Articles By Athlon Sports
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There were seven coaching jobs open when the NFL’s coaching carousel began and three seats have already been taken. There’s a mad scramble on for the final four, too, as plenty of out-of-work coaches are positioning themselves for new jobs.
But let’s face it: There are jobs and there are JOBS and the difference can be huge. Most coaches don’t have a choice. They take what’s offered. But what if a coach did have his choice of all seven vacancies? Would he follow the money to Washington and work for the dysfunctional Redskins, or follow the talent to Houston for less exposure (and probably less cash)?
It would be a tough choice that most coaches won’t have to make, but if they did, here’s how the seven NFL jobs that are either open or were open this offseason would rank:
1. Detroit Lions
Out: Jim Schwartz, fired (29-48 in five seasons)
This has been one of the most snakebitten franchises in the league the last few decades, but look at what the new coach will be starting with – a franchise quarterback (Matthew Stafford), a top running back/weapon (Reggie Bush), one of the best receivers in history (Calvin Johnson) and one of the most feared defensive players in the game (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh). That’s not exactly starting from scratch. They also have a patient ownership not afraid to spend money and a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball. They were also big underachievers this season, yet they were in the playoff hunt right until the end. It will take tweaking to get them to contender status, not a major overhaul. Schwartz did not exactly leave the Lions’ cupboard bare.
How good is the Detroit job? A-plus
2. Houston Texans
Out: Gary Kubiak, fired (63-66 in 8 seasons)
In: Bill O’Brien, former Penn State coach
Think about how badly the Houston Texans have underachieved over the last few years, and how badly they underachieved this season when they plummeted to 2-14. You know what that tells you? That they have plenty of talent, at least as far as NFL personnel and scouts and coaches are concerned. The Texans were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders and some of the pieces are still in place, including RB Arian Foster, DE J.J. Watt, and WR Andre Johnson, just to name a few. Oh, and by the way, for their collapse this season? They were rewarded with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. And that’s big, especially since it looks like Matt Schaub’s days as the franchise quarterback are over.
How good is the Houston job? A-minus
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Out: Greg Schiano, fired (11-21 in two seasons)
In: Lovie Smith
One year ago, Schiano had been praised for turning the losing culture in the Bucs’ organization around and for building what looked like a good young team. There certainly is a lot of talent, and an exciting piece in running back Doug Martin. The problem was he built it around Josh Freeman, an immature young quarterback of questionable talent. Well, Schiano provided his successor with one last gift, jettisoning Freeman and turning the keys over to QB Mike Glennon. A terrific young quarterback, plus a talented young running back and the No. 7 pick in the draft will give Smith a huge head start.
How good is the Tampa Bay job? B-plus
4. Tennessee Titans
Out: Mike Munchak, fired (22-26 in three seasons)
In: The Titans were the definition of a middling team during Muchak’s rein, even though he built a strong offensive line, had a powerful all-pro running back (Chris Johnson) and had a defense that was ranked in the top half of the league. The problem was that he never had enough play-makers in the passing game, in large part because QB Jake Locker was erratic and this season, when many expected him to emerge, he was hurt. The job would be much better if it was clear what Locker was going to eventually be.
How good is the Tennessee job? B-minus
5. Washington Redskins
Out: Mike Shanahan, fired (24-40 in four seasons)
In: Jay Gruden
Well, one year ago this looked like a great job. A powerful running game, a dynamic young franchise quarterback, an emerging defense. Now? Not so much. They had a huge collapse this season, and worse, they traded away their first-round draft pick so they can’t even reap the benefits. On top of that, the franchise quarterback – Robert Griffin III – is now an unknown quantity because of his lingering knee problems. And even worse than that, reports have suggested an absolutely toxic situation with the owner, Dan Snyder, who apparently sided with his quarterback over his coach in some internal disputes. Snyder does have plenty of money, but his organization rarely has a plan.
How good is the Washington job? C-plus
6. Minnesota Vikings
Out: Leslie Frazier, fired (21-32 in four seasons)
If you’re starting with a defense that has defensive end Jared Allen and a running back in Adrian Peterson, it should be a great job, right? OK, but who’s the quarterback? Christian Ponder wasn’t the answer and it seems highly doubtful that Josh Freeman will be. Maybe they can find a good one with the eighth pick of the draft, but then they’re just hitting the reset button. Again. And it’s not as if the new quarterback will be surrounded by a ton of offensive weapons. Plus, that defense that was once an anchor? It finished last season ranked 31st in the league.
