AFC/NFC Championship Game Previews

AFC Championship Game Preview:

New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos

BroncosVSPATsccphoto by Keith Allison,   Jeffrey Beall respectively


The New England Patriots travel to Mile High city to take on the Denver Broncos. This will be the 17th matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (Brady leads the series 11-5) and the fifth time that the two quarterbacks have played each other for a trip to the Super Bowl. While Brady has dominated the matchups against Manning, Brady has struggled in his career playing against the Broncos in Denver. His record there is 2-6 all time. In fact, the Broncos are the only team with a winning record (7-6) against Brady all-time. Every other team Brady has faced, he either has a .500 or better winning percentage. Although both quarterbacks are similar in age, they have looked and played much differently this season.

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots have dominated the AFC and the NFL for a very long time. This season was yet another example of that. The Patriots finished the season 12-4, dealing with a slew of injuries along the way to a variety of key positions including, RB, WR, and OL. Brady finished the season throwing for just under 5000 yards, 36 TDs, and only 7 INTs – numbers that would have guaranteed him his 3rd MVP award if not for those QBs in Carolina and Arizona. For Brady, this will be his 10th Conference Championship game appearance – an NFL record – with Belichick. If the Patriots go on to the Super Bowl, it would be Brady’s seventh Super Bowl appearance; the most by any quarterback ever. Also, if the Patriots manage to win the Super Bowl, it would give Brady five Super Bowl victories, which is also the most by any quarterback ever and would probably give him the nod as the greatest quarterback ever ahead of Joe Montana. Brady said he could see himself play in the NFL for another 10 years and at age 38; it is hard to question him considering his performance this season and his general style of play (short-passing, methodical). Brady looks 38 years young while his rival on the other side looks like a much older man at 39.

 Manning, widely regarded as the greatest regular season quarterback, finished the regular season throwing for less than 2500 yards, 9 TDs and 17 INTs, completing under 60% of his passes with a QBR of 45.0. In his final start of the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Manning was benched after throwing 4 INTs. As of late, the Broncos have needed to rely on Manning again, bringing him off the bench in a 27-20 win against the San Diego Chargers to clinch the #1 seed in the AFC and starting him in the 23-16 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round. In all likelihood, this playoff run will be Manning’s last. Capturing the Super Bowl this season would tie him with his brother Eli Manning for Super Bowl victories (2), would probably force the football world to view him as a postseason winner, and would finally let Manning ride off into the sunset.

Prediction: With Brady’s key targets (Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman) looking somewhat healthier now as opposed to the two teams’ first meeting this season, it is hard to go against the Patriots in this matchup. However, the Patriots have listed 21 players on the injury report including Gronk and Edelman. The Broncos only shot of defeating the Patriots is to get after Tom Brady, which has always been the blueprint for beating Brady and is something the Broncos accomplished in their last meeting by sacking Brady three times. They also need Manning to just show up like he did last week against the Steelers. There is no way that Manning outduels Brady, but if he can give his #1 defense some help by leading a few key TD-scoring drives, the Broncos can win in a low-scoring affair. I actually see Denver pulling off the upset somewhere along the lines of 23-20.

 

NFC Championship Game Preview:

Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers

 CardinalsVSPanthersccphoto by Jeffrey Beall, Keith Allison respectively


The Arizona Cardinals travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers. This will be the first time in NFL history that a championship game will feature two Heisman-winning QBs and the first time that Carson Palmer and Cam Newton have ever played in a championship game. The Panthers have had the Cardinals’ number as of late, winning three of their last five meetings including last year’s NFC Wild Card matchup 27-16, but the Panthers have never faced them with Carson Palmer starting at QB. The Cardinals finished the season with the #2 offense in the league (1 spot under the Panthers). Both teams are looking to advance to their 2nd Super Bowl appearance in their franchises history. Considering where both teams were last season, no one at the start of this season could have seen a matchup like this occurring. Palmer had recovered from and ACL injury, the best receiver on the team was an aging Larry Fitzgerald, and although Palmer gave the Cardinals a much better chance of winning than any other QB in franchise history since Kurt Warner, the Seattle Seahawks were still viewed as a top team in the NFL and were highly favored to win the Super Bowl this season. Last week, the Cardinals high-powered offense looked shaky in their win against the Green Bay Packers. Palmer had thrown multiple momentum-crushing interceptions in the endzone and the defense gave up a Hail Mary TD pass at the end of regulation, which forced the game into an overtime that the Packers had no business being in. Even so, the manner in which the Cardinals won that game has to give them motivation going into this championship game against the Panthers.

