– Jim Bearor
Ugly animals don’t get screen time on Sarah McLachlan commercials, and you don’t see a lot about the Miami Dolphins on SportsCenter. Tony Romo thinks football is a meritocracy and I agree with him, but sometimes it isn’t covered as such. The Kansas City Chiefs don’t move the needle like the Dallas Cowboys do, and cute golden retrievers get more people to pick up their phone and donate to the ASPCA than some mangy one-eyed mutt.
I’m not suggesting we need more clips of ugly dogs or Chiefs highlights, but once in a while, it’s cool to acknowledge their existence. So in this article, I’m going to give some love to teams who get glossed over. These five squads might not be sexy but they’re worth keeping a tab on, because right now they’re doing a decent job of dancing in the dark, and I’m interested to see what they look like when the lights come on in the playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-2)
I can’t call the Chiefs a dark horse or a Cinderella story, but I don’t think I’m off-base by saying they get no respect. This is a team that is currently sitting at the top of the best division in football, where the Broncos and Raiders also have seven wins and the four-win Chargers are no pushover. They’re not fun though, and they don’t have many players you’d own in fantasy, so it’s no wonder there isn’t more Chiefs chatter.
They may have won 17 of their last 19 regular season games, but everybody knows who Alex Smith is, and nobody feels good about him leading a playoff charge. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are respectable, but they don’t scare anyone. The general football public doesn’t care that this offense has been super efficient since 2013, or that they hardly turn the ball over, or that they currently rank 8th in offensive DVOA. They see a boring football team that sets that a bar and their opponents more often than not fall under it. There’s nothing wrong with this view of the team, but lets not forget that they shut out the Texans in the playoffs last year and held their own against the Patriots with an AFC Championship berth on the line.
Justin Houston is healthy and ready to bolster a defensive unit that has been underperforming despite having a knack for timely takeaways. Other than that, this team is who we think it is: boring, efficient, and solid across the board. Their biggest weaknesses seem to be the cornerback spot opposite Marcus Peters, and Alex Smith’s inability to push the ball downfield.
They’re limited and they’re not much fun to watch, but they’re undoubtedly a professional football team that handles business, which can make them a formiddable opponent for high-variance AFC teams come playoff time.
Baltimore Ravens (5-4)
It’s a tough call, but I think I’d rather watch a Chiefs game than a Ravens game. If these teams meet in the playoffs, I might use those few hours to catch up on The Walking Dead. Kansas City and Baltimore rank 13th and 15th in DVOA respectively, and neither are remotely glamorous. Baltimore gets the job done with a dominant defense and… well, that’s about it. Their offense is abysmall and it features Joe Flacco, Mike Wallace, Steve Smith Sr., Dennis Pitta, and Terrance West. Wallace has been the closest thing to a standout, catching 43 balls for 673 yards and four touchdowns. Joe Flacco has been a mediocre quarterback to this point in the season, and his offensive line hasn’t helped him out at all.
Shitty offense aside, I can still see this team being a tough matchup and a potential spoiler in the playoffs thanks to their dominance on the other side of the ball. According to Football Outsiders, they have the second most efficient defense. Eric Weddle has been great throughout his career, but few expected him to have this type of impact at this stage in his career. Pro Football Focus has him as the best safety in the league right now, and that doesn’t factor in the leadership he brings to the table. C.J. Mosely, who Hue Jackson thinks is “one of the best players in football,” has been an absolute force at inside linebacker. Terrell Suggs tore his biceps in Week 6 against the Giants, and just played a game where he looked like the Suggs of old, creating pressure on Josh McCown throughout and recording an impressive strip sack. The way I see it, Suggs is a huge bonus to an already great unit that will keep games close and ugly and may ultimately land them in the playoffs. If they do edge out the Steelers and hold on to first place for the remainder of the season, I see them as the team I’d least like to face or bet against in the postseason.