How good is the Washington job? C-minus
7. Cleveland Browns
Out: Rob Chudzinski, fired (4-12 in one season)
Another franchise playing “Who’s our quarterback?” (Brandon Weeden? Jason Campbell?) Plus, they need to answer who their running back is after trading away Trent Richardson, a former first-round draft pick. They did have an improving defense and an emerging offensive line, plus with receiver Josh Gordon they have one of the NFL’s top skill position players. But you know why this is a terrible job? Start with the fact that Chudzinski was fired after just one season. He was the seventh head coach for the Browns since 2000. None of the last three have lasted more than two seasons and no Browns coach has lasted more than four seasons since Bill Belichick (1991-95). They do have the fourth overall pick in the draft, but the new coach better consider renting a home rather than buying one because history suggests he won’t be there long.
How good is the Cleveland job? D-plus
—By Ralph Vacchiano, @RVacchianoNYDN
Here's a quick preview and prediction for every game on the NFL schedule for Wild Card Weekend.
Chiefs (11-5) at Colts (11-5)
This is a rematch of two weeks ago, when Indy stampeded Kansas City, 23–7, at Arrowhead. The Colts forced four turnovers to clinch their fifth win in their last six meetings with the Chiefs. Kansas City sat its notable starters in the season finale at San Diego, meaning the loss to Indianapolis was the last on-field action seen by the faces of K.C.’s franchise. Alex Smith, in particular, struggled with a season-worst three turnovers, second-lowest passer rating (57.6), second-most sacks (five) and third-fewest passing yards (153) of the year. Expect a heavy dose of Jamaal Charles — who had 1,980 yards from scrimmage and 19 total TDs this season — against Indy’s 26th-ranked rushing defense. Chiefs by 1
Saints (11-5) at Eagles (10-6)
New Orleans has lost five of its last six games on the road and has a 3–5 record away from home this season, with wins at Tampa Bay, Chicago and Atlanta — teams with a combined record of 16–32. Drew Brees has thrown 12 TDs and nine INTs away from the Superdome, compared to 27 TDs and three INTs in the Big Easy. But Brees does carry a 5–4 playoff record and a Super Bowl MVP into this matchup with Philly’s first-time playoff starter Nick Foles, whose split stats are impressive from any vantage point. Foles led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating, thanks to 27 TDs and just two INTs in place of the injured Mike Vick. The league’s leading rusher also lines up in first-year coach Chip Kelly’s potent offense, as LeSean McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards and nine TDs this season. Eagles by 1
Chargers (9-7) at Bengals (11-5)
Cincinnati has made the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history. Now the Bengals will attempt to win a playoff game for the first time since 1990. Cincy’s previous two postseason defeats have come on the road in Houston. This time around, Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and Co. will kick off at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals have a perfect 8–0 record this season. Cincinnati has successfully defended the Jungle against playoff teams New England (13–6), Indianapolis (42–28) and Green Bay (34–30). San Diego will be no easy out, however. The Chargers won five of their last six games to rally from a 4–6 playoff pretender to a 9–7 AFC Wild Card contender. Bengals by 5
49ers (12-4) at Packers (8-7-1)
San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick has been nearly unstoppable in two career starts against Green Bay. The dual-threat playmaker has passed for a combined 675 yards, five TDs and one INT, while tucking the ball to scramble for 203 yards and two TDs in a 45–31 Divisional Round playoff win last year and 34–28 Week 1 victory to start this season. Neither of those games was played at Lambeau Field, however. But the conference’s defending champions have been solid gold, regardless of the venue this year. The 49ers are currently riding a six-game winning streak and their only losses all season have all been against playoff-bound squads — at Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and at New Orleans. But Title Town has its mojo back following the hero’s return of Aaron Rodgers, a Super Bowl MVP winner in his own right. 49ers by 3
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the NFC and AFC No. 1 seeds, Seattle and Denver, to the No. 1 overall pick, Houston.
1. Seahawks (13-3) Clinch NFC’s top seed, NFL’s toughest division.
2. Broncos (13-3) Peyton Manning ends year with 5,477 yards, 55 TDs.
3. Patriots (12-4) Gaining ground on the ground as playoffs approach.
4. Panthers (12-4) Carolina headed to playoffs for first time since 2008.
5. 49ers (12-4) Phil Dawson matches career long with 56-yard FG.
