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NFL Readies for Stretch Drive

With Thanksgiving around the corner, the NFL is set to begin the all-important stretch drive. The weather is cooperating, if you think snow, cold and wind are a welcome part of the game once the holiday season arrives. They are currently measuring snow fall in Buffalo this week in feet—not inches. And an arctic blast has temperatures below freezing with driving winds in nearly every outdoor venue north of Texas.

Buckle your chin straps and hold on because what the NFL looks like this week is likely not what we will see once Week 17 is completed. The standings are close as NFL teams begin their playoff push. Through the first 11 weeks, there are 21 teams either in or within one game of a playoff spot.

Week 12 kicks off on Thursday night (8:25 PM ET, NFL Network) when the Kansas City Chiefs visit the Oakland Raiders in an AFC West contest. The Chiefs (7-3) are tied with Denver for the division lead. Kansas City, which knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last week, is one of eight teams with a .700 or better winning percentage this season. The other seven are Arizona (9-1), New England (8-2), Dallas (7-3), Denver (7-3), Detroit (7-3), Green Bay (7-3) and Philadelphia (7-3).

The Song Remains the Same—-Sort of!

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Manning, Rodgers & Brady oh my

Week 11 provided some surprising upsets and tight finishes and as usual, the likes of Manning, Brady & Rodgers helped make the headlines. However, while two of them cruised to victories, one of them did not.

Perhaps no bigger upset occurred than when the St. Louis Rams dealt Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos a 22-7 setback. It was the Rams’ third victory this season against a team that reached the Conference finals last season. Nevertheless, St. Louis, which had previous wins over Seattle (28-26) and San Francisco (13-10), remains two games below .500 (4-6). Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only two teams finished with a losing record despite three wins over opponents who reached the previous season’s “final four”: the Raiders in 1992 and the 49ers in 2006. Both teams finished with a 7-9 record.

Peyton Manning was 34 for 54 for 389 yards—however, the Rams pass was relentless sacking No.18 and intercepting him two times each. He was held to a 42-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, ending a streak of 15 consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes. More on that in a bit.

If you were forced to make a Super Bowl prediction today, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other teams besides the NE Patriots & Green Bay Packers. The Pats marched into Lucas Oil Filed Sunday night and once again ran all over the Indianapolis Colts with a 42-20 victory. Patriots running back Jonas Grey, who was on the practice squad this time last month, rushed for 201-yards and four touchdowns. Counting last year’s 43-23 playoff win in Foxborough vs. Indy, the Patriots own the Colts defense. New England has rushed for 480 yards and seven touchdowns in the two contests and have defeated young Andrew Luck and company by a combined score of 85-43 in the process.

Gray entered the game with no touchdowns on the season. The last time a player rushed for 4 TD’s after entering the game with 0 career TD was Herb Henderson of the Evansville Crimson Giants against the Cincinnati Celts on November 27, 1921.

If you think the Patriots, who are 6-0 since starting the season 2-2, could slow down, think again—–Since 2010, the Patriots are 30-3 in the second half of the regular season (Game #9-16),  by far the best record in the NFL in those games.

Since telling the Green Bay faithful to relax, everything would be OK, back in Week 4, Aaron Rodgers has kept his word. Rodgers continues to show why he is the best QB in the league these days. The Green Bay signal caller completed 22 of 36 passes (61.1 percent) for 341yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 120.3 passer rating in the Packers’ 53-20 win over Philadelphia.

Rodgers has thrown 322 consecutive passes at home without an interception, the longest streak in NFL history. He has thrown 29 consecutive touchdowns at home without an interception, the longest streak in NFL history. The Packers, who scored 30 points in the first half, are the first team in NFL history to score at least 28 points in the first half of four consecutive home games.

The rest of the NFC not playing in Arizona is hoping that if they make the playoffs, Lambeau Field won’t be their destination this playoff season if the Packers are fortunate to host a playoff game. In the four home games that have followed since Rodgers comforting words, Green Bay has led by scores of 30-3, 45-0, 38-3 and 42-0. Green Bay has hit the half century mark in back to back for the first time in the 93 year history of the franchise and are only the second team in NFL history to score 53+ points in back-to-back games, joining the 1950 LA Rams.

Rodgers’ touchdown-to-interception is 31:0 over his last 13 home games. The Pack’s average score over the past seven games overall is 39 to 21.

How Bout them Cards:

Bruce Arians Coach of the Year?

Bruce Arians Coach of the Year?

With a playoff like gut check performance vs. the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals own the league’s best record at 9-1. It is only the second time in franchise history the Cardinals have opened a season with nine wins in their first 10 games, joining the 1948 Chicago Cardinals. Through the first 11 weeks of the season, the Cardinals have built a two-game lead in the race for the NFC’s top seed and own a three-game lead in the division. Arizona is the only team in the league yet to lose a conference game (7-0).

