the Saints hump. Are the Colts the worst 7-4 team ever? Todd Bowles is having the worst career start ever for a defensive coordinator in Philadelphia.

122PRPHI

Rodgers, Ryan, Brady Best Ever Protecting the Football – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Updating (but not rehashing) an article from last year, here is a look at the career QB Turnover Rates, which includes interceptions and fumbles (all fumbles). Aaron Rodgers (2.65) has the best mark ever, while Rex Grossman (5.30) is the worst active QB, and exactly double the rate of Rodgers. How fitting. A full table for 171 quarterbacks in NFL history (min. 1,500 attempts).

2012 NFL Week 13 Predictions

Did Drew Brees’ birthmark expand after he threw five interceptions on Thursday night? I picked the Falcons to win, but that was still a shocking way for the game to play out.

Winners in bold:

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

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Week 7: 12-1
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 11-3
  • Week 10: 9-4-1
  • Week 11: 11-3
  • Week 12: 10-6
  • Season: 115-60-1 (.656)

NFL Week in Review: Andrew Luck Live, Matt Ryan on FOX, and 5th-Year Breakout QBs

A goose, a moose, and the son of Marv Albert walk into a bar…

Watching a live NFL broadcast is good for the creative mind. You can pick up plenty of ammo for The Whistleblower, and every once in a while you might learn something of value.

I watched the Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons preseason game on Thursday night, or at least as much as I could stomach, and I found multiple things worth looking into.

First, the FOX broadcast team of Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa seemed pretty supportive of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. There was not much talk about the playoff struggles, but instead they went optimistic for Ryan to really get things going in his fifth season.

In fact, even after one nice play by Ryan in the game the crew said something to the effect of “maybe the 5th year really is the breakout year for a young quarterback!”

Now they were not being scientific of course, and neither am I today. But I decided to dig a little into quarterbacks, with the help of Pro Football Reference’s Play Index, and see if there was any proof for the 5th season being the breakout season.

This would be defined as the QB having his best season in his fifth year, and ignoring any season that came afterwards for the purposes of this study.

The results were surprising, as I actually did find several high-profile cases of a QB having a career-year in season 5. Certainly enough to actually warrant the claims the FOX crew threw out there.

Note: When I say career-high here, I am only looking at the first five seasons unless noted otherwise.