Arizona Cardinals (4-4-1)
Arizona’s football year kicked off with the highest of expectations. They had a series on Amazon called “All or Nothing” for God’s sake. They rolled into the 2016 season with a loaded roster, a chip on their shoulder, and a looming doubt about Carson Palmer. Their 2015 campaign ended in the ugliest way possible, with their field general throwing up all over himself in the form of six turnovers, or as some like to call it, a full Delhomme. Once you go full Delhomme, it’s hard to come back. For some reason, Palmer got a little benefit of the doubt and the Cardinals were among the most popular preseason Super Bowl picks. Then the regular season kicked off and the shit hit the fan pretty hard for Bruce Arians’ team.
Arizona lost three of their first four and it immediately became clear that last year’s formula wasn’t going to work again. They clawed their way back to 4-4-1, but did so in a way that didn’t exactly win all the non-believers back. Their only convincing victory came over the terrible Jets, and in their most recent game, they edged out the also-terrible 49ers. They haven’t had their “Return of the King” type moment yet, and while this week’s matchup with the Vikings might start some rumblings if they can pull it out, I think it’s safe to say the hesitancy to trust these guys is here to stay – at least for a while.
They’ve tried to reinvent themselves from a team that makes their bacon on attacking seams downfield to one that relies on David Johnson to be the driving force, and to this point, the transition has been clunky. The poor offensive line play (especially in pass protection) on top of everything else has this unit in a place where it’s difficult to forecast what comes next. It could very well be more of the same, and that means I’ve just wasted my time writing this and the Cardinals aren’t making the playoffs. On the other hand, there’s a chance they will figure it out and develop into an offense that’s something even marginally better than the massive disappointment they’re currently rolling out. If they manage to make progress on that side of the ball and their defense continues to play at this top-10 level, they may find themselves taking the form of a team like last year’s Broncos, which isn’t a terrible fate.
Washington Redskins (5-3-1)
Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense can move the football down the field. That’s their ticket. The Washington defense, while mediocre, hasn’t been quite bad enough to ruin their season yet. They currently find themselves in last place of the NFC East, which doesn’t mean a whole lot with eight games and three divisional meetings left. They’ve had a difficult schedule to this point, and this weekend’s matchup with the Packers looks like the most important game of their season, and I’m not just saying that because it’s the next one. A loss would not only set Washington back in the division, it would also give Green Bay the edge over them in the hunt for a wild card. A loss would increase their odds of missing the playoffs to 61% as opposed to 39% if they win.
I think they’ll prevail on Sunday for the same reason I think they’ll have success down the stretch: they’re quietly consistent. While deep down, I don’t believe this team will make the playoffs, it feels like they’re wrongfully being slighted because there’s a lot going on in the division and I can’t believe I feel like this after all the hype of last year, but Cousins is underrated.
Miami Dolphins (5-4)
This team right here is my inspiration for writing all this. This team was an enigma to me at the beginning of the year, and I think I’m starting to understand who they are. A smattering of injuries to their offensive line over the course of their first five games paired with an about-to-retire Arian Foster clouded the water a bit, but nine games worth of data, a revelation at running back named Jay Ajayi, and better injury luck (outside of Brandon Albert) has me seeing things a bit clearer.
Adam Gase has changed the identity of the offense by leaning less on Ryan Tannehill, and by doing so, has made him more effective. He’s throwing the ball about seven less times per game than his career average, his yards per attempt is up, and he’s been coming through in big moments. In my opinion, offensive line has been the biggest difference. In the past four games, everyone has been healthy, and Miami has dictated the tempo of the game with a persistent rushing attack. Albert’s wrist surgery should only keep him out a couple of games, and their game against the Rams this week could be tougher than expected because Los Angeles’ biggest strength is their ability to disrupt up front, but I see the Dolphins being relevant down the stretch here.
They run the ball well, which is increasingly important as we shift seasons. Their defense has only given up 30 points once, and it was to the Patriots. In terms of DVOA, they’re seventh. They just got defensive tackle Earl Mitchell back from injury which will help their ability to stop the run, their biggest weakness as of now. Their remaining schedule is as follows: Rams, 49ers, Ravens, Cardinals, Jets, Bills, Patriots. I see a minimum of three wins in there, and maybe as many as 5, pending health. They’ve won four in a row and I think they’re for real. Real enough for a little Week 11 recognition from a sports article nobody will read, anyway.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)