We are one week away from being three quarters of the way through the season, and I know how I’m feeling so what it must be like for the players I don’t know. As I’m finally getting a chance to sit down and write I thought I would take a look at some of the things I have learned through the course of this season, particularly in the light of recent results.
It is a long season. It’s a marathon not a sprint. We are used to the coverage discussing how long the season is, but this year I have really noticed the ebb and flow that occurs during a single team’s season. The New England Patriots may have a 10-1 record, but the injuries have slowly accrued to a point where they have lost their first game, and it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if they drop some more, at least until they can get Rob Gronkowski back on offence. But it is not just the attrition throughout the season that needs to be taken into account; coaching and progress should be looked at as well. The Kansas City Chiefs had a bad start to the season, going 1-5 before turning things around, winning five straight and getting themselves back into the playoff hunt. If the season ended today they would have a wildcard spot, and whilst the return of their corner Sean Smith has had a huge effect on their pass defence, turning them into one of the better defences in the league, they have also had to deal with the huge loss of running back Jamaal Charles, usually central to theor offence, so there is more to it than one player coming back. That said, too many injuries in one position can completely derail a team. There is no excuse for the state of the San Diego Chargers defence, but there have been so many injuries to their offensive line that you can see why they have had so many problems protecting Philip Rivers this year.
With all that said, sometimes it just takes time for a team to gel. I was as critical as anyone regarding what Bill O’Brien was doing with his quarterbacks in Houston at the start of the season. The old saying that if you have two quarterbacks then you don’t have any seemed very apt. Not only was this causing problems, but despite having some very recognisable names on the defence, including arguably the best player in football, the Texans were giving up a lot of points, giving up over forty twice as they started the season 2-5 as their defence struggled. However, once Ryan Mallet finally pushed management too far by missing the team plane down to Miami and finally got himself cut things started to settle on offence a little. More importantly though, the defence finally seemed to find its identity, allowing opposition offences less than ten points three times in the last four games as they rolled off four straight wins to get them back into the AFC South race.
One team who are very much not moving in the right direction are the Philadelphia Eagles, with one of the things that I misjudged being how their form in pre-season and would translate into the regular season. I was already aware that the teams do not game plan in the preseason, and mainly what I enjoy is getting a first look at the year’s draft class and the development of young players who may not get that much playing time during the actual season. However, everyone was take in by how well the Eagles offence was performing during the preseason, but once the regular season got under way it quickly became apparent that all was not well on that side of the ball. There is a lot of debate as to whether Chips Kelly’s up temp offence can continue to work in NFL, reliant as it is on simple concepts that are repeated frequently as it simply not possible to run that many different concepts at that pace. This in of itself doesn’t worry me so much as what appears to be Kelly’s reliance on his system. I was as impressed as anyone by Chip Kelly’s early success in Philadelphia, and this was only further enhanced after hearing an extended interview with him talking about his practice regime. However, the first problem I see with the Eagles is to do with the level of buy in that he demands of his players, which I can understand as a concept and certainly contributed to his college success. In the NFL though, as good as a coach as you are, there are thirty-one other coaches at the top of their game, with an enormous amount of time invested in preparation. You can find edges through coaching, but at the NFL level such advantages are very fine, and you can very rarely win outright by outcoaching your opponent, at some point you need to create mismatches and have enough players win their one on one matchups to win a game. Kelly though, has shipped out a surprising amount of talent from the Eagles in favour of young players who he can mould, this may work out if he is given time, but the players right now are not as good and you only have to look at the play of the offensive line now compared to when he joined to see that certain groups have taken a step back. Not only is there this to contend with, but if you are a system coach, you walk a very fine line as you need the right players to run your system perfectly and these might not always be available. Finally, if you are an innovator, particularly one with a track record in college rather than in the pros, then people will start to second guess you if things are not going well, and they certainly are not in for the Eagles in recent weeks.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a coaching philosophy, in fact having read Pete Carroll’s book in the offseason I think that sitting down and actually developing your philosophy into a coherent core that you can clearly articulate is of huge benefit. That said, I also think that if you introduce a degree of flexibility into your approach, being prepared to compromise to make the most of the players you have, then this can lead to more sustainable success. If you want proof of this then just take a look at the way that Bill Belichick and his staff continually scour the league and get something out of players that other teams have failed to do so.