 

On the other side, the Carolina Panthers started their season with a bunch of question marks and not enough answers. Kelvin Benjamin, Newton’s #1 target, was gone for the year with an ACL injury, leaving veteran TE Greg Olsen as the best receiving option available on the team. The team was predicted to struggle this season but that just has not been the case. Even while winning 15 games in a row and capturing the #1 seed in the NFC, the Panthers were still predicted to fall to those very same Seahawks that stomped the Cardinals 36-6 in the final game of the regular season and beat Newton and the Panthers three times in a row. Proving the football world wrong once again, the Panthers put up 31 points in the first half and would hold off the Seahawks near second-half comeback winning the game 31-24. This win showed that the Panthers were for real and made them a favorite to get to the Super Bowl.

 

Prediction: In a matchup between the #1 and #2 offenses in the league, it is easy to expect this game to be high scoring. However, the weather has to be kept in mind as a winter storm has now gripped the east coast. While neither team is a stranger to cold weather, weather will always be a factor in any game and so I don’t personally see the game being too high scoring. While I do think the Cardinals are the better team and that they could beat the Panthers if they were the ones playing at home or at least on a neutral field, Carolina has been riding an emotional high all season long. I see Carolina playing very well at home where they have not lost even once this season. Unless Palmer has a tremendous game, I don’t see them overcoming the Panthers. Palmer cannot play shaky like he did against the Packers or it might be a long day for the Cardinals. I see the Panthers winning somewhere along the lines of 28-25.

Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict receives a 3-game Suspension

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ccphoto by Jeffrey_Beall


 

On Monday night, The NFL announced that Cincinnati Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict would be suspended for three games of the 2016 season for repeated violations of safety-related playing rules. Burfict will appeal the suspension.

The suspension comes as a result of his actions during Saturday’s AFC wild card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss, Burfict was flagged for hitting WR Antonio Brown, who failed to catch a pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger, in the head and appearing to knock him unconscious. Brown remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol. This flag combined with another personal-foul penalty from CB Adam “Pacman” Jones led to the Steelers’ game-winning field goal.

When the two teams met just weeks earlier, Burfict was fined for a hit towards Roethlisberger’s ankles. If the three-game suspension is upheld, Burfict will lose $502,941 of his base salary for the upcoming season and will have totaled $647,395 in fines since before the start of the 2014 season.

Did Marvin Lewis Deserve to Keep His Job?

Sometime after the game, the Bengals announced that they weren’t going to fire head coach Marvin Lewis essentially because they wanted to keep stability. Lewis, who holds the most wins in franchise history and is coming off of a franchise record-tying 12-4 record and yet another AFC North Division Championship, now holds a playoff record of 0-7 in 12 seasons. While Lewis is the probably the most accomplished coach in team history, did he deserve to keep his job? My answer: Yes.

While it is embarrassing that Lewis still doesn’t have even one postseason victory with all of the teams that he has had over the years, I feel it is unfair to use this game as an excuse to fire him. Lewis put his team in position to win as best he could, having to work with rookie backup quarterback AJ McCarron, who obviously had no playoff experience in the NFL. The Bengals overcame a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter and the game appeared to be over when Burfict intercepted a pass from QB Landry Jones. If Lewis had been fired after that game, it would not have been because of his coaching performance but for the actions of Burfict and Jones at the end of the game instead.

Yes, emotions were running high because it was the playoffs and these two teams have a lot of bad blood between them but when do we acknowledge that players need to be held to a very high standard? Burfict and Jones, two of the best players on the team, have to know to not let their emotions overtake them, especially at the end of a playoff game. Burfict had no business trying to punish Brown on that play. He could have just wrapped him up and forced Pittsburgh to actually beat them. And who told Pacman Jones that he had to be an enforcer when non-players (not including refs) entered the field? While these actions do point to a lack of discipline enabled by Lewis, how come no other player let his emotions get in the way of winning the game? I’m sure the other 50- something players on the roster were enraged by the hit on RB Giovani Bernard yet no one else felt the need to retaliate because of the stakes. Firing Lewis would’ve shown how unfair it is to be a coach in professional sports.

