What does it say about the strength of each conference that heading into the final week of the season all of the AFC division championships have been clinched but none of the NFC divisions have been?
I'm not sure of the answer, but I wouldn't bet against the eventual NFC champion winning the Super Bowl this year, that's for sure.
Stopping Russell Wilson
On Sunday, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson suffered his first home loss since being named starter at the beginning of last season. There were a lot of reasons why the Cardinals were able to get back on the plane afterwards as victors, but one of the biggest was Wilson's refusal to make the Cards pay for playing as much man-to-man as they did. And by make them pay, I mean he didn't run enough when everyone was covered.
I know that a lot of the analysts these days cut these young quarterbacks off at the knees for scrambling, but what you rarely see are those analysts pointing out any open receivers on those plays. With Percy Harvin still out with a hip injury, the Seahawks essentially just have some good wide receivers but nobody who is special.
If Seattle's opponent is any good and plays a lot of man, there aren't likely to be many options running down the field wide open. Several times Wilson avoided the initial rush but didn't look to gain yardage. Instead, he tried to buy time to throw to guys who still weren't getting open, which led to a lot of mixed results.
When a team lacks that one special, dynamic wide receiver who can open up everyone else, it has to make sure to move the chains every chance it gets, methodically working its way down the field.
One particular situation in the second quarter had me literally shaking my head while watching it. Wilson and the Seahawks faced third-and-1 from their 35-yard line with the score tied 3-3. The quarterback sees and avoids the rush initially, rolls to his left with nothing but green grass in front of him. Instead of taking the easy first down with his legs, Wilson tried to complete a difficult throw to wide receiver Doug Baldwin near the left sideline.
I don't want to go overboard with this, because it is only the first loss the Seahawks have had at home with Wilson at quarterback. They weren't blown out and were in the game until the end. However, while not everybody can go with man coverage against the Seahawks, there's a reason why we call the NFL a copycat league. Other teams will try to employ the same game plan to see if Wilson will settle for trying to make those hard completions instead of making them pay for their disrespectful tactics.
A team can get away with that defensive game plan if the opponent has a statue in the pocket. To have that game plan against a guy as mobile as Wilson says to me that they didn't think he would take advantage. Had Wilson run a few more times for good yardage, not only would it have helped move the chains, it also would have given Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles pause before sticking with the man-to-man coverage in his game plan.
I know that Wilson has never been a guy who takes off at the first sign of trouble. He generally likes to extend plays to throw rather than gain yards by running it himself, and that's served him well thus far. However, if Seattle faces another team that dares Wilson to run, he had better be willing to call its bluff or this likely won't be the last time the Seahawks lose at home this year.
I wrote last week about rookie running backs Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy, and when their teams met on Sunday they did not disappoint. Bell had a fantastic game with 124 yards on 26 carries. He also scored the game-winning, 1-yard touchdown with 1:25 left on the clock to close the door on Lacy's Packers at the end of a fantastic back-and-forth game.
Lacy was no slouch either, pounding out 84 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries before he had to leave the game with an ankle injury. The future is definitely bright for both of those young men.
All Donald Brown did Sunday to help his Colts team demolish the Chiefs was carry the ball 10 times for 79 yards and a touchdown and catch two passes for 31 yards and another touchdown. While the Chiefs defense has had some ups and downs since they caught the injury bug in Week 12, they are still pretty solid. Brown made them look silly on several long runs. The most impressive was the 51-yard touchdown run where he broke three tackles then tightroped the sideline on the way to the end zone.
Kinda makes you wonder what the Colts' record would look like at this point had Brown been named the starter earlier, doesn't it?
I understand that Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine sends a lot of exotic blitzes, which makes running the ball harder. I also understand that the few runs they did try weren't necessarily all that productive. On a few drives, the Dolphins killed themselves with penalties.
I get ALL of that.
What I can't understand, even after watching the film, is why the Dolphins would go with such a terrible game plan, knowing that their offensive line has been an Achilles heel all season because of their shoddy pass blocking. Did they notice how many sacks the Bills had racked up even before their game on Sunday?
That number, which was 49, is now 56 after the Dolphins surrendered seven sacks in the game, which keeps the Bills at the top of the league in that category.
It's even more absurd when you think about all that the Dolphins had riding on that game, including a chance to help their playoff standing. If it were up to me, somebody on the coaching staff would have to pay for that performance with their job.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson was flagged for a horse-collar tackle on Sunday in the first quarter of a loss to the Colts. It might be the worst instance of referees getting that call wrong. It was third-and-5 and Johnson made an outstanding tackle in space on Trent Richardson, bringing him down short of the sticks. Then the refs made that bogus call, gifting the Colts a first down. It had to be karma that they eventually missed a chip shot field goal on that same drive, at least I hope it was.
It's easy to forget that horse-collar tackles being illegal is a relatively recent phenomenon. The rule was changed in 2005 after Cowboys safety Roy Williams injured Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens on a horse-collar tackle. Williams appeared to attempt those kinds of tackles repeatedly with the intent to injure throughout the 2004 season.
