Your #NFL Weekend Update + #Superbowl50 Forecast

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Daniels helps Denver punch ticket to Super Bowl 50

In the 17th and quite possibly the final edition of “Manning versus Brady,” it was Peyton Manning and the Broncos emerging victorious over Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Manning completed 17 passes for 176 yards and threw two touchdowns, both to tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels caught a 21-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 12-yard TD pass in the second quarter, and those were his only two receptions of the game. Daniels tied the NFL postseason record for receptions in a game, all of which went for scores, last done by the Colts’ LaVon Brazill, also against the Patriots, in the 2013 playoffs.

Daniels is the fourth player to catch two touchdown passes from Peyton Manning in a playoff game. The previous three did so for the Colts against the Broncos: Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley in the 2003 playoffs and Reggie Wayne a year later.

Rare struggles for Patriots’ offense

Though a late touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski made the final score close, it was a day-long struggle for the Patriots on offense. Brady completed 27 of 56 passes, marking the first time in his professional career that he completed fewer than half of his passes in a postseason game. The 29 incomplete passes on Sunday were also a career-high for Brady in a postseason game.

The Patriots as a team converted two of 15 third-down attempts, good for just 13.3 percent. That’s New England’s lowest third-down percentage in a postseason game under Bill Belichick. The last time the Patriots converted a lower percentage of third downs in a postseason game was Super Bowl XX – New England lost to the Bears, 46-10, and were 1-for-10 (10%) on third downs.

Panthers pound Cardinals in NFC Championship

The Panthers are headed to Super Bowl 50 after overwhelming the Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC Championship Game. The 49 points by Carolina are the second-most scored by a team that clinched a berth in the Super Bowl – the Bills scored 51 points in the AFC Championship Game in January 1991 against the Raiders. The Panthers, who forced seven turnovers in their blowout victory, are the second team in the last 20 postseasons to score at least 49 points and record seven or more takeaways in a postseason game. The other team to accomplish that feat in that span is the Jaguars, who racked up 62 points and forced seven turnovers in their divisional round victory over the Dolphins in January 2000.

nullSuperman Cam is clutch for Carolina

Cam Newton put up an MVP-like performance in the Panthers’ victory, throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns while also running for a pair of scores. Newton is the fourth quarterback to total multiple touchdown passes and touchdown rushes in a single postseason game. Otto Graham had two such games for the Browns in back-to-back NFL Championships (1954 and 1955). The other two players to do so prior to Newton were Jay Cutler (Jan. 2011 against the Seahawks) and Colin Kaepernick (Jan. 2013 versus the Packers).

nullPalmer ties ignominious record in loss

Carson Palmer struggled against the mighty Panthers defense, throwing four interceptions and losing a pair of fumbles. Palmer’s six turnovers are tied for the most turnovers by a player in a postseason game. The last player to turn the ball over six times in a postseason game also did so in a Panthers-Cardinals matchup – Jake Delhomme had five interceptions and lost a fumble for Carolina in January 2009 against Arizona.

A first look at Super Bowl 50: Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers

LAS VEGAS – The Carolina Panthers will go to San Francisco favored by more than a field goal to win the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

Oddsmakers didn’t even wait until the Panthers finished off the Arizona Cardinals to install them as favorites for the game against the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7. At most books, the Panthers were a 4-point pick, though the early line varied, with the over/under settling in at 45.

Five Quick Hits

* I wish there had been more time in between games on Sunday. The nail-biter in Denver ended minutes before kickoff in Carolina, and if the game had gone into overtime, that creates a conflict for viewers.

* Even if you DVR the NFC Championship Game while you watch the end of the AFC Championship Game, good luck avoiding the scroll at your bottom of your screen, telling you that it’s 17-0 Carolina before you’ve even switched over. There should be a hour, minimum, between the conference championship games. Probably one and a half. I’d rather watch a pre-game show for 15 minutes than miss the first drive of the NFC Championship Game.

* Anyone else catch Rob Gronkowski complaining to the back judge near the end of the early game? He mimed that the Broncos had basically attempted to murder him, on a play that rightfully drew no penalties. Hey Gronk, there’s another sport where crying and faking does draw penalties. It’s called soccer. Either sign with the New England Revolution, or grow up.

* Cam Newton is an all-pro QB and league MVP, and he played great on Sunday. But I’ve never seen a quarterback so willing to throw a 4-yard pass on 3rd-and-10.