Being a head coach is a lot like being a parent, which is also a really difficult job. The only difference is that parenting doesn’t offer millions of dollars. Society dictates that a parent has to be held responsible for any number of children and the way they all turn out. Theoretically, I could have four children and raise three of them to be outstanding, productive members of society, but if the fourth turns out to be a bad apple, I would still be looked upon as a bad parent. Head coaches in the NFL have to account for a 53-man roster, a coaching staff, and their actual children if they have any. When two out of all of those people that Lewis has to account for act up, should he really be fired? While it seems that I am giving Lewis a pass for not winning yet another playoff game, I think this is a deserving pass considering the circumstances and considering how close the Bengals came to ending their playoff-win drought.

 

RGIII vs. Johnny Football: Coming for that No. 2 Spot

RGIII.Johhnny

cc photo by Keith_Allison / Erik Drost respectively


When the Dallas Cowboys aren’t making any headlines with their performance on the field, they somehow manage to always stay relevant simply because the owner, president, and general manager (and probably unofficial head coach) Jerry Jones loves to talk and be heard.

On Tuesday, Jones was asked if he would be willing to bring a young but risky quarterback into the franchise on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. His response essentially was: Yes, as long as he has great upside.

With the blunder of a QB carousel that the Cowboys went through after aging franchise QB Tony Romo went down not once but twice this season, Jones obviously wants to make sure he doesn’t have to witness another disaster like this ever again or at least not anytime soon. With that being said, popular names such as Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel have been thrown out as possible additions to the team.

RGIII and Manziel have both expressed interest in playing for the Cowboys and Jones has commented on many occasions that he is a fan of both players. Considering the idea that the Washington Redskins have clearly moved on from RGIII as Kirk “You Like That?!” Cousins has proven to be a better quarterback and the idea that the Cleveland Browns have just about reached their breaking point with Johnny Football after his latest ridiculous incident, Jones must either be feeling really giddy or nerve-wracked as he will likely have his pick of the popular litter. Since Romo is nearing the end of his career, whomever Jones picks may very well be the successor to Romo. I am here to break down the potential upsides and setbacks Jones and the Cowboys may have choosing either QB:

RGIII

 It seems like such a long time ago since RGIII, probably one of the most dangerous rookie QBs to ever play in the NFL, had taken the league by storm. Being a QB with track speed, he was a nightmare matchup for any team, especially since the read-option was still a fairly new concept to the NFL. Had he not suffered that knee injury against the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, he very well could have been a Super Bowl champion that year. Fast-forward to today, RGIII is now just Robert Griffin and is simply another guy playing quarterback in the game.

Upsides:

  • Character/Commitment: Compared to Manziel, Griffin is virtually a choirboy. Coming from a strong family background, he has never been known to be a troublemaker off the field. If Jones decided to bring Griffin in, he would not have to worry about him becoming a distraction.
  • Already Proven/Experience: Griffin has already proven to be a really good quarterback and at his best (at least from what we’ve seen), he is way better than Manziel. Being in the league for some time now, I wouldn’t doubt that he’s gotten the sense of what it takes to be great at this point in his career while Manziel is still trying to figure that out.

 

 Setbacks:

  • Confidence: Griffin hasn’t been the same since he tore his ACL in his rookie year. When he fooled the nation into believing that he would indeed be ready to play the following season, he got exposed as a terrible pocket passer. Everyone who defended him tried to use his health as an excuse, but eventually that excuse wore itself out. I saw games that Griffin played in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, and he looked healthy to me. Yes, he did not run with the same determination and recklessness that he once had but the bigger problem seemed to be that he looked like a deer in the headlights when he had to stand in the pocket and actually play like a quarterback. Personally, I think his confidence is still shaken since the injury. In the time he did play, Griffin looked timid to use his athleticism – the thing that made him so dangerous in his rookie year. As a result, he was forced to become one-dimensional and could not beat opponents that way. If Jones wants to get the most out of this addition, he will have to find a way to get Griffin’s mojo back.
  • Contract situation: Before this season started, Washington exercised Griffin’s fifth year option, which would give him a little over $16 million for the 2016-17 season. If Washington decided to cut him loose right now, they wouldn’t owe him a penny. For Jones, that is a lot of money to pay for a backup who may not even see the field next year. With salary caps being what they are, I’m not sure Jones would pick him up if he knew he could get another QB like Manziel for less than half of that price.

