– Bill Annechino
Do you like football? I mean like, do you really, REALLY like football? If so, you’ve noticed that this season hasn’t really had the feel of seasons past. Remember when you were a kid? If you’re like me, your first football memories are the Gunslinger Brett Favre throwing balls so hard he was breaking receivers’ hands, Randy Moss doing Randy Moss things. My first year playing fantasy football, I remember having Edgerrin James on my team, one of the great underrated workhorse running backs of the last 20 years, and someone that I can’t figure out why isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet. Those were the days, right?
Now, I look around at the NFL landscape, and it certainly doesn’t feel the same as it used to. Most noticeable is the complete lack of compelling characters. Gone are the days of Favre, a flawed man who let us share in his demons (a battle with prescription drug and alcohol addictions he eventually won) and his triumphs (the Super Bowl win and the 3 straight MVPs), culminating with his famous Monday Night game in late December of 2003, when he threw 4 touchdowns in the first half of a game played the day after his father died. It’s the defining example of an athlete being humanized by events off the field for my generation, and we loved him for it.
I blame Peyton Manning more than anyone for ushering in this culture of always saying the right thing and essentially being a football robot whose endorsements depended on his complete lack of controversial or humanizing opinions (besides when he called Mike Vanderjagt an “idiot drunk kicker”). If Manning ushered it in, Tom Brady cemented it, with his Patriots going above and beyond the call of duty in terms of removing any human elements from their job and becoming cliché-spouting cyborgs, here to do their job, go home, and have as little in the way of interesting events happen in between. The final nail in the coffin of the old NFL was the work of Chad Johnson, who had to take everything too far and turn the NFL into the No Fun League, getting fined repeatedly for over-the-top celebrations. Honorable mention to the rest of the Bengals he played with for turning getting arrested into an art form, by the way.
The real finishing blow came in May of 2012. Junior Seau was a Hall of Fame player who most of us remember as defining the standard of excellence for linebackers during the 90’s and beyond. On May 2 of 2012, he took his life by shooting himself in the chest because his memory had deteriorated to the point that he not only no longer wanted to be alive, but wanted his brain to be studied to try to figure out just what had gone wrong. The CTE/concussion dialogue had been building for a while, but I will always believe that this is what pushed it to the forefront of the discussion. Suddenly, football had become unsafe, and the NFL was determined to (publicly) make the game safer for its players, as well as (privately) do just enough to avoid a massive lawsuit, which happened anyways. With a series of reactionary rule changes that effectively eliminated a defender’s ability to stop a wide receiver, the NFL had become an all-offense, watered-down version of the gladiator sport that we had grown up loving.
All of this brings me to this week in the NFL, which was the least-compelling week of football in the least-compelling season of professional football that I can ever remember. Most of the games were actually reasonably close, with a divisional lead change even taking place (the NFC East, if you don’t want to look it up). If anything, the memorable moment from this week was Odell Beckham Jr. finally getting going, after his offensive coordinator came out and said that they were going to work him back into the rotation for slot reps. If you weren’t aware, 99% of Beckham’s snaps this year had come on the outside, which is problematic to me simply because it means that there was a high degree of predictability to a Giants offense that had been struggling. To digress, if you are trying to innovate or remain unpredictable, the two words you should avoid are “always” and “never”. By refusing to move Beckham into the slot, the Giants were making it that much easier for opposing defenses to gameplan for them. This week, Beckham spent time in the slot, recorder over 200 yards and 2 touchdowns and the Giants got back into the win column for the first time since week 2.
Speaking of unmemorable games, there were at least 3 (by my count) games that you wouldn’t have watched by choice unless you were a fan or had a fantasy interest: Cleveland/Tennessee, New York/Arizona, and Jacksonville/Chicago. By now you know that the Jaguars and Titans won those games by a combined 3 points, which goes to show that competitive does not always mean compelling. The biggest injustice in the league this year may be that Cleveland is still winless, despite being ranked 26th in the league in scoring offense. What makes them even less lucky is that, of the 6 teams below them, 3 are at least .500 and the team in 32nd place, the Texans, sit at 4-2 and first place in their division. I feel that it is a testament to Hue Jackson’s skill as a coach that, in his first year there, he has a team that is 0-6 and is able to not only put up points, but remain somewhat watchable due to the emergence of Terrelle Pryor.
Speaking of unlucky teams, the Panthers fell to 1-5 this week. If you read my award-winning (top story on the NFL subreddit for the better part of a day) column from last week about the Panthers, you are already aware that they are on pace to finish 3-13, despite having the point differential of a 7-9 team. At this point, they would need to go 6-4 the rest of the season, which is not impossible but seems unlikely at this point. I would like to think that maybe the most logical scenario may see them split the difference and finish 5-11, but even that would require a stretch of 4-6 football that would appear to be beyond their capability. What is especially cruel about a loss like this is that the Panthers were able to put up 38 points, which would have beaten every other team in the league besides Buffalo in a vacuum this week. For those of us who grew tired of Cam Newton running the score up and winning a (probably undeserved) MVP for 8 games of good football, his recent lack of sportsmanship dating back to the Super Bowl has been somewhat satisfying. The bright side of this game for the Panthers is that the offense was able to put up 38 points, including 2 touchdowns from the returning Jonathan Stewart. The not so bright side is that this once-fierce defense gave up 41 points, and I want to talk about the team that hung those 41 points next.
No one has questioned either the Saints’ offense or defense. The offense is elite and the defense is possibly the worst in the league. Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, despite people seeming to be ready to write him off every season. Brandin Cooks finally had another big game, putting up numbers for the first time since week 1. And the Saints put up 41 points, giving them a win over the lowly Panthers, but a win’s a win. The Saints have actually managed to string together 2 straight wins, which puts them only 2 games out of first in the terrible NFC South. With that, let’s take a look at the playoff picture.
The NFC Wild Card picture is very murky going forward, but there are a few things we can definitively say. The Panthers, Bears and 49ers are almost guaranteed to not make the playoffs. The Vikings look like they are going to win the NFC North, and the Seahawks will probably win the West, by virtue of being lucky. The NFC East is still up for grabs, seeing as we all thought the Eagles were the best team in the division heading into this week. The Redskins knocked them off this week (you like that?), and the Giants and the Cowboys also won. I think most people knew that there would be some growing pains for Carson Wentz, who hasn’t played poorly in their losses, but they have now lost two games in a row and a disappointing trend is emerging. They are 2-0 at home, but 1-2 on the road. Getting a road win is big, and taking care of business at home is also a good sign for any team, but they will need to play better on the road to have a chance to contend. As for the Wild Card spots, it’s fair to assume that one of them will come from the NFC East. The popular early season pick was whichever team between Minnesota and Green Bay didn’t win the division. Now, however, Green Bay appears to be trending downwards. From where I stand, the realistic Wild Card race is the Cardinals (can’t rule them out due to their propensity for going on streaks), Lions, the Redskins, Giants, Eagles, Packers and the Saints. I include the Saints because, even though they’re the only 2 win team on the list, they have one of the league’s best offenses and quarterbacks, and play in a weak division. I failed to include the Rams because I really don’t think they’re a good football team, despite having 3 wins. So two of those teams are probably going to the playoffs and it will be interesting to see what transpires over the next few weeks to clear that picture up some.
If the season ended today, the Bills would be a playoff team in the AFC, breaking their 16 season streak of no postseason action. I’ve covered the Bills here before, saying that it was impressive to see what Rex Ryan has done with this team. This week, it was business as usual, with LeSean McCoy continuing his renaissance year and the defense spoiling Colin Kaepernick’s return to the starter job. Tyrod Taylor averaged north of 10 yards per completion in this game, and added almost 70 yards on the ground. Somehow, the lack of Sammy Watkins has forced Buffalo to spread the ball around on offense more, and it has been working for them. With McCoy averaging over 7 yards per carry in this game, the Bills were able to pass to compliment the run, and looked great while doing it. This may come as a surprise to the casual fan, but Lorenzo Alexander is going to make the Pro Bowl, and is second in the league in sacks behind Von Miller. Since week 1, where he had half a sack, Alexander has recorded at least 1 sack in every game. On his 4th team in 10 years, Alexander is the epitome of a journeyman, but appears to have found a home in this Rex Ryan defense. If this production continues, Alexander will have a very legitimate case for making one of the All-Pro teams. Not to be overlooked, Preston and Zach Brown are playing some of the best linebacker in the NFL this season. For a guy who many fans wanted to run out of town after a disappointing first season, Rex Ryan is suddenly looking like a dark horse Coach of the Year candidate.
I couldn’t write a whole column without mentioning my Patriots. The Tom Brady tour of destruction continued this week, against Cincinnati this time. Do you remember two seasons ago, when the Patriots started 2-2 and were “on to Cincinnati”? I do, and I remember the Super Bowl victory that followed. I think even the most biased NFL observer this year would admit that the Patriots have looked to be the most complete team in the league. Rob Gronkowski put up 162 yards on 7 catches, with a touchdown for good measure. James White has looked great since Brady has come back, filling the pass-catching running back role that the New England offense has made famous. One thing to keep in mind is that this is a team defined by selflessness, so the guy who goes off this week may be silent next week. What they do on offense is entirely dictated by gameplan, which is why you can see Martellus Bennett go for over 100 yards and 3 touchdowns last week and fail to get to 50 yards this week. The only constants are Brady and Gronk, and it seems to be working. It’s time to start being very afraid of the Patriots now that Brady is back, the 2 tight end set is dominating for the first time since Aaron Hernandez, and New England looks as good as they ever have.
The trend is to overreact to a loss in the NFL, given its relatively short season and the 6 days of constant media coverage that follow every game. But for fans of the Broncos, Steelers, Raiders and Falcons, keep it in perspective. It’s just one week, and there’s no need to overreact. We tend to ignore 4 wins if they are followed by a bad loss, which is sort of like some sort of bizarre case of reverse-confirmation bias where the bad things about our team that we think aren’t true are suddenly real because they happened in a week. But it’s important to remember that no one goes undefeated, and even if you do, you’re bound to lose in a Super Bowl where Eli Manning’s offensive linemen are allowed to commit holding all game, especially on a play where Adalius Thomas actually gets tackled before a player who would later end up in an insane asylum makes the biggest catch in NFL history. Thanks for reading, I’ll be back later in the week.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)