Further proof of this maxim can be found in the unbeaten Carolina Panthers, who no one was expecting to play like this at the beginning of the year. There were concerns about their offensive line and they lost their leading receiver from last season before the season had even started. However, they are getting what they need out of the players that they have, and there is perhaps no finer microcosm of this philosophy than what they are doing with Cam Newton. There are not too many six foot five, two hundred and forty-five pound quarterbacks in the league (Newton’s size according to the Panthers’ website), with Cam’s ability to run the ball. However, they built a running game around the dual threat of him and running back Jonathan Stuart, as well as utilising his connection with tight end Greg Olson and ability to throw the deep ball. He may not show the touch that you would ideally like, but he has been undeniably effective since Ron Riviera felt Newton was healthy enough during the 2014 season to use the offensive game plan they had been keeping under wraps since the preceding preseason because of the injuries Newton had been carrying. You may still worry about the long term effects of a quarterback taking this many hits, but he is built like a football player, and still has time to work on a transition such a Ben Roethlisberger has made, into a pocket passer.
One of the things that I do think is important in the successful running of a sports club is giving a coach time, which seems to be given in increasingly smaller amounts these days across many sports, and even the NFL is starting to follow this trend. We have had several coaching changes, with two head coaching firings that have brought dubious results, and several coordinators taking the fall. However, the Lions took this a step further when their ninety year old owner declared that enough was enough, and she fired the GM along with the head of operations. This was after Jim Caldwell had fired his offensive coordinator and the coaches that had been working with their offensive line going into their trip to London. This did not produce immediate results, as I witnessed in person as the Lions were systematically taken apart by the Kansas City Chiefs at Wembley. However, following the additional firings and their bye week the Lion’s had won three straight games going into week thirteen including their first win in Green Bay since 1991 off the back of improved defence performances, but crucially an offence that seems to be coming together under new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. This all leads me quite nicely to Thursday’s return fixture in Detroit.
Packers @ Lions
There isn’t quite time for me to do a full game write up, but there was now way I could skip over the Miracle in Motown, which I am sure you will have heard of by now. If not, the game came down to a last ditch drive, where on what should have been the final play of the game, a facemask penalty called on a Lions’ defender led to one final play with no time on the clock. This has only happened in the NFL a total of five times, and two of them have been this season. In this case, the Lions rushed three and failed to stop a sixty-one yard Hail Mary pass to tight end Richard Rodgers that won the Packers the game. But it very easily could have finished a different way.
In the first quarter the Packers struggled, finding it difficult to move the ball and they ended the quarter seventeen points down. The Lions were able to move the ball, and when Aaron Rodgers threw only his fifth interception of the year, Matthew Stafford immediately answered with a seventeen yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson. However, the Packers defence stiffened in the second quarter, but the offence continued to struggle and failed to score before half-time, leading to a twenty point deficit.
The Packers slowly dragged themselves back into the game in the second half, with solid defence and a key strip of Matthew Stafford by Julius Peppers that swiftly led to a second touchdown meaning that the Lions lead was down to six by the start of the fourth quarter.
It has to be said that the Packers offence still struggled in the second half, but third string running back John Crocket added a small spark in the running game, but the most effect methods the Packers found to move the ball were screen passes/dump offs to James Starks, and passes to Richard Rodgers who finished the game with one hundred and forty-six yards from eight catches, including the game winning touchdown to seal the game.
The Packers may have got back to winning ways, but it was not in the way that they would have envisaged, and the Lions will be kicking themselves about how late they left it in the season before they found a formula that works. If the Lions can find suitable replacements for their front office, there are things that they can build on for next season unless they chose to blow things up, but we shall have to see what path they chose to take. The Packers meanwhile have kept themselves in playoff contention, but they will need to find a more stable formula if they want to make sure of getting there and leaving a mark in the post season.
And now on to the rest of this week’s picks:
Falcons @ Buccaneers (-2.5)
The Flacons need to stop turning the ball over if they want to get back to winning ways, and they are running out of time if they want to get back into the playoff hunt given Seattle’s recent improvements. The question will be whether they are going to start this turnaround against a Buccaneers team that have definitely improved in recent weeks. The Falcons might be getting Devonta Freeman back this week, but the Bucs actually rank second in the NFL in rush defence by DVOA according to Football Outsiders, as well as being the higher ranked team in both general and weighted DVOA, which is leading me to nervously back the home team in this one.
Gee’s Pick: Buccaneers
Dan’s Pick: Falcons
Texans @ Bills (-2.5)
The Bills have been better in recent weeks, but are still up and down, with the only unit on either team I really trust being the recently very stingy Texans’ defence, so that is where I’m picking in this one.
Gee’s Pick: Texans
Dan’s Pick: Texans
49ers @ Bears (-6.5)
The 49ers defence has been okay at home in recent weeks and Blaine Gabbert has at least looked like a competent NFL quarterback, but this week they are in Chicago and not San Francisco. Add the travelling across country to the fact that the Bears are progressing in John Fox’s first season and are coming off a road win in Green Bay, and I think I have to back the Bears in this one despite the points.