* Congratulations to this year’s finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: Anquan Boldin, Eli Manning, and Ben Watson. Boldin is the favorite. This is the second year in a row he’s been a finalist. Thomas Davis, who won last season, had also been a finalist for the second year in a row.

* Get an early look at the 2016 Super Bowl commercials.

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The Ghost of Christmas Future

Super Bowl 50: Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos
Santa Clara, California
February 7, 2015

For the third year in a row, the top seeds from both conferences will meet in the Super Bowl. But this result wasn’t as likely as that stat would imply. The hottest teams coming into the playoffs were the Chiefs (on a 10-game win streak), the Cardinals (who lost a 9-game streak with a half-hearted Week 17), and the Seahawks (whose last four wins came by a combined 139-32). The Panthers had a tough road to the big game, and the Broncos just didn’t look particularly intimidating at the end of the regular season.

This is the first Super Bowl for both head coaches, though both have been to Super Bowls in other capacities. The Broncos’ Gary Kubiak becomes the seventh head coach to make a Super Bowl in his first year with the team, joining Don McCafferty, Red Miller, George Seifert, Bill Callahan, Jon Gruden, and Jim Caldwell. Additionally, Peyton Manning will become the oldest QB to start a Super Bowl, breaking the record held by his employer, John Elway.

CAROLINA ON OFFENSE

Denver has a great defense, but this is a bad matchup. The Broncos thrive on pressure, but Cam Newton’s running ability means he can evade pass rushers, and he’ll run through openings if you leave them. The Broncos will get some sacks, but their pressure won’t have the same effect it did against the Patriots. Denver’s pass defense is better than its rush defense, and Carolina is one of the most balanced offenses in the league, with a good ground game. New England prefers to throw, which played to Denver’s strength, but if Mike Shula is smart, I’d expect the Panthers to run about 50% of the time, more if they get a big lead. I’d also look for some sort of trick play to break things open.

The Broncos need to contain the rush, while preventing big plays downfield: make Newton throw short and intermediate passes, string together long drives. He’s capable of that, but the Broncos can’t get run over on the ground, or killed on sudden, momentum-generating big-play strikes. The Broncos have won with their defense all year, and they’ll need a low-scoring game if they’re going to win, so giving up a 50-yard TD would be devastating. Force the Panthers to work the ball down the field, preferably through the air, and hope you can force a couple of turnovers.

DENVER ON OFFENSE

This still seems weird to say about a Peyton Manning offense, but the Broncos are best when their offense is smart and conservative, with an emphasis on ball control. You expect to see what the team has shown its last few games. They’ll stick with the run, mostly grinding out short gains to keep the defense honest, and probably break a long one at some point. Manning has to take a few shots downfield, but his role is more to find the right plays and pick up first downs on 3rd-and-6. The priority is avoiding turnovers. The Broncos aren’t going to win a shootout, and they’re not expecting to win with explosive offense; they want big plays from their defense.

Carolina’s priority is probably to prevent Denver from establishing its run game and getting into a rhythm. Don’t make mistakes, and force Manning to win with his arm. The Panthers are effective ballhawks, as we saw in the NFC Championship Game, but they probably don’t need to force turnovers as long as they’re solid throughout the game. They need to be creative enough that Manning doesn’t pick them apart with his calls at the line, but they don’t need to be aggressive, exactly. Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman are terrific players, but Carolina’s most important defender in this game might be Kawann Short. Manning can’t overcome a good interior pass rush.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This might be a small advantage for Denver, which has a slightly better kicker, slightly better punter, and a more consistent return game. For the Broncos to win, they’ll probably need an edge from special teams: a big return or a blocked kick or something.

THE FORECAST

The three best teams in the NFL this year were all in the NFC: the Panthers, Cardinals, and Seahawks. The Panthers have already beaten the other two, pretty handily, and they’re 4-point favorites to win Super Bowl 50. Denver has a great defense, though, and you should never underestimate great defensive teams in a championship. The Broncos were in the Super Bowl two years ago, so they have Super Bowl experience, which the Panthers do not – not that it matters a damn. And it’s widely assumed that this will be Manning’s last game. I hate to imply that players don’t always perform at their peak, especially in a game of this magnitude, but sometimes you see a little more when emotions are running high. Who’s to say the Broncos don’t find something extra to help the Sheriff ride off into the sunset?

