Friday, January 20, 2017

On Novak and Age

Novak Djokovic's greatest asset was his consistency. His peerless, endless consistency. He was a technically perfect player, with groundstrokes that seemed to be constructed in a lab to never miss. It wasn't the power or past players, or the power of Rafael Nadal, or pure magic of Roger Federer. Djokovic's greatest asset was that he wouldn't miss. Novak Djokovic was unbeatable because he was unbreakable - a machine. On Wednesday, he broke.

Novak Djokovic's career crested last May when he finally won the French Open, completing his career slam and also his own personal Nole-slam (winning four straight majors). He did it after so many years losing to Rafael Nadal at the French (five times). He did it a year after finally beating Rafa, but only to lose to Stan Wawrinka. He was on top. And that seems to have been, seemingly, the beginning of the end.

First, it was Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, a shock 3rd round upset to a Top-30 player. Then it was a series of, for Djokovic, relatively poor results at the end of the season. Then came his US Open Final loss to Wawrinka, and his year-end Final loss to Murray to cede the #1 ranking. In that time came multiple murmurs and statements of Djokovic's mental state, of him losing his joy, part of his drive. Of him just having crested, but even then, no one could have expected this.

Novak Djokovic is the one player you would never think would lose to a #117 player in the world. Djokovic didn't just lose, though, he got outplayed without playing too badly himself. Novak Djokovic seemed untouchable because he was more consistent than anyone else, with more flexibility, more durability and more consistency. But we have to ask if that Novak will ever come back. As a player without a huge serve, or overpowering groundstrokes, with a game more built of technical precision than power, if age may catch him more quickly than we realized.

Lost in all of this is Novak Djokovic is turning 30 in May. He won his French Open, his 12th overall slam, a couple weeks after turning 29. Roger Federer turned 29 in August, 2010. He won 16 slams before his 29th birthday, and has won one since, the 2012 Wimbledon Title at 30. He hasn't won a slam since turning 31 (admittedly, he's made three finals since).

Rafael Nadal turned 29 during the 2015 French Open, a tournament that saw him lose to Novak Djokovic. He hasn't won a slam since. In fact, his last came the year before when he turned 28 in the 2014 French Open. Even in an era where more older players are playing longer and better, 29 still seems like a strong cut-off point. It happened to Federer, who's issues post-29 have not generally been injury but consistency, and Nadal. It may just happen to Novak also.

The mental games that Novak seems to be fighting in his hide can't be forgotten either. On one hand, two weeks before the Australian Open started, Novak beat Andy Murray in the finals of the Doha tournament, a big win given Murray's recent success against Novak and #1 ranking. So it wasn't like this what Novak entering a tournament out of form. On the other hand, though, Novak is a player who early in his career was seen as something of a over-dramatic semi-headcase.

Djokovic broke out in 2007-8, making four straight semifinals at 20 years old, capping it off with winning the 2008 Australian Open. He wouldn't make a Final until the 2010 US Open. In the period in-between, his results were almost always strong (tons of QFs and SFs in Slams) but outwardly it was an interesting time. He was criticized for retiring in too many matches, for always seeming to have some medical issue that bothered him, for not putting away easy matches, for never winning close sets against Federer or Nadal, for bouncing the ball too many times before he served. Djokovic was a weird guy.

Suddenly, it all clicked for him. He has openly expressed it was a move to a gluten-free diet in 2010, or different training regimens, but from his run to the 2010 US Open Final onwards he was a different player, a more confident player, and that confidence transferred itself to performance worthy of one of the best players ever. But slowly after the French Open win, the old Novak has started to creep out.

There were veiled references to his mental state or his 'personal issues' (to the public his family life seems fine). There has been quite a lot recently written about his split from coach Boris Becker and widening gap between his longtime personal coach Marian Vijda as he starts to work more with a strange fitness-nut in Spain who talks about how love is connected to the body.

Djokovic is at a career crossroads it seems. Just like Nadal did in 2014, there was a brief moment where Djokovic seemed like a player who would make a spirited run at Federer's record of 17 slams, and that could still happen, but for right now Novak is teetering close to the edge of becoming another tennis great who stalled at 29-30, and the more he inhabits the traits that made him a mecurial prodigy in his early 20s, the more stark the contrast between 2014-16 Djokovic and the current iteration seems.