Gee’s Pick: Bears
Dan’s Pick: Bears
Bengals @ Browns (+6.5)
This feels like a trap game for me in that the Browns and Bengals games have often been close contests, with this game being in Cleveland and NFL touchdown leader Tyler Eifert likely missing the game, I could see the Bengals struggling to cover these points. However, there are still so many options for Andy Dalton that I think they will cope in this game against a Browns team who are on a short week.
Gee’s Pick: Bengals
Dan’s Pick: Bengals
Jaguars @ Titans (-2.5)
The Jaguars just squeaked out a win only a couple of weeks ago when they entertained the Titans, and with the injury to Allen Hearns you might be tempted to back the Titans at home in this one. I am always wary of long streaks as they have to end at some point, and it has been a very long time since the fans in Tennessee have seen their team win in person, but I can’t bring myself to pick them doing it this week with this many points.
Gee’s Pick: Jaguars
Dan’s Pick: Jaguars
Cardinals @ Rams (+5.5)
The Rams under Jeff Fisher have often kept their games with the better teams in the league close, and actually beat the Cardinals in Arizona earlier in the year. However, their offensive line is a mess through injury, they have very little passing game, which allows a defence to focus on bottling up Todd Gurly. The Rams defence might be very good, but the Cardinals offence has been lighting everybody up and I have a feeling they will want to get revenge as they head into St Louis.
Gee’s Pick: Cardinals
Dan’s Pick: Cardinals
Ravens @ Dolphins (-4.5)
I’m really torn on this game, as the Ravens have kept every game close, but it took two special teams touchdowns for them to beat the Browns last week, and they are travelling to Miami on a short week to play on the road for a second week in a row. The Dolphins have just fired their offensive coordinator as Dan Campbell was not happy with the play calling or rush/pass balance. However, the Ravens run defence is still solid and I am not sure the Dolphins truly have the passing game to take advantage of the Ravens’ defensive frailties. Almost any result feels in play with this one, and so for the simple reason that I don’t feel comfortable backing either team I will take the points.
Gee’s Pick: Ravens
Dan’s Pick: Dolphins
Seahawks @ Vikings (-0.5)
This is another tough game for me to call, and I am getting no help from the line whatsoever. I can see arguments for both sides, but in the end I trust Russell Wilson more than Teddy Bridgewater in what I expect to be a really good game.
Gee’s Pick: Seahawks
Dan’s Pick: Vikings
Jets @ Gaints (+1.5)
The Giants are still inconsistent, whilst the Jets have got a little healthier on offence and given that essentially both teams are at home, I think that the Jets will win this one as I believe they are the better team even if their records are not that different.
Gee’s Pick: Jets
Dan’s Pick: Jets
Broncos @ Chargers (+4.5)
The Broncos have a formula, whilst the Chargers are a mess despite getting a win last week that I was not expecting. The Broncos defence is still one of the best units in the game, and I expect the Chargers to struggle on both sides of the ball in this one so I think the Broncos will cover on the road.
Gee’s Pick: Broncos
Dan’s Pick: Broncos
Chiefs @ Raiders (+2.5)
The Chiefs are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, whilst the Raiders are going through the growing pains of having a young team that possibly still lacks a bit of talent. The Chiefs however are sensing that a playoff push is possible, and so despite being on the road in Oakland, I think they will win this one.
Gee’s Pick: Chiefs
Dan’s Pick: Chiefs
Eagles @ Patriots (-9.5)
Wow this is a lot of points, particularly for a banged up Patriots team, and yet I’m still torn on this one. The Eagles have given up over forty points in their last two games, losing to both the Lions and the Buccaneers. I really want to pick the Patriots to cover this one, but I’m not quite brave enough, and with a reasonable lead in the picks competition I don’t need to be taking such risks. I will kick myself if the Patriots cover, but I’m not confident they will.
Gee’s Pick: Eagles
Dan’s Pick: Eagles
Panthers @ Saints (+7.5)
This is a lot of points, but Saints defence did not improve last week, and I get the feeling that the Panthers will continue with their focussed approach this week and will cover this spread in New Orleans.
Gee’s Pick: Panthers
Dan’s Pick: Panthers
Colts @ Steelers (-6.5)
The Colts have played will with Matt Hasselbeck, but I think they are finally going to meet their match coming into Pittsburgh to face the Steelers who are still very effective at moving the ball. I think the wheels have to fall off at some point for the Colts, and it might be worth watching this game just to see if either head coach makes a final move for the worst fake punt play of the season.
Gee’s Pick: Steelers
Dan’s Pick: Steelers
Cowboys @ Washington (-3.5)
I am happy that we can finally write off the Cowboys, and Washington have quietly been an okay home team so I expect them to win this one, with them somehow still being in contention for the division.
Gee’s Pick: Washington
Dan’s Pick: Washington