All the intangibles point in Denver’s direction. But the Panthers are a better team. They have a good defense, too, as their seven takeaways against Arizona would attest, and they have an offense that scores more points. Their ground game plays away from Denver’s strengths, and interior defensive pressure could radically disrupt Manning’s gameplan.

Source: Sports Central NFL – Super Bowl 50 Preview

5 Things for an #NFL Thursday – #WildCardWeekend Edition

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1.

Several Thoughts on the Upcoming #WildCard Games:

Does it no longer matter to go to games anymore?  From your own perch, you can wolf down small animals, drink lascivious amounts of mead and never worry about ice being in a urine receptacle.  Sure you still might have the occasional boorish behavior of people nearby, but it’s your house. Evict-us!

Hopefully, these playoff games will not be the anti-climax to the season that was full of promise.  SO here’s a raised glass early in the week for this weekend – may your speculations be merry and fruitful – may your lineup bring you dollar-ed joy – and may you fleece that loudmouth lawyer from Houston again.  Have fun and enjoy some other thoughts that lead us up to the craziness that’ll exist in San Francisco for the NFL’s “golden” game – the big “L”.

2.

Your Weakest Link:

As we embark on a potentially, weird NFL postseason.  Bill Barnwell helps explain each teams’ Kryptonite.

The top seed in the AFC, Denver, doesn’t know — or at least won’t admit — the identity of its starting quarterback. The scariest team in each conference might be the No. 6 seed, Pittsburgh and Seattle. Perennial contenders such as the Patriots and Packers seem to be limping into the postseason, although that probably doesn’t matter much. It’s entirely possible that the four road teams could all be favored to win this weekend. Things already are bizarre.

That should lead to a postseason in which there’s no clear favorite. The Seahawks finished as the comfortable league leaders in DVOA, but they’ll need to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. There are six teams clumped in the second tier behind them, all with DVOA ratings between 21.3 percent and 27.9 percent above average. There doesn’t appear to be much separating the top contenders in this year’s bracket.

With that in mind, matchups become more important than they would be in a bracket in which there are larger gaps in team quality. A truly dominant team might be able to just steamroll the competition without really worrying about what the opposition does well. In the 2015 playoffs, styles will make for very compelling fights. It could be as much about whom you miss as it is whom you draw.

So let’s look at each team’s weaknesses to identify the potential opponent each club would prefer to avoid in this year’s postseason. There are still clear gaps between relative team quality, so you can argue that everybody would rather play the Texans and avoid the Cardinals. That’s not worth discussing. This is about finding matchups that would present more frustrating problems for a given team than win-loss records might indicate.

Source: A look at the biggest weakness for every team, and which playoff opponents could expose it – NFL

3.

Everybody’s Scoring:

The NFL made some key rule changes (extra points moved back) and new emphasis on old rules (interference and contact on receivers). The end result was the second-highest touchdown total in NFL history.

This season, NFL teams scored 1,318 total touchdowns (including defense and special teams), up from 1,293 a year ago, but still short of the record-setting 2013 season (1,338 total touchdowns).

Here is the year-by-year scoring in the NFL since the league expanded to 32 teams.

Source: CHART: Scoring in the NFL is on the rise – Business Insider

4.

33 Crazy Stats O’Year:

1. This is astounding: The Dallas Cowboys are 152-152 since Barry Switzer’s last season in 1997. Head coach Jason Garrett, who went 8-8 his first three years, skyrocketed past .500 last year with a 12-4 record. But this year’s 4-12 record puts him back at, you guessed it, .500. Super-symmetry. It’s not just an Arcade Fire song.

2. The top 10 rushers in the NFL in 2015, along with their average preseason fantasy football draft rank on ESPN:

1) Adrian Peterson, No. 3(USA TODAY Sports Images)
2) Doug Martin, No. 97
3) Todd Gurley, No. 60
4) Darren McFadden, No. 116
5) Chris Ivory, No. 64
6) Latavius Murray, No. 62
7) Devonta Freeman, No. 112
8)Jonathan Stewart, No. 51
9) Frank Gore, No. 48
10) DeAngelo Williams, No. 121

The average draft slot of the top-10 backs was 73.4. The lesson, as always, season-long-fantasy-football is lame.

3. Adrian Peterson became just the third player in his 30s to win the NFL’s rushing title since 1932. (Marion Motley did it in 1950 and, this might surprise, Curtis Martin won it at 31 in 2004. Curtis Martin was so underrated.)