Monday, January 16, 2017

8 Great Aspects of Championship Sunday 2016

8.) Offense, offense, offense. Last year’s Conference Title Games and Super Bowl were defined by the Denver and Carolina defenses. It was a defense-heavy end of the season, with the Broncos and Panthers anhillating the Brady-led and Palmer-led offenses they faced, and then did the same to each other. That won’t happen in 2016. This season is an anomaly. The best defense, and more exactly, the best pass defenses, all missed the playoffs. The Patriots have the #1 scoring defense,  but that’s a mirage built off of playing a truly pathetic lineup of offenses – by far the easiest opposing offenses in the NFL this year. The Packers and Falcons both have major holes at all levels. The Steelers arguably have the best defense playing on Sunday, and they themselves are probably on the edge of the Top-10. This will be an offensive end to the season. Strange, in a way. Scoring was down – very slightly, but still. More telling, total offense and passing offense dropped for the first time in years. On the whole, this wasn’t a great offensive season, but the best offenses are alive and will duke it out.

7.) James Harrison, Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers: I don’t know if they are the three oldest defensive players in the league, but they are probably all in the Top-10. They’ve all seen better days (especially Freeney). But still, these are guys who dominated the previous decade of NFL football still playing big roles. Freeney is a bonus for the Falcons, but he had moments in the Divisional Round and can be key for a team that needs to get some rush on Rodgers. Peppers and Harrison are instrumental to their teams defenses and chances. Peppers is a modern marvel who is still within a standard deviation of how good he’s been ever since he left Carolina, but Harrison had a huge bounce-back season. The Steelers gave him his first second chance in 2007, so it just fits they’ve given him his second second chance.

6.) Le’Veon Bell: What Bell has done the last two games, rushing for 150+ each time while toting the rock 30+ times seems like overcompensating for him missing the playoffs the last two years. Bell was so good in 2014 but got hurt in the season finale (to be fair, it was not a meaningless game). Last year was more or less a write-off. Finally healthy, and he has been incredible. The Patriots rush defense is better than either Miami’s or Kansas City’s, and his patient style seems far less likely to work against the Patriots, but maybe it can. Keeping their drives long and having the ball for 35+ minutes will be key. It was the formula the Steelers used in their only recent win in the rivalry – their 25-17 win in 2011. The game was not as close as the score (the Steelers outgained the Pats 2-1 and held the ball for 40 minutes). That game was defined by Roethlisberger. This will have to be Bell.

5.) Experience vs. Innocence: The Falcons have a coach and a QB who have never won the Super Bowl. The Patriots, Steelers and Packers have coaches and QBs who have all won the Super Bowl, combining for 7 total for each. I can’t off-hand name the last time we had a Conference Title Game matchup where three of the four starting QBs had won the Super Bowl. For coaches, the last time was actually just two years ago (McCarthy, Carroll and Belichick), but that too is quite rare. Does experience matter? The Falcons as a whole barely have players that were around in 2012 when they lost the NFC Championship Game. I’m sure people will write about how the Falcons are the debutantes, how they don’t have the experience, how they’ve choked before. I don’t think it matters, but I’m sure I’ll be hearing about it a lot.

4.) Aaron Rodgers’ in the playoffs = Amazingness All Around. With his two wins in these playoffs, Rodgers is now 9-6 in the playoffs. That is pretty good (though had he lost the Wild Card game, he truly would have inherited his place as this generations Peyton Manning). What is better is out of those 15 games, the average level of enjoyment has been ridiculously high. He’s played now five just classic playoff games: both of his losses to Arizona, the loss to Seattle in the ’14 Title Game, last Sunday’s win, and the loss to San Francisco in the ’13 Wild Card Game. I would say there’s been three other very entertaining games: the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh, the 26-21 divisional win over Dallas in 2014, and the 45-31 loss to San Francisco – Kaepernick’s shining moment. Out of the 15, I only truly count one awful game, a pointless 24-10 win over a Joe Webb led Vikings team in 2012. Aaron Rodgers has generally been a source of some breathtaking playoff football.

3.) Revenge Potential: One of the hidden joys of Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl run last year was that he finally got the chance to get one back at Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s 2005 Divisional Win was probably the most painful loss of Manning’s career, a shocking end to what had been the best team he had played on. 10 years later he got his chance. For both Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, they get their shots at revenge. Roethlisberger’s incredible rookie season ended with a home Title Game loss to New England, a slightly embarrassing 41-27 loss that wasn’t as close as the score. For Ryan, the low point was a 48-21 thrashing that the Packers laid on them in the 2010 Divisional Round, the worst loss ever by a #1 seed in a Divisional Game. In Ben’s case, he was a rookie. The Steelers won the Super Bowl the very next season (and again three years after that), and to my knowledge Roethlisberger and Brady are the only two players from that game who are playing this weekend (Belichick, of course). For the Falcons, they haven’t won a Super Bowl. There are similarly few players remaining (Matt Ryan and Jordan Babineaux are the only two I can name off the top of my head), but they have a chance to right a terrible wrong.

2.) The Patriots: I’ll regret writing anything positive about that team, but my God, let’s just realize this is their 6th straight title game appearance. That’s bananas. The hater in me would point out they are 2-3 in the previous five, but still. The further hater in me would point out the hilarious string of divisional round opponents they’ve been lucky enough to draw, including the Texans twice, and a Tim Tebow led Broncos team, but still, six straight title games is just bonkers. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the team that were previously tied with New England for the record were the 1973-1977 Raiders, who actually won just one of the five title games (1976), but the teams they lost to are among the best ever, not one year wonder Super Bowl winners like Baltimore and Denver (or a Denver team who would then lose the Super Bowl 43-8). That all said, this is truly an incredible achievement. Sure, I would rather not have the final true football game of the season (non spectacle of a game that is the Super Bowl) is in Foxboro, which to date has still never provided a great playoff crowd, but decades from now, when hopefully the Patriots are mired in a 2003-2016 Browns-like slump, we can look back with less tinted glasses at just how incredible the Brady & Belichick Patriots were.

1.) Matt Ryan’s Moment: At this point, it seems very likely that Matt Ryan will win the MVP. He was by far and away the 1st team all pro at QB, and there has never been a QB MVP that was not been the 1st team All –Pro. That all said, Aaron Rodgers is easily the most hyped player coming into the NFC Championship Game, what with his brilliant play since the ‘run the table’ remarks. And while the Packers have run the table, guess who has the best passer rating in the NFL since Week 12 (the week that started the Packers win streak)? It is Matt Ryan. Matt Ryan was the best QB in the league in the beginning of the season, he was the best at the end of the season. He’s been the same record setting QB all year long. Three QBs playing on Sunday have won the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan has never made a Super Bowl. This is his time. This whole year has been. In 2011, it was Eli Manning. In 2012, it was Joe Flacco. 2016 has been the year of Matt Ryan in full, and if he does lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl, it will start by knocking off the team that is led by the person people think is playing the best at QB.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Finding Joy in the Madness

Yesterday's epic National Championship Game ended about as good as any college game could. It was a fantastic game, full of dueling incredible storylines, the birth of a legend, the final piece of a long 5-year quest at Clemson, and either a momentary lapse, or the beginning of the end, of the sports great modern dynasty. That game had everything. Of course, if not for all the ills of college football, it would have been so much worse.

Alabama's offense consisted of waiting around for a 40+ yard play to occur. They had such variance in their offense. Either a run for 10+, or a deep bomb completed, or incomplete passes sprayed along the field coupled with runs for nothing. Clemson had a rhythm, but also wasted precious time running east to west and ridiculous read option plays against a team whose defense figured that stuff our three national championship games ago.

The game ended as fantastically as it can, with a game-winning TD with one second left. Of course, if not for some puzzling at best, awful at worst, clock management by Dabo Swinney and Clemson on that last drive, it would have been far less dramatic. College Football is not perfect. As a hardcore NFL fan, the quality of play alternates between inspired and awful, with way more falling on the awful side - particularly on offense. Of course, this game a day after one of the most listless NFL playoff weekends in recent memory, with four games all decided by 13+ points, and few dramatic moments at all. Sure, all eight teams in terms of quality were far superior (including the Connor Cook led Raiders), but after seeing what Alabama and Clemson put on display, maybe imperfect isn't that bad.

I had a quick group chat conversation with a couple friends on whether that was a better title game than the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC, memorably won late by Texas. That game had a few similarities, including the overall theme of an upstart team led by a dual threat QB coming back from behind all game to beat a team looking for a dynasty. I argued yes. Here the game was closer, featured multiple lead changes on bananas play, and had the final TD scored even later. My friend who is the most hardcore college football fan in my group argued no, mostly centering around the quality of play - and more directly, quality of players in that game. I get that argument (even in a game where the perceived talent didn't translate to the NFL), but maybe we can overlook that for the sheer audacity of a great college game.