Before that, it was just a tackle from behind like any other. When you are behind a guy or even beside him, sometimes there are very few other options if you want to get him on the ground.
I understand the need to protect players in that situation, but that is one of the plays that I think should be reviewable. It's not really a judgment call -- either the player has his hand grabbing the back of his opponent's neckline during the tackle or he doesn't. Johnson definitely didn't. A 15-yard penalty is too big of a deal to leave it totally in the hands of the refs who admittedly get a lot of calls wrong.
Hidden gem in Oakland?
Raiders defensive tackle Pat Sims had himself a day against the Chargers last week. After notching his first sack of the season against the Chiefs the week before, Sims added another against the Chargers to go along with 15 total tackles (!), including at least three of which came behind the line of scrimmage by my count.
Sims is listed at 310 pounds but looks every bit of 350. Every time I watch Raiders film he catches my eye. He moves quicker than a guy his size should be able to move. His sack of Philip Rivers came off a spin move that he ripped out of to make the tackle. Sims is in his sixth year in the league and he has never had eye-popping stats in any given season, but if he can carry this momentum over to next season, the Raiders might have something special on their hands.
The mighty Quinn
Robert Quinn has bum-rushed his way into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation over the last weeks, dominating the Saints and Buccaneers left tackles to the tune of a total of five sacks, giving him the NFL lead with 18 total.
Like the week before against the Saints, it didn't matter what the Bucs tried to throw at Quinn. Chips by running backs or having the line slide his way, Quinn was not going to be denied. By the end of the game, he had almost single-handedly shut down any chance of the Bucs coming back with the pressure he put on their quarterback Mike Glennon.
I'm not sure if the fact that the Rams can only finish at .500 at best will hurt Quinn in the DPOY voting, but I do know this kid is the real deal. I talked him up earlier in the season, and he has gotten better every week. Even if he doesn't win this year, I have a feeling this won't be the last time we are talking about him being up for this award.
Too quick to bench
Speaking of Quinn, I have to imagine that on Monday morning the Saints were rethinking their decision to start rookie Terron Armstead at left tackle against the Panthers. The usual starter, Charles Brown, was benched the previous week because Quinn lit him up. Armstead fared much worse against the Panthers' fierce pass rushers. As a team, the Saints gave up a total of six sacks, and, watching the film, it looked like Armstead gave up literally half of them all by his damn self. That was a big reason why Saints quarterback Drew Brees couldn't get comfortable in the pocket and was unable to find much of a rhythm.
Sometimes you have to recognize the greatness of the opposing player and factor that into your evaluation. Yeah, Brown got his ass whupped by Quinn, but which opposing left tackle hasn't this year? The list is very short. Brown might not be a great left tackle, but so far this season he's been good enough in most games. Putting Armstead out there to face the likes of Greg Hardy on the road for the very first start of his career just wasn't a very smart move.
Geno Smith's rebound game
He doesn't have great stats over the course of this season, but Geno Smith's performance in the Jets' win over the Browns shows me he can be a good quarterback in this league. It wasn't the first time Smith has played well for an entire game this season, but it was as good of a performance as he has had all year. Not only did Smith take care of the ball, he was also very poised in the pocket and looked to be in command rather than just feeling his way around. He knew where to go with the ball. When everything broke down, he stayed calm and got as many yards as he could with his legs or threw the ball away when necessary.
Consistency has been Smith's biggest issue all season. However, his upside is evident. His ability to avoid a rush gives him an edge over most of the other rookie quarterbacks going into 2014. He didn't have much to work with on offense either. A wide receiver-rich draft coming up this spring should help that. For my money, Smith will be the sophomore quarterback to watch next season.
Can the Broncos win with Peyton alone?
Peyton Manning put up one of the most amazing seasons in NFL history this year. With over 5,000 passing yards and 51 touchdowns, including a whopping 400 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday in a win over the hapless Houston Texans, this season has been one for the history books indeed. There is no telling what Manning's final numbers will look like with one game left. The 51 touchdowns breaks Tom Brady's record of 50 from 2007, when he had a season most of us thought would take a long time to match.
With Manning as the captain of their ship, there are plenty of reasons to believe in the Broncos this postseason.
However, the Broncos also lost pass rusher Von Miller for the season with a torn ACL in that game. For a defense that has been up and down all year, that could end up being a crushing blow. The Broncos still have Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers, who have a combined 15.5 sacks this season, but they were already adjusting to the loss of defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (out for the season with an injury) and defensive tackle Derek Wolfe (an illness has kept him out of the last four games). This is ... not good.
If Peyton can put up eye-popping numbers every game in the playoffs, then the Broncos could still make it to New Jersey for the Super Bowl. If Manning happens to have one of those odd off-days like he had against the Chargers in Week 15, I don't think the Broncos defense will be able to hold up after all those injuries.