4. Only seven players rushed for more than 1,000 yards this year. Just nine years ago, the 1,000-yard club included 23 runners and the lowest total in the past 15 years had been 13. That seven is the fewest number since 1991, when Emmitt Smith led the league with 1,563 yards and Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Rodney Hampton, Earnest Byner, Gaston Green and Christian Okoye also hit the mark. (Oddly, that was the year Thomas won the MVP despite finishing third in rushing yards.) Peterson’s 1,485 was also the second-lowest winning total since ’90. Only LaDanian Tomlinson’s 1,474 yards in 2007 was lower…….

Continue Reading: 33 fascinating stats from the 2015 NFL regular season

5.

Clayton’s Path to the Big “L”:

The wild-card teams in the NFL playoffs are the true wild cards.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most dangerous quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. The Seattle Seahawks have the most dangerous team. The Kansas City Chiefs are the hottest team, with 10 wins in a row. The Green Bay Packers offer the passing of Aaron Rodgers.

Ten playoff wild cards have advanced to the Super Bowl, and six have gone all the way to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Since the 32-team realignment in 2002, three wild cards have won Super Bowls, so don’t immediately block the paths of this year’s entries to the Super Bowl because of three possible road games. The wild cards have chances because this postseason is wide-open for several reasons.

My colleague, Mike Sando, is ranking the playoff teams. I am going to evaluate the paths to the Super Bowl, which may offer some surprises. Quarterback injuries certainly play into the equation, as that creates situations in which inexperience factors in.

So here goes, the best paths to the Super Bowl, from clearest to foggiest:

1. New England Patriots: Even though the Broncos took away home-field advantage from the Patriots on Sunday, the Pats have the best path of any team to go back to the Super Bowl, because they have the best AFC quarterback standing, Tom Brady. Sure, Brady took some hits down the stretch and lost his final two games. It was strange seeing him play in the season finale, because Bill Belichick is usually in position to rest his starters before a bye week. Look at the quarterbacks in the AFC among other top teams: Peyton Manning has a plantar fascia injury and isn’t what he has been; and Andy Dalton is hoping to play in the Cincinnati playoff game, but he may be pressing it four weeks after breaking his right thumb. Beyond that, you have Alex Smith or Brian Hoyer under pressure on a big stage if one of them comes to Foxborough in the divisional round. The bye week will give the Patriots a chance to get Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer back for the offense. Even as the second seed, the Pats have a lot going for them.

2. Carolina Panthers: The road to the Super Bowl goes through Charlotte. At the very least, the Panthers have a good chance to be in the championship game, and it would be at home. Their best path is to avoid playing the Seahawks in the divisional round. The Seahawks came into Charlotte three times in Russell Wilson’s first three years and won low-scoring games. Even though the Panthers won a high-scoring game against the Seahawks in Seattle this season, the Seahawks fear no team and have the experience and leadership to win on the road. But the bye week will allow Carolina’s offense to get healthy. Jonathan Stewart should be back running the football. What might make the Panthers vulnerable to defeat is age and injury in the secondary. Cornerback Charles Tillman reinjured his knee Sunday. Cortland Finnegan came out of retirement to play the slot. Safety Roman Harper is 33. That said, the Panthers were the only team in football to go 8-0 at home, and that means plenty for a team that knows how to win anywhere it plays.

3. Arizona Cardinals: Despite the embarrassing 36-6 loss to Seattle on Sunday, the Cardinals might be the most complete team in the playoffs — good on offense, defense and special teams. Coach Bruce Arians is using the loss as a teaching tool. “This was a valuable lesson today,” Arians said. “You could see it coming all week. Players, coaches reading press clippings.” The Cardinals, like most teams, are banged up, but they will be healthier given the week off, allowing players to rest and heal their bodies. Sunday’s loss may have let Cam Newton get the MVP vote over Carson Palmer, but Palmer will be extra motivated. He had his best year. This is his best team. He’s looking to win his first playoff game, and he needs only two wins to get to the Super Bowl.

4. Seattle Seahawks: With the way Russell Wilson is running the Seahawks’ offense, the team is never out of any game. Last week’s loss to the St. Louis Rams ended a 62-game streak in which the Seahawks held the lead at some point. Wilson has had only two games in which his team lost by more than seven points, and he has had the lead in each of those games. San Diego and Green Bay got late scores to win by more than seven. The Seahawks looked like a Super Bowl team Sunday, going into Arizona and winning by 30 points, even though they were missing their top two offensive linemen (Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy), halfback Marshawn Lynch and strong safety Kam Chancellor. Lynch is expected to return Monday. Wilson is on fire and the defense regained its swagger. With this team, it’s not as much about who they play, it’s that they could be a favorite in every instance.

