Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Nobody Wants To Be The Best In The NFL

Ask anyone who the best team in the NFL is and you will get a variety of opinions.  Currently I believe there are seven teams you can make a viable argument for.  Since when was it a consensus that we had no idea who the real best team in football was?  During the regular season, there is usually one team that has one or two bad games throughout the season, but besides that they roll everyone else all season.  This year, however, the league has seem to be more even than ever.  Last year it was the Packers who dominated the regular season, the year before it was the Patriots, and it goes on like that for years.  There is always one alpha dog that goes into the playoffs as the team you want to avoid.  This year there seems to be seven teams that can beat anyone on any give Sunday. 

It isn't even the end of the season and you already have nine teams with double digit wins and another four teams with nine wins.  The seven teams that look like they are above the rest are the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, and Green Bay Packers.  The problem is all these teams have flaws and bad losses.  They have all shared wins and losses against good and bad teams.  Below is the record these teams have against each other. 

New England: 2-2
Denver: 0-3
Houston: 1-2
San Francisco: 3-1
Seattle: 3-1
Green Bay: 1-2
Atlanta: 1-0

It shows here that most of the teams are pretty even.  Some of the wins and losses have some controversy with them.  The Packers lost to the Seahawks and the dreaded Fail Mary back when we had those replacement refs.  Seattle also beat the Pats on a touchdown in the last minute to take a one point lead.  All of Denver's losses came in the first five weeks and they haven't lost any games since.  Basically, if you put any of the teams on a neutral field it would be a coin flip as to who wins.  Vegas's odds range anywhere from 4/1 (Denver) to 9/1 (Seattle) and the other five fall somewhere in between.  Vegas doesn't even have a clue as to who the favorites are on any given Sunday.

You have the Houston Texans, with their great running game and their stout defense.  You have Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and Matt Schaub leading an offense.  You have the most likely Defensive Player of the Year in JJ Watt.  They only have three losses on the year, but those losses were by 18, 28, and 17.  Arian Foster, by far their greatest asset, is said to have a minor heart problem.  Last time I checked there is no such thing as a minor heart problem for an athlete.  They really have to show that they are more than their record suggests.  They may have twelve wins, but they get four easy ones playing the Titans and the Jaguars twice.  The Texans main concern should be their pass defense.  They aren't terrible, but are they good enough to beat Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the AFC?

The Seattle Seahawks are one of those "gets hot at the right time" teams.  They started off the season as a tweener playoff team.  They looked like they had a good enough defense to make it, especially with their home field advantage.  The only question was how would Russell Wilson fair in the NFL?  The answer is splendidly.  He is ranked ahead of the likes of Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees in passer rating and is only .3 behind Brady.  Marshawn Lynch is second in the league in terms of total rushing yards and, again, their defense is stout.  The only problem with the Seahawks is they are unproven.  How will the defense blend once they lose their top cornerback to suspension?  Will Wilson be able to handle the pressure of the playoffs as a rookie?  If they can't win the division, how will they fair playing their home games on the road?  Those are the questions that will separate this team from a Super Bowl contender and a pretender.

The Green Bay Packers have a prolific offense.  They can score points with the best of them.  That is strictly because of Aaron Rodgers.  If it wasn't for the quarterback then this team may not even be a playoff team, let alone a contender for a championship.  Their number one rusher is ranked 36th in the league and is having concussion issues.  Thankfully their defense is much improved from last year.  They have less injuries to their defensive stars (even though Clay Mathews has missed some time).  They looked like the odd team out with early losses to San Fran, Indianapolis, and Seattle, but besides a trouncing at the hands of the Giants they have excelled.  They have won nine of their last ten, including games against Chicago, Houston and Minnesota.  They look to be back in the saddle in the NFC. 

The Denver Broncos are the odds on favorite to win the Super Bowl according to Vegas.  They have been on a roll since losing to the Patriots in week five.  They started the season having trouble getting out of the gate.  They would immediately get down by double digits early while Peyton Manning did his best to bring them back.  Sometimes he did, but sometimes he fell short.  He has lost every time he has faced one of these teams so one could say that he is a product of his schedule, but all these teams have losses against a bad team besides Denver.  I understand that they lose to superior teams, but Denver has not lost in eleven weeks.  It takes a great team to pull off such a feat.  They do have some holes, however.  They have been hit by the injury bug at the running back position, with Knowshon Moreno back in the fold after being inactive for most of the season. The Broncos are the popular pick right now.  In today's NFL that could last a week.

The 49ers were a very popular pick to win it all coming into the season.  They have had ups and downs all season. They beat Green Bay down to start the season, but then lost by double digits to the Vikings two weeks later.  They got annihilated by the Giants, then came back that Thursday to beat the Seahawks.   They have a dreadful tie with the Rams, then come right back next week to put a twenty-five point beat down on the Bears.  They edge out the Patriots (even with an ugly second half) just to come back next week to take a bad division loss to the Seahawks.  Inconsistency like this is not what you need to win a Super Bowl.  They do have the intangibles that other teams don't have the luxury of.  They have a stout defense that is most likely the best in the league.  They have a refreshed Frank Gore running like he did five years ago.  Here is the catch, they sat their veteran quarterback to take a chance on a first time starter.  I understand that Colin Kapernick can make more plays than Alex Smith, but does that mean he won't make more season costing mistakes?  Remember last year, Smith was two Kyle Williams fumbles away from playing in the Super Bowl.  Jim Harbaugh is playing the role of mad genius.  Will it cause for Kapernick to bring the first Lombardi Trophy to San Fran since Steve Young?

For over a decade the New England Patriots have been a part of this conversation every year.  There is one reason for this, Tom Brady.  For much of the decade Brady and Peyton Manning have been trading off 1A and 1B monikers as the best in the league, if not of all time.  The Patriots this year look as good as ever.  They have the passing offense, obviously.  This year they have added a good running game and a stronger defense than the past couple years.  As much as they look great on paper, they aren't perfect.  They have had some special teams gaffes in critical situations (McCourty fumble against the Jets; Gostowski missed field goal against the Cardinals).  They have some off days here and there as well.  The Patriots have been without either Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski for much of the year due to injury.  It is well known how much the Pats depend on those two tight end sets and they haven't looked the same with Daniel Fells or Visante Shiancoe.  They have been giving up too many big plays in the secondary.  They seem to have been better on the every down front since the acquisition of Aqib Talib, but they are prone to blown coverage.  (Just look at that 49er game, they had passing touchdowns of 24, 34, 27 and 38 yards.)  This team has shown it can play with the big dogs of the AFC having already beaten Denver and Houston, but can they stay away from that stinker game?

Last, but not least, we have the Falcons.  Atlanta is the one team I feel people are overlooking.  They are the number one seed in the conference.  They have home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Through his career, Matt Ryan is 33-4 playing at home.  I'm not making that stat up.  So why are we ignoring this Falcons team?  They have Ryan, home field advantage, the best wide receiver/tight end trio in football, a decent defense, what are we missing?  Well, for one Ryan has zero wins in the postseason.  Sadly neither does Tony Gonzalez.  There aren't very many veterans on this team who know what it means to win.  They are coming in getting more than they expected out of their running game (despite the fact that Michael Turner came into came like a hundred pounds overweight).  They have a decent defense, but not many playmakers in the bunch.  They squeaked out a couple games they probably should have lost.  This team has a lot to prove this postseason.  Although to win in this league you also need a little luck.

If I was allowed to change my pick for who I am picking to win it all (which I won't, but just for argument's sake) I would go with the Falcons.  I understand that they haven't won a playoff game yet, but how many times have we seen this story before?  Team can't get over the hump.  When they do they go on a major run to prove the world wrong.  They win it all with the "nobody believes in us' mentality.  What really pushed me towards Atlanta is the fact they took every home test and won decisively.  They haven't lost in the Georgia Dome all year, including wins against the Saints, Giants, Cowboys and Broncos.  The Super Bowl is being played in another Dome within driving distance from Atlanta (for some at least).  They have so many weapons on offense it looks near impossible to cover them.  It just seems like it is Atlanta's year.  I wonder how Bobby Petrino feels about this team now over in Western Kentucky?

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