Weirdly, we had a Title Game in college rather recently that could match this one for drama, as we are less than a year removed from Villanova's incredible walk-off win over North Carolina with a last second buzzer beater. That game was incredibly well played. In quality of play, that more closely resembled NBA Basketball than this game resembled NFL football. But that doesn't necessarily mean it was better. In basketball in many ways, the flaws are more pronounced. The mindlessness of most college basketball offenses are so glaring, so jarring, it is hard to ever look past. College can get closer to the real product, and when you couple that with the drama of Clemson ending an all-time run by Alabama, you get something close to perfect despite its imperfections.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

NFL 2016: Wild Card Weekend Picks

(A5) Oakland Raiders (12-4)  @  (A4) Houston Texans (9-7)
Saturday, January 7th, 4:30 - ESPN
Line: Texans -3.5

State of the Teams: Obviously, this game turned into a disaster when Derek Carr went out. The game is now essentially a fight for who gets to be the Patriots (or Chiefs) whipping boy in a week. Derek Carr's loss turns the game into a complete toss-up. The Texans of course have their own QB issues, turning back to Brock Osweiler a week after ceremoniously benching their $72MM man. The Raiders are largely healthy outside of Carr, with their O-Line at full strength and the return of Karl Joseph. Adding a rookie safety back into the fold may seem like a small victory, but when he was healthy the Raiders had a surprisingly good pass defense by advanced metrics (tops in the league by QBR, for what that is worth). The Texans are also relatively healthy, but they've already lost JJ Watt for the year back in Week 2. While they've been able to make up for a lot of the drop-off with the rest of the defense - including a siliently great Jadeveon Clowney season - taking a step-up, there still is something missing with Watt out. Let's move on before going too far into this. As I said, this is merely an exhibition. Neither team is really any good at the moment and is merely a lamb being fed for slaughter next week.

The Matchup: Again it is so hard to break this game down. Not only because there is no desire to, but I have no idea what the Raiders offense will be with Connor Cook. Given who he was playing (still the best pass defense in the NFL), Cook wasn't awful, but he is a rookie with no real playing action. The Texans themselves were in this situation five years ago, with 3rd-string TJ Yates having to start playoff games. Yates was serviceable in the Wild Card win, but even he had a few games in the regular season and the 2011 Texans may have been the best team in the NFL before Matt Schaub went down. On other other end, who knows what we are getting from Osweiler. Both teams will likely try to lean on the run, and neither rush defense is very good (Texans are 17th in DVOA, Raiders 18th). The home team has a slight advantage because however bad Osweiler is, he is probably better than a guy who has never started a game in the NFL before. 

The Pick: Raiders 13  Texans 20  (HOU -3.5)

(N6) Detroit Lions (9-7)  @  (N3) Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
Saturday, January 7th, 8:15 - NBC
Line: Seahawks -8

The State of the Teams: The Lions are coming into the playoffs as cold as possible, losing three straight games. Very few teams have ever made the playoffs losing their last three games. The last team did so after starting 13-0 (the 2009 Saints). Worked out pretty well for them, but it is different when you don't need any of those games. The Lions offense has never been the same after Matthew Stafford broke his finger against the Bears. While they won that game, the Lions have not been close to the same, with Stafford spraying passes high way too often. The offense is still designed well, but they may have to resort to their ultra-short passing game that somewhat worked in 2015. The Seahawks are also entering the playoffs cold, with a 2-3 finish to the season that knocked them out of a first round bye. Just like we have a key turning point with Matthew Stafford, we have a clear turning point for Seattle with Earl Thomas. The first time he missed games in his career the Seahawks defense went down the drain. The worst performance was their 10-38 loss to the Packers, but overall their defense has given up way too many big plays, way too many sustained drives on 3rd down completions, and worse red zone performance. The OL remains a disaster, but not as bad as it was early in the season. Wilson will need to raise his game, as his form dipped along with the defense.

The Matchup: The last time these two teams played, Kam Chancellor knocked the ball out of Calvin Johnson's hand at the goal line to save a victory. The Lions showed in that game, a loss during their 1-7 start to the 2015 season, that they don't really fear playing in Seattle. The Lions defense is not as good this year, mostly due to drop-offs from Ezekiel Ansah and Tahir Whitehead, and while their secondary is very strong, their rush discipline was very poor against Green Bay and the more-mobile Russell Wilson may expose that even more. The other side of the ball can go either way, but I don't think that Stafford is healthy enough with that finger to expose the issues Seattle is having so much trouble defending the deep third but with Stafford's inconsistent accuracy deep right now that shouldn't be as big of a problem.

The Pick: The Lions rarely get blown out. This is a high line for a team that struggled to put away the 49ers last week. There are issues with the Lions for sure, and you can foresee a situation where they tank early after blowing the division last week, but the Lions are a well-coached, fearless team that I don't think will wilt in the Seattle energy. The Seahawks are still better, at home, and their weaknesses don't match-up with the Lions strengths, but I do think the Lions keep it closer than expected.

Lions 17  Seahawks 23  (DET +8)

(A6) Miami Dolphins (10-6)  @  (A3) Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Sunday, January 8th, 1:00 - CBS
Line: Steelers -10

State of the Teams: Stop me if this sounds familiar. An AFC team playing in Wild Card weekend has serious questions at QB?! Matt Moore is likely getting the start - I think it is basically confirmed at this point. Now, Moore has way more history than, say, Connor Cook, but most of that history prior to these last four games came in 2011 and 2009. Moore is decent, probably the best backup QB playing this weekend, but still this is not Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins as a whole had nothing to play for in Week 17, but before that had gone 9-1. Now, most of those nine wins came against bad teams (or teams with injured QBs like Roethlisberger), and their one loss was a disaster, a incompetent 6-38 loss to Baltimore, but that still is nine striaght wins where both sides of hte ball look good throughout. Of course, one of the few teams who can rival the Dolphins' recent success, it is the Steelers, winners of 7 straight. Those seven wins weren't all that impressive either, but did include a 10-point win over the Giants, and a great win over Baltimore to seal up the division. The Steelers are more of a concept than a reality. We still think that if Ben, Bell and Brown were fully healthy all at once they would be unstoppable, but they have been more or less healthy for most of that seven game win streak and were never nearly as unstoppable as we would have wanted.

The Matchup: We can throw a lot of their earlier meeting this season away. Ben Roethlisberger got injured early and hobbled his way through a dreadful performance. Ryan Tannehill was the starter for the Dolphins. However, there are a few things we could learn. That earlier game was Jay Ajaye's breakout, and the Steelers have been susceptible all year long to running backs. The Dolphins did a great job dominating the Steelers OL, which is tough to do, but the Dolphins do have the talent to repeat that performance. As a whole, the Steelers are a better team, playing really well, and they have that tantalizing potential that everyone still loves, but the Dolphins are, for the first time in a long time, well coached and have a capable backup QB to aid in not allowing the Steelers to load the box on Jay Ajaye.

The Pick: The line is high, no doubt about it. I think Moore is well-regarded enough the line would only drop to around -7 had Tannehill been playing. The Steelers line has to be built off of the hope that it all comes together. The best Steelers performance is still either Week 1 (rout in Washington on MNF) or Week 4 (rout over KC at home on SNF). This is a not a team that has lived up to their potential and has rarely blown out teams. They have at very few times where they've covered a 10-point line. With that in mind, and a sleepless 1PM type start, I'm leaning towards the underdog covering.

Dolphins 17  Steelers 26  (MIA +10)

Giants 21  Packers 17  (NYG +4)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Who can make the leap?

Generally around 50% of NFL teams that make the playoffs one year don't make it the next. This year was the same, with the Broncos, Bengals, Panthers, Cardinals, Vikings and Redskins dropping out. Normally it is around 6, at times drops to 4, on rare occasions will go up to 7-8. So, with that in mind, let's look ahead at the 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs this year and which have the best chance, and what the path is, to making the playoffs. Obviously, we don't know how free agency will change things, or the draft, or a Romo-trade, but I'll take a few guesses and assumptions.

No Chance in Hell

20.) Cleveland Browns
19.) San Francisco 49ers
18.) New York Jets

Saying anything in the NFL has no chance in hell is a strong statement, and sure I'm openly being somewhat hyperbolic, but I really would be surprised if any of these three make it. The Browns are at least keeping their coach (the Jets might too, but that could be a disaster if things go south early in 2017). The Browns are a year into a multi-year rebuilding phase with no real plan to win anyway in 2017. The 49ers are basically entering where the Browns were a year ago with cleaning house and getting rid of Baalke and Chip Kelly. The Jets need to do what the 49ers and Browns have started. Their cap is a mess, their drafting strategy has been rudderless, they have no real QB, and their best players are all either free agents, locker-room cancers, or over 30. Just a mess. Hard to believe this team entered Week 17 last year needing to just win to make the playoffs.