The Cardinals are the only team in the NFL with a 6-0 home record and one of only five teams yet to lose at home this season. This marks the first time since 1970 in which the Cardinals have won their first six home games to begin a season.

On offense, backup QB and former Lions draft pick Drew Stanton came out on fire against his former team Sunday. Stanton threw a pair of touchdown passes to Michael Floyd in the game’s first 10 minutes and the Cardinals held on for a 14-6 victory over the Lions. Only two other players in team history caught two TD passes in the first quarter of one game: Gus Tinsley against Washington in 1937, and Anquan Boldin against Miami in 2008. WR Larry Fitzgerald’s reemergence has been a big factor for the Cardinals offense. On Sunday, Fitzgerald drew a ton of double coverage and had two catches for 33 yards. Fitzgerald, who now has 12,025 career receiving yards, became the second-youngest player in NFL history to reach 12,000 receiving yards (31 years, 77 days old). Randy Moss reached the milestone at 30 years, 306 days old.

On defense, the Cards slowed the very formidable Lions attack. With Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Lions were held to just two Matt Prater field goals and were shut out in the second half. Stafford was held to a season low 183 passing yards. Led by Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, Arizona has forced 20 turnovers this season, including 15 interceptions, the second-most in the league. Arizona has also limited turnovers on the offensive side of the ball and is tied for second in the NFL with a +11 turnover differential.

Head Coach Bruce Arians deserves a ton of credit. In his second season as Arizona’s head coach, Arians has compiled a 19-7 (.731) record. His 19 wins are the most by any head coach in franchise history though his first 26 games. Including his 9-3 record as the interim head coach with Indianapolis in 2012, Arians has a 28-10 (.737) record as an NFL head coach.

Arizona is looking to become the first NFL team to play in a Super Bowl where its city is hosting the game in their very own facility.

The Texans handed the Cleveland Browns a crushing home defeat on Sunday as Ryan Mallet outplayed Brian Hoyer in the team’s 23-7 road victory. The former backup to Tom Brady, Mallett, was 20-of-30 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and an interception Sunday, his 1st-career start. His counterpart, Brian Hoyer, who has kept his rock star backup Johnny Manziel on the bench this season, wasn’t nearly as effective as he’s been lately. Hoyer completed only 20 of 50 passes in the Browns’ loss, setting a team record for incomplete or intercepted passes in one game. Otto Graham held that record from the time the Browns entered the NFL in 1950 until last season (tied by Brian Sipe in 1981), when Jason Campbell went 27-for-56 at Cincinnati.

It’s time to admit that JJ Watt may just be the best overall player in the NFL—on offense and defense. Watt, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, caught his second touchdown pass of the season in Houston’s win. Watt also scored on an interception return in September and with a fumble recovery in October. He is the first NFL player to score at least two TDs on both offense and defense since J.C. Caroline did it for the Bears in 1956 (2 rushing TDs, 2 on Ints).

Rookie Watch:

Last week in this column, I pointed out the play of some of the leagues rookies this season and questioned whether or not they were ready to hit the proverbial rookie wall. Based off the play of a few of them this past weekend, that doesn’t appear likely to happen.

In Washington, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie WR, Mike Evans, caught seven passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his team’s 27-7 win over the Redskins. Over the last 30 years, only two other rookies gained at least 200 receiving yards and caught two TD passes in the same game: Eddie Kennison of the Rams in 2006 (vs. the Falcons) and Anquan Boldin of the Cardinals in 2003 (vs. the Lions).

Rookie WR Mike Evans

Rookie WR Mike Evans

Evans has caught seven passes in each of his last three games, totaling 124, 125, and 209 yards. The only other rookies to gain at least 120 receiving yards in each of three consecutive games were Billy Howton (1952 Packers), Jimmy Orr (1958 Steelers), and Marques Colston (2006 Saints).

Cincinnati rookie running back Jeremy Hill (Round 2, No. 55 overall) and Houston rookie running back Alfred Blue (Round 6, No. 181 overall) were teammates at Louisiana State University. Hill (152 rushing yards) and Blue (156) each rushed for 150+ yards on Sunday, becoming the first rookies from the same college to rush for at least 150 yards on the same day in NFL history. Hill, who rushed for 154 yards in Week 9 against Jacksonville, is the second rookie in franchise history with two 150-yard rushing games, joining Paul Robinson (1968).

Blue tied the franchise rookie record for rushing yards (Steve Slaton, 156 yards vs. Indianapolis on November 16, 2008), and set a single-game club record for carries (36), surpassing the previous mark set by teammate Arian Foster (33 attempts in two different games).

The San Francisco 49ers will most assuredly miss the leadership of linebacker Patrick Willis but it appears as if rookie linebacker Chris Borland is capable of picking up the slack in term of on the field production. The former Wisconsin Badger (Round 3, No. 77 overall) had 12 tackles and two interceptions in the 49ers’ 16-10 win at the New York Giants. Borland is the first rookie linebacker in franchise history with two interceptions in a game. He also joined Ken Norton, JR. (October 22, 1995) as the only 49ers linebackers with two interceptions in a game over the past 40 years.