5. Denver Broncos: Getting two home games and home-field advantage was huge, because there was no way the Broncos would have made the Super Bowl as a wild card or by going to New England. Still, this won’t be easy. Gary Kubiak has to choose between Manning and Brock Osweiler at quarterback. Osweiler faded down the stretch, opening the door for Manning to come off the bench and lead the Broncos to Sunday’s thrilling victory over San Diego. What you don’t know is whether Manning can hold out on his bad foot for two games. Wade Phillips’ defense keeps their hopes alive, but even with Manning, the offense has been average and might be at risk of turnovers if he can’t plant his feet.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers: This season reminds me so much of 2005, when the Steelers were the wild card, knocked out Carson Palmer’s knee in the first round of the playoffs and went to the Super Bowl, where they beat Seattle. Andy Dalton broke his thumb in the one-sided loss to Pittsburgh four weeks ago. If he plays against the Steelers, will his grip be good enough to get the offense into the range of the 27.8 points a game he averaged as a starter this season? With Roethlisberger in charge of the offense, the Steelers can score on anyone. The offense is good enough to go to Denver or New England and score. The Steelers are the most dangerous team in the AFC, even though they needed help to get into the playoffs.

7. Kansas City Chiefs: Ron Rivera is probably the coach of the year in the NFC. Andy Reid is the coach of the year in the AFC. The Chiefs allowed only 128 points over the final 10 games. Except for his back-to-back interceptions Sunday against Oakland, Alex Smith does a great job of protecting the ball. The path isn’t bad to start. They are favored to beat the Houston Texans. After that, it could be tough. Smith would go into the divisional round with a 2-2 playoff record, but it’s hard to think he’s good enough to win three playoff games — unless we see some of the best play of his career.

8. Cincinnati Bengals: I feel bad for the Bengals. This is their best overall team in more than two decades. Dalton has been so good this year, he should be in the top five in the MVP vote. I fear they could be one-and-done for the fifth straight year. Fans question Dalton’s ability to rise to the occasion, but this time health is the issue. Had Dalton not injured his thumb, the Bengals probably would have finished as the No. 1 seed and be at the top of this list. The roster is excellent, but we just don’t know what they’ll have at the most important position.

9. Green Bay Packers: This doesn’t look like a Super Bowl season for the Packers. In fact, they were so bad offensively down the stretch, they needed a Hail Mary in Detroit just to get into the playoffs. The problem is twofold. First, receivers can’t get separation from defenders: Between Week 6 and Week 16, the Packers averaged only 318.8 yards a game offensively, ranking 25th in the league. Through 16 weeks, Rodgers completed only 28 of his passes that went 20 yards in the air; he was at 50 last year. Teams play one safety deep against the slow Packers receivers and go at them with man coverage. The other problem is injuries have really taken a toll on the offensive line. Protection broke down so badly that Rodgers was sacked eight times last week against Arizona. It’s hard to believe, but the Packers’ path to the Super Bowl is weakened because of the offense.

10. Minnesota Vikings: The easiest thing to figure out this season was that the Vikings were going to be a playoff team. You put Adrian Peterson in the backfield with young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who went 6-6 as a starter and scored 22 points a game as a rookie, and they were an easy playoff pick. But his recent play makes you wonder if Bridgewater is truly ready to take this team to the Super Bowl. Going into the Sunday night game against Green Bay, the Vikings have been 2-11 against .500 teams or better. They might be good enough to get one playoff win, but it’s a mystery beyond that.

11. Houston Texans: Congratulations on winning the AFC South. The Texans might be able to match the Chiefs for defense. Brian Hoyer might be able to have a good game against Alex Smith, but he’s not going to be able to win in Denver or New England. Can the defense play at an incredible level? And can Hoyer go beyond his previous level of play?

12. Washington Redskins: Jay Gruden found a quarterback by picking Kirk Cousins over Robert Griffin III. His hiring of Bill Callahan has been crucial to the rebuilding process of the offensive line. Everything is headed in the right direction, but winning the NFC East isn’t going to have anyone thinking Super Bowl just yet. No team faces a tougher path.

Source: Clayton: Ranking the clearest paths to the Super Bowl