A lot of things will have to break right

17.) Jacksonville Jaguars
16.) Los Angeles Rams
15.) Chicago Bears
14.) San Diego Chargers

Three of these teams have coaching vacancies. I applaud the Bears for sticking by John Fox. That team was better than 3-13, probably more of a 5-11 team based on performance and this is with a ton of injury issues. As for the Rams and Jaguars, their only real path probably doubles as their largest, systemic failing: their issues at QB. I guess we should give Jared Goff a pass, but he was brutal in limited action. If he improves a ton, and similarly with Bortles if he finally takes a step, those teams can navigate a path. Good coaching hires can do wonders for both. The Bears probably need a new QB, but they showed some really good signs late in the season, including a running game and a defense that played well despite missing 3-4 starters. The Chargers have the QB (though Rivers quietly did throw 20 interceptions) and if they can just stay healthy they can make a real push. What hurts them is the strength of the division they are in, and the sneaking suspicion Rivers himself may have started his decline in full.

More likely to stay in mediocrity

13.) Buffalo Bills 

The Bills have a lot of nice pieces that they put out on display the past two seasons under Rex Ryan. From Tyrod's surprising competence, their NFL-best running game this year, and their ability to be good on offense without getting full seasons from Sammy Watkins. What was not one of these things was their defense, which was a Top-5 unit when Rex Ryan came in. My skepticism going forward is it seems pretty clear Tyrod Taylor is gone, and I don't know who they should replace him with. Their defense is also further and further away from the Top-5 unit it used to be, with aging players and few real game-changers. The Bills have enough talent to drive right back to a 8-8 campaign, but the path to getting the two wins they would need is far blurrier.

12.) New Orleans Saints

The Saints have been very consistent the past few years. This was their 3rd straight 7-9 campaign (somehow, Sean Payton has escaped any Jeff Fisher jokes, despite going 7-9 or 8-8 five times despite having Drew Brees), and their 4th in 5 years (the first was in the year Payton was suspended). The Saints cap is still a mess, and what is the hope they'll be anything different in 2017? Especially with renewed uncertainty around Sean Payton's future, the offense may not be as good in 2017 as it has been the past few weeks. The Saints showed some signs on defense late in the season, but I'm put off by the coaching issues and the general malaise of 7-9 they seem resolved to never leave.

Hold your horses a bit

11.) Washington Redskins

Did the Kirk Cousins era peak in that win over the Packers? This was the game where after Rodgers gave his soon-to-be-historic 'run the table' remarks. Out of the game the Redskins were 6-3-1 and fairly safe bets for the playoffs. Now, with a 2-5 finish, losing a game against a team that had nothing to play for, and with Cousins' contract about to become a divisive issue again, it is far to ask if this is the best we will get. The division is tough, and the Redskins have depended on a lot of free agents. Now, that has often been Scott McLoughlan's way of starting off rebuilds, and his drafts may turn out to be great, but so much of their short-term future is wrapped up in the QB decision. They could easily make the playoffs again, but I think it is fair to wonder if 9-7 and 8-7-1 is as good as it will get with Cousins.

10.) Baltimore Ravens

They will look back at losses to the Giants and Jets, both games they could have easily won, as what cost them their playoff spot. Of course, had they tackled Antonio Brown they may have even beaten Pittsburgh just last week. I still believe in the coaching staff and the defensive personnel which all took a collective step up. There are some age concerns, but the Ravens drafting on defense has been solid the past couple years. A lot of it will come down to who Harbaugh picks next for OC. They've gone through a litany of them in Flacco's career. The good one's have worked wonders with Flacco (Cam Cameron in 2008, Jim Caldwell in 2012, Gary Kubiak in 2014), but the most recent set never did. The end of the season was incredibly disappointing, and it is now three out of four years out of the playoffs, but the Ravens still have a strong core.

9.) Philadelphia Eagles
In the end, it comes down to Carson Wentz. He was never as good as the player that was way too lauded during their 3-0 start, and he probably wasn't as bad as the one who fell apart in the second half of the season. The Eagles have a very good defense that should be around as good next year. I would foresee less Special Teams luck, but in reality it will come down to Carson Wentz. I think he still needs more than an additional year of maturation. The Eagles may be a year more away. I hope they stay by Doug Pedersen, as I liked a lot of what he brought to the Eagles team - he had an almost Jim Harbaugh like presence there. Goal #1A should be Wentz, but #1B should be to get Wentz some good players to actually throw to and work with. AN offense structured around Zach Ertz has only such high of a ceiling.

8.) Minnesota Vikings

I feel like I broken record saying all of these come down to what happens at QB, but for the Vikings there is more questions than maybe anywhere else. Sam Bradford was not the problem. I don't think the Vikings would have been any better this year with Teddy Bridgewater. That said, I still question how high the ceiling of a Bradford-led offense can be even if they have competent blocking. The defense is still good, but there are some age concerns there. The Vikings are a good team, but I have no idea who their QB will be next year.

Solid prospects to turn it around

7.) Cincinnati Bengals 

The Bengals are one of the best 6-9-1 teams out there. This is a team that was hammered by injuries, but still had a positive point differential, and a long track record of success. They still have a QB who if he is kept upright can be very successful. You have to imagine more health next year for AJ Green, more seasoning on their young pass catchers. My only concerns with Cincinnati are age on defense (DL) and offense (OL). Their offensive line was a strength throughout their 5-year run but fell apart at times this season. If that is a one-year anomaly, this can easily be a return to the playoffs. If not, there are more structural problems.

6.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5.) Tennessee Titans

Grouping these two teams together because of how similar they are. They will be linked because their QBs were picked #1-2 in 2015, and both had massive improvements in 2016. The key is getting them to be even more consistent in 2017. The Buccaneers are becoming something like the Giants or Panthers lite. A high-powered but inconsistent offense, and a strong defense that will have 4-5 games a year when they are amazing, and an equal amount with poor play. The Titans 'exotic smashmouth' worked for the most part, but they hvae to analyze what the hell happened against Jacksonville in Week 16. Both teams have bright futures, have done well in the draft (and the Titans have a host of picks coming their way from the Rams) and will be perennial contenders for years. Not sure if it is enough for 2017, but I do at least hope the Titans, if not the team to come, push the Texans out of the playoffs.

I hope this as much as I believe this

4.) Indianapolis Colts

I think Grigson is gone. One of the two have to go. In all honesty, they both have to go, but I think Pagano saved himself with that last win. I have no idea why. The team is a disaster. They went 8-8 with a healthy, and on the whole well-performing, Andrew Luck in a bad division. That is unacceptable, or at least should be. Anyway, there were signs of progress late in the season. The defense got a little more pressure than normal. The OL solidified nicely. Other targets outside of Hilton (who quietly led the NFL in receiving yards) stepped up. The foundation is good, but the gameplanning and the game-changers on defense need serious work.

The Returnees

3.) Carolina Panthers

The next two teams also were playoff teams in 2015 that dropped out. I was shocked about all three, but for all I think there is a great case it is a one-year anomaly. The Panthers are anyway up and down, and had some awful injury luck in 2016. The team foundation is still rock strong. They have tons of cap space to sign free agents (and re-sign guys like Kawaan Short). The OL is the key. Getting improvement there can get them closer to the 2015 Panthers offense. I still believe in everything I've written about the Panthers before. That team was amazing in close games in 2015, and then dreadful at them in 2016. They anyway had the underlying performance of an 8-8 or so team, so jumping back to 10-6 is not too far away.

2.) Denver Broncos

I will drop them a lot of Wade Phillips is let go, but the path back up is so clear. Their defense is tremendous, but if they can improve their rush defense and OL, they should be ready. If they can somehow swindle a trade for Tony Romo, they probably become AFC West favorites. Losing Kubiak hurts, but as long as Phillips is there and that pass defense remains the best in the NFL, they should be able to get another win or two easily next year. The foundation is very strong still.

1.) Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals really should have been a playoff team this year. Their point differential was good enough. Granted, they would still have been a disappointing 9-6-1 or something, but the Cardinals are still a strong defense. The defense was great (led the league with 48 sacks - quietly Carolina finished 2nd with 47) despite injuries. Their young pass rushers gave them a dimension they didn't hvae. Carson Palmer still had his moments late in the season, and if they get some good growth out of their WRs (and get John Brown back - they were never the same after he got hurt), the offense should be good enough. It is pretty clear the peak Arizona was 2015, but they can easily replicated the 2013-14 Cardinals that went 10-6 and 11-5.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.