The Battle for the North:

downloadWhile they are some solid divisional playoff races taking place, no race is as intriguing as the AFC North. With six weeks remaining in the regular season, all four teams are currently within a half game of first place in the division following the Steelers’ 27-24 win at Tennessee on Monday Night Football. Cincinnati (6-3-1) holds the slightest of edges over Pittsburgh (7-4), Baltimore (6-4) and Cleveland (6-4) for the top spot in the division.

The AFC North is the first division in which every team is at least two games above .500 at any point in the season since the 1935 NFL Western Division. The four AFC North clubs have combined for a 17-7-1 record (.700) against non-division opponents in 2014, the best of any division in the NFL. This also includes their record of 8-1-1 vs. the NFC South. Including this week’s games, the North will face the South six more times this season with Pittsburgh (vs Saints Nov 30, @ Falcons Dec. 14)  and Cleveland (@Falcons Nov.23 & @ Falcons Dec. 21)  playing the struggling division twice. The Ravens will travel to play New Orleans this Monday Night for their final matchup of the season vs. the division while the Bengals travel to Tampa on Nov. 30.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only seven divisions have finished with a combined winning percentage of .700 or better outside the division. Three of those divisions produced that season’s Super Bowl champions, including the 2013 NFC West. All seven of the divisions to accomplish the feat have featured at least two playoff teams, with four sending three teams to the postseason.

The Seattle Seahawks, who were one of three 10-win teams in the NFC West last year, finished with an NFC-best 13-3 record en route to the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. The 2007 NFC East also produced the Super Bowl XLII-champion New York Giants (10-6), one of six Wild Card playoff teams to win a Super Bowl title. And the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-2) of the AFC Central went on to their second consecutive Super Bowl title. With six weeks remaining in the NFL regular season and 12 teams in the AFC sporting records of .500 or better, all four AFC North teams are in a strong position to challenge for playoff spots.

Speaking of the Seahawks:

Despite a strong ground attack, the Seattle Seahawks dropped a tough road loss on Sunday to the Kansas City Chiefs. Seattle gained 204 yards on 37 carries at Kansas City, and assuming the Seahawks won by just looking at the box score wouldn’t have been too big of an assumption. Prior to Sunday, defending Super Bowl champions gained 200 or more rushing yards in a game 95 times. They lost only two of those games, both by the same team (the 1985 49ers), and had won their last 41 such games, including three by Seattle earlier this season.

However, with a pretty solid rushing attack their own, the Chiefs defeated the Seahawks, 24-20, (190 yards and three touchdowns). KC gained 190 yards and scored three rushing TD’s. The attack was led by RB Jamaal Charles, who gained 159 yards on 20 carries. Charles extended his rushing success vs. Seattle. Charles also had a 173-yard game versus Seattle four years ago. The only other players with two games of 150 or more rushing yards against the Seahawks are Terrell Davis (both in 1998) and Frank Gore (2006 and 2009).

Super Bowl Rematch looking less likely:

The Seahawks and Broncos both dropped games on the road this past weekend. If the playoffs started today, the Seahawks would become the latest victim of the Champions curse. Nearly half (seven) of the SB Champs from the past 15 years have failed to make the playoffs the following season, the Pittsburgh Steelers did it twice. In fact, all time, one third (16 of 48) of Super Bowl-winning teams don’t make it the postseason the next year. Seattle would be the third straight team to fail to qualify—following the Giants and Ravens. Even if they do make it, winning a game in the playoffs following a SB winning season is no easy task. The last defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game was the 2005 New England Patriots, who won a wild-card game before losing in the next round at Denver. Seattle does control their own destiny. Starting this week at home, the Seahawks still have five division games to play, including two against the hated 49ers and two vs. the division leading Cardinals.superbowl

Speaking of Denver, spending $100 million to revamp its defense may not be money well spent if they cannot stop a pass rush. Denver is also looking to breaking a curse when it comes to the Super Bowl. The last Super Bowl runner up to win the big game the following year was the Miami Dolphins, who won Super Bowl VII in January 1973 after losing Super Bowl VI the previous year. That’s a 41 year drought.

In fact, it’s only happened twice in the Super Bowl’s 46-year history. The numbers are a little more favorable for Denver to at least return to the Super Bowl. Seven Super Bowl runners-up have repeated as conference champions in 48 years—I said a little better.  Most recently, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from three Super Bowl losses to return to the Super Bowl in the 1990-93 seasons. No.18 will look to stop the streak at 18 years, as 18 straight SB runner ups have not returned to the big game.

 

Research and stats courtesy of NFL Communications, ESPN Stats & Information and The Elias Sports Bureau.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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