5th-Year Breakout QBs

  • Sid Luckman (1943) – This one is influenced by WWII, but 1943 was the year Luckman threw 28 TD and had a ridiculous 107.5 passer rating.
  • Sonny Jurgensen (1961) – after riding the bench for four years in Philadelphia, Jurgensen got his shot in 1961 and threw for a then NFL record 3,723 yards and 32 TD.
  • Daryle Lamonica (1967) – After four backup years in Buffalo in which he was also a punter, Lamonica exploded with the Raiders, throwing 30 touchdowns and leading the team to Super Bowl II.
  • Bob Griese (1971) – Had a career-high 90.9 passer rating while throwing 19 TD to only a career-low 9 INT.
  • Ken Stabler (1974) – Threw 26 TD  and won the only AP NFL MVP award of his career.
  • Ken Anderson (1975) – Though 1974 was incredible too, Anderson made his first Pro Bowl and a 10-win season in 1975, while throwing for a      career-high 3,169 yards and 21 TD.
  • Danny White (1980) – Backup to Roger Staubach no more, White threw 30 TD and led Dallas to a 12-4 record and the most points scored in the league.
  • Joe Montana (1983) – One could argue 1981, the first Super Bowl win, was a better year, but in 1983, Montana had a career-high in yards (3,910), TD (26), and passer rating (94.6).
  • Dave Krieg (1984) – though he was more efficient in 1983, he only played half the season. In 1984, Krieg threw 32 TD and led Seattle to a 12-4 record.
  • John Elway (1987) – His lone MVP  award of his career came in 1987, which was the best season Elway had in his first 10 seasons actually.
  • Boomer Esiason (1988) – Won league  MVP and led the highest-scoring offense in the league to the Super Bowl in the best year of his entire career.
  • Chris Miller (1991) – Here’s a former Falcon. 13th overall pick in 1987, Miller had his lone Pro Bowl      season in 1991 when he threw 26 TD and led Atlanta to the second round of the playoffs.
  • Brett Favre (1995) – had a career-high in yards, TD and passer rating. Favre won his first MVP award.
  • Scott Mitchell (1995) – Yep, the one-year wonder came alive in 1995 with 4,338 yards and 32 TD for the Detroit Lions.
  • Matt Hasselbeck (2003) – Threw a career-high 26 TD while leading Seattle to 10-6 and the playoffs. He wanted to score too much that year.
  • Tom Brady (2004) – Brady had his best statistical season in year 5 as he led the Patriots to a third Super Bowl in four seasons. It was the first time he had a passer rating over 90.0 in a season, and this was easily the most dominant NE team to win a Super Bowl.
  • Tony Romo (2007) – In his second year as a starter, Romo led Dallas to a 13-3 record, threw for 4,211 yards, 36 TD and had a 97.4 passer      rating.
  • Philip Rivers (2008) – forget the  8-8 record, Rivers was on fire that year with 34 TD and a league-best 105.5 passer rating.
  • Eli Manning (2008) – After the  Super Bowl win, Manning had the best regular season of his career in 2008, leading the Giants to a 12-4 record and setting career highs in comp.  percentage, YPA and passer rating.
  • Aaron Rodgers (2009) – In just his second year as a starter, Rodgers threw 30 TD to only 7 INT, and had a 103.2 passer rating.

I could go on, but 20 rather high-profile cases is good enough to get the point across. Year five has been a breakout year for many of the all-time greats.

But what about the math check? We are talking about five seasons, so there is a 20 percent chance a QB will have his career/breakout year in the fifth year.

Even more inflating is the fact that most of these quarterbacks are not like Matt Ryan: starters from day one. Only Griese and Elway were five-year primary starters. When you sit on the bench for multiple seasons like Rivers or Rodgers, then it is even more likely your 5th season will be your best. Rodgers had a 50 percent chance, because all you could really compare are 2008 and 2009.

Notice players that started as rookies like Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Johnny Unitas did not make the list. That’s not to say they were not any good in year five, but it was not their best effort.

Matt Ryan’s best season was 2010. Maybe he will surpass it this year, but it is far from being a lock.

Great QB-Head Coach Pairings

Matt Ryan entering his fifth season also means Mike Smith is entering his fifth season as head coach of the Falcons. They came in together, and as I wrote at Bleacher Report last week, that is one of the great ways to turn a team around.

I looked at 80 cases in the Super Bowl era (but not every single case) of a team getting a new head coach and quarterback in the same year. Nine have been extremely successful (the elites), 20 had moderate success (Ryan/Smith fit in here), 12 were average/one-year wonders, and 34 were complete and utter failures together. That leaves five active/unknowns.

That includes 2012 rookies Chuck Pagano/Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, and Joe Philbin/Ryan Tannehill in Miami. They are the 31st and 32nd examples of a team hiring a rookie head coach and drafting a first-round QB in the same year since 1966.

FOX Gave Me a Concussion

The worst thing from the NFL on FOX, besides Laura Okmin’s interviews in Baltimore on Friday, was the semi-brutal discussion in Atlanta about the new kickoff rule helping to bring concussions down 43 percent on kickoffs. The crew boasted about how great that was, but they were misleading people by only looking at that one number.

As I wrote last week with data from Edgeworth Economics, concussions may have went down 43 percent on kickoffs, but it is because the number of kicks actually returned went down to 53.5 percent. In previous seasons, returnable kicks were in the lower 80’s in percentage.

Kickoffs are not safer. They just are less frequent. Going from 35 to 20 concussions on kickoffs sounds nice, but not so much when the overall concussion number only goes from 270 down to 266. That means concussions on other types of plays increased in 2011.

Also, we are talking about a one-year sample size, which was unusual because of the lockout. Let’s see what happens with the injury data this year before declaring the kickoff rule change a success.

Maybe we need five years of data for it to be clear. Just throwing it out there, much like Fox did in their effort to talk up Matt Ryan during a meaningless preseason game.

At least they were not blatantly wrong…this time.

Andrew Luck…Live and In Person

Finally, I went to the Colts/Steelers game last night, which means I did not get to hear any of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. They are not a duo I have a beef with, and you kind of miss hearing some type of analysis offered other than the loudest people sitting in your section.

With the stadium Wi-Fi almost nonexistent and a lack of stats on the scoreboard, I was pretty much forced to use the eyeball test to follow the game. This is exactly why I never go to regular season Sunday games (I have actually never been to a regular season or playoff game period), because I cannot be away from all the action going on around the league. I need details.

Not to mention I still favor my couch and computer chair. Even if the seat was pretty damn nice.

Ben Roethlisberger threw maybe the worst interception I have ever seen him throw, and I have seen them all. The Steelers showed very little on offense outside of Antonio Brown’s incredible run-after-catch on the touchdown. I have not seen a Pittsburgh WR do that since Santonio Holmes did it to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship.

I don’t know if Antonio Brown can replace Mike Wallace, but he has been a great replacement for Holmes.

Just before the game I learned via Twitter the NFL Network showed my tweet about predicting a 9/16 for 84-yard performance by Luck against Pittsburgh’s defense. I missed it. Again.

Andrew Luck started off with a weird Bruce Arians screen that saw Reggie Wayne go in motion, and Luck threw at his teammate’s ass (it appeared that way to me at least). I actually saw Wayne in motion and line up on the right, which is far different from his usual “I only line up on the left” role in Indy’s offense.

Luck threw a good pass to Collie, who must have dropped it on the way to the ground after taking yet another hit that saw him walk slowly to the bench. I don’t feel very good about the long-term career of this kid, which is a shame because he is a talented receiver.

That 19-yard reversal seemed to take forever, as did most of the challenge/reviews with the replacement refs. At least they knew which teams were playing tonight.

Luck’s pick six by Ike Taylor was a poorly thrown pass, and you know things are going bad when stone-hands Ike Taylor is taking your pass to the house. At this point, Luck was 2/8 for 16 yards and the INT.

But like he did last year at Stanford, he came right back from a mistake and led his offense to a touchdown. This is a great article from ESPN on Luck’s career at Stanford, and one of the facts I remembered was Luck bouncing back from interceptions last season.

After 10 interceptions in 2011, Luck led Stanford to 7 touchdowns on the ensuing drives. He was 28/34 for 288 yards, 3 TD and no turnovers on those drives. He knows how to immediately make up for a mistake.

After starting the next drive with a sack, Luck could have easily folded down 14-0 on the road, but he came back with four straight completions on a touchdown drive. He did have a second interception, but that was all on T.Y. Hilton throwing the big gain up into the air for a turnover.

Though he was 8/16 for 79 yards and two picks to start the game, numbers pretty close to my 16-attempt prediction, I was still far off on how Luck would finish the night. He was 16/25 for 175 yards, a TD run, and the two INT.

He had a spike to set up a last-second field goal. He had at least two drops that would have been another 40 yards in the half. Luck was pretty impressive in my book.

The game does not count for anything, and is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

But for one night, I experienced football from an angle without any commentary, statistics, while watching two teams I respect, and with players I may never see in person again in my life.

Now that it’s over, my anticipation for the real thing is much greater.

Coming up this week: expect articles on regression for elite offenses, potential myth-busting, and a PSA on bad stat usage. I will also give the podcast world a try for the first time.

(If you were looking for the punchline to the joke at the beginning, think “something, something…sodomy and glory holes”)