6. Saints (11-5) Drew Brees tops 5,000 yards for record fourth time.
7. Bengals (11-5) Have not won a game in postseason since 1990.
8. Colts (11-5) Andrew Luck first with 8,000 yards in first two years.
9. Chiefs (11-5) Rest starters, lose five of last seven after 9–0 start.
10. Eagles (10-6) Soar from 1–3 to hosting a Wild Card playoff game.
11. Chargers (9-7) Seven men on one side of center penalty uncalled.
12. Packers (8-7-1) Aaron Rodgers returns to lead Pack to postseason.
13. Cardinals (10-6) “Ten wins and you’re in,” not the case for Arizona.
14. Bears (8-8) Was Jay Cutler’s final INT his final pass in Chicago?
15. Cowboys (8-8) No Romo, no problem; Orton tosses late INT in loss.
16. Ravens (8-8) 15th reigning champ to miss playoffs following year.
17. Jets (8-8) Rally around Rex Ryan, save coach’s job with win.
18. Dolphins (8-8) Fate sealed by INT from Ed Reed in loss to Jets.
19. Steelers (8-8) Blown K.C. call has Pittsburgh on outside looking in.
20. Rams (7-9) Sitting pretty with Nos. 2 and 13 picks in first round.
21. Giants (7-9) Bounce back to go 7–3 after 0–6 start to season.
22. Titans (7-9) CJ surpasses 1K-yard mark for sixth straight year.
23. Lions (7-9) Matthew Stafford would like input in next coach hire.
24. Bills (6-10) Miss playoffs for league-worst 14th straight year.
25. Vikings (5-10-1) Metrodome goes out with victory after 32 seasons.
26. Buccaneers (4-12) Greg Schiano shown the door after two ugly years.
27. Falcons (4-12) Tony Gonzalez career over after 111 TD catches.
28. Raiders (4-12) Terrelle Pryor sets new team QB rushing record.
29. Browns (4-12) Rob Chudzinski “shocked,” “disappointed” by firing.
30. Jaguars (4-12) Maurice Jones-Drew contract talks in spotlight.
31. Redskins (3-13) First-round pick goes to Rams as part of RG3 trade.
32. Texans (2-14) End season on unbelievable 14-game losing streak.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
In Week 9, Mr. Discount Doublecheck suffered a collarbone injury in a 27–20 loss to the rival Bears. Title Town was 5–2 when Rodgers went down before staggering to a 2–5–1 record without their Super Bowl MVP signal-caller. So it was only fitting that Rodgers made his comeback at Chicago in Week 17 during a winner-take-all heavyweight fight for the NFC North crown and a trip to the playoffs. Rodgers completed 25-of-39 passes for 318 yards, two TDs and two INTs in a 33–28 victory. Even his mistakes worked out in Green Bay’s favor, as a second-quarter forward fumble was recovered by Jarrett Boykin for a surreal 15-yard TD.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots
New England’s newfound workhorse runner had 24 carries for 189 yards (7.9 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 34–20 victory over the Bills. Prior to the Week 17 outburst, Blount had recorded just three games with 60-plus rushing yards and only one contest with at least 15 carries. The 6'0", 250-pounder has been consistent for the Pats, with 11 games of 40 or more yards on the ground, along with 772 yards (5.0 ypc) and seven TDs this year.
Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers
One week after recording a hat-trick in a win over the Saints, Hardy set a new team record with four sacks during a 21–20 victory on the road against the Falcons. But Hardy wasn’t the only Panther getting in on the action. Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Frank Alexander and Mike Mitchell joined Hardy to notch a Carolina team-record nine sacks. Hardy ends the year with 15 sacks, which couldn’t have come at a better time for the soon-to-be free agent.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
CJ1K joined LaDainian Tomlinson, Corey Dillon, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson as only the sixth running back in NFL history to top the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first six seasons. Johnson had 27 carries for 127 yards and one TD in a 16–10 win over the Texans. Due $8 million next season, Johnson may have played his last game in Tennessee following his second-worst rushing season (1,077 yards).
While playoff tickets are being punched on the final Sunday of the NFL regular season, just as many pink slips are being prepared for the following day — known as “Black Monday” in head coaching circles.
This season was no different, as five coaches were fired by their respective teams. Here’s a look at the coaches who comprise this year’s “Black Monday” class. They likely will not be the only coaches fired, but they are the first.