 Johnny Football

 There is no doubt that Jones was pleased with his team’s performance last season. Jones appeared to have proven once again that he knew more about football than everybody else with his drafting of G Zach Martin, who heavily contributed to Romo and RB DeMarco Murray having the best seasons of their careers. While Martin may have been the Cowboys’ top priority and has turned out to be one of the better guards in the game, further down that same draft board in that draft was Manziel. If Jones couldn’t get or didn’t want Martin, who’s to say that he wouldn’t have drafted Manziel? Now he has a chance to get Manziel without having to waste a draft pick on him. Together, they could finally “wreck the league” (a phrase that seems to have a double meaning at this point considering Manziel’s antics off the field), as Jones would have envisioned.

Upsides:

  • Flashes of greatness: While Manziel’s numbers won’t wow anyone, he has had moments throughout the season where he looked as if he could possibly become a star quarterback. Now Manziel still needs to play more for a better evaluation, but he clearly looked much better this season than he did last season even without having many weapons and the biggest weapon, WR Josh Gordon, being suspended for the season. Having still not played a full season as a starter and being benched every other week doesn’t help his chances of growing, but if Romo goes down with another injury early on next season, who knows what Johnny could do with better WRs and the highly proclaimed “best offensive line in football.”
  • Buzz/Jersey Sales: Even with all of the problems that may come with Manziel, no one can deny that he has certainly created a buzz in Cleveland of all places. Last time I checked, LeBron plays in that same city and even he doesn’t have people talking the way Manziel does (at least not anymore). Before Manziel arrived to the NFL, who cared about what was happening with the Cleveland Browns week after week other than Browns’ fans? Whether it is positive or negative attention, it is still attention that Manziel brings and Jones sure loves himself some attention. While there probably is a market for Griffin’s jersey sales, it would be even bigger if Manziel was signed, as he is the more popular player at the moment.

 

 Setback:

I’ve decided to name only one setback, but it’s probably the biggest one with Manziel.

  • Lack of commitment: From physically fending off obsessive fans to entering rehab to now sneaking into Sin City under the guise of Billy Football, Manziel has found just about every excuse one can find to discuss something other than football when it comes to him. Manziel is one of those players that think his career ended on draft day – as if the very next day he was going to go into the hall of fame. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the NFL is where the best of the best play. Everyone was the ‘big guy on campus’ (except for kickers because that never happens) on the high school level. Getting to the NFL level is not the end of the journey. Excuses that Manziel wasn’t getting enough starts and so he became disinterested and distracted with his celebrity status are not good enough. Now if the Cowboys get him, whose to say he won’t get distracted when he starts playing and living in Dallas? I’ve never been to Cleveland or Dallas, but from what I’ve heard, Cleveland is nowhere near as interesting as Dallas. Getting back to the point, when Manziel gets there, he is still going to be a backup and when the distractions are much closer to home, is anyone going to believe that he will be disciplined enough to refrain from becoming a distraction himself? Jones may love Johnny now – from a distance – but we will see how long that love lasts when he’s on his team and Jones has to defend him week after week for something other than football.

Conclusion

Overall, both QBs are big risks for Jones to take on. One is a big risk to put on the field while the other one is a risk off the field. If I were Jerry Jones, I think Robert Griffin III would be slightly less of a risk to take. At worst, Griffin would be riding the bench while collecting easy paychecks for only 1 year and then he could get rid of him. With Johnny however, he will be collecting paychecks while riding the bench and making the Cowboys relevant for the all the wrong reasons. Either way, Jones will get what he pays for. Theoretically, wouldn’t you rather pay for the damaged premium good (Griffin) instead of the damaged (and I’m not talking about physically) cheap good?