Rob Chudzinski, 45
The biggest surprise of this year’s axed coaches, “Chud” was a lifelong Browns fan from Toledo, Ohio, who had worked with the organization twice — as tight ends coach in 2004 and offensive coordinator in ’07-08 — before taking over the top spot this offseason. The Browns are on the verge of hiring their seventh coach since returning to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. The next Cleveland coach will follow the distinguished headsets of Chris Palmer (5–27 record with Browns), Butch Davis (24–34), Romeo Crennel (24–40), Eric Mangini (10–22), Pat Shurmur (9–23) and Chudzinski.
Leslie Frazier, 54
Record: 21–32–1 (0–1 playoffs)
Frazier went out in style, winning the finale at the Metrodome and then shaking the hand and/or hugging each of his players as they entered the locker room. After going 10–6 and losing in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs last season, Frazier’s Vikings struggled to a 5–10–1 record this year and finished last in the NFC North division standings for the second time in three full seasons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Greg Schiano, 47
After posting a 68–67 record at Rutgers, Schiano gave it the ol’ college try in the NFL. But his rah-rah style resulted in two last-place NFC South finishes and a pair of mini-scandals. Schiano was scrutinized for rushing the Giants while in “Victory Formation” and for playing Darrelle Revis in zone coverage.
Jim Schwartz, 47
Record: 29–51 (0–1 playoffs)
Speaking of mini-scandals, Schwartz is most known for his postgame handshake hysterics with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Schwartz inherited an 0–16 Lions team and had them in the playoffs three years later. But it was all down hill in the Motor City after that.
Mike Shanahan, 61
Record: 24–40 (0–1 playoffs)
Shanahan was a flashy hire for owner Dan Snyder back in 2010. A two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos, Shanahan had a 138–86 record with John Elway as his quarterback. In Washington, Shanahan’s legacy will be forever tied to Robert Griffin III.
The Redskins traded their first-round picks in 2012 (No. 6 overall), 2013 (No. 2) and 2014, along with their 2012 second-rounder (No. 39) to select RG3. The deal looked to be a brilliant move, as the Skins went 10–6 and earned a playoff berth in RG3’s rookie year. But an RG3 knee injury — that many blamed on Shanahan — suffered in a Wild Card loss to Seattle was followed by an ugly 3–13 year in which Snyder, Shanahan and RG3 had a public power struggle.
The Mike Shanahan Era ended weeks ago in Washington when the first reports surfaced of a rift between him and owner Dan Snyder. The rift was apparently over Robert Griffin III, the franchise quarterback, and there was no way that the coach could survive being on opposite sides of the owner over that.
Maybe it was never meant to last anyway. They are two high-profile NFL people with major personalities and an apparent need for control. Things sure looked rosy in 2012 when they won a division championship, though we later learned that the seams were popping, even then.
So now Shanahan leaves with a 24-40 record in four seasons, including 3-13 in 2013 — the Redskins’ worst record since 1961. Still, it’s a good job with an owner that is willing to spend, presumably a franchise quarterback in place, and the talent left over from a division title just one year earlier. Maybe not everyone will want to work for Snyder. But with his money and the prestige of the job, it’s possible he’ll be able to lure anyone he wants.
Who will that be? Here are five who will likely be at the top of Snyder’s list:
Lovie Smith, former Bears head coach – Quite possibly the most respected name on the market, given the good work and rave reviews he got in his years with the Bears. He’s known for his organization, his professionalism and having the respect of his players — and those are three things the Redskins absolutely need. The Bears, by the way, went 81-63 in his nine years as head coach and 10-6 in his final season. The only downside is the Redskins could have competition if they tried to hire him now.
Ken Whisenhunt, offensive coordinator San Diego – Not only is he having a very good year getting the most out of quarterback Philip Rivers with the Chargers, but he also had a pretty good run as head coach in Arizona where he – with the help of Kurt Warner – very nearly won a Super Bowl with one of the worst organizations in the NFL. He’s an offensive whiz, too, which will help the development of RGIII, which stalled in 2013.
Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator Cincinnati – I know, everyone would prefer his brother, but the NFL has taken notice of what the “other” Gruden has done with the Bengals offense and specifically quarterback Andy Dalton. Again, he’d be a great choice if Snyder’s primary focus was finding someone who could turn RGIII into what he’s supposed to be.
Art Briles, Baylor head coach – Of course, maybe nobody knows RGIII better than his college coach, who not only helped turn the quarterback into a star, but turned Baylor into a power. A perennial conference doormat, the Bears won the Big 12 this season and are on track to their fourth straight bowl game. He’s a risky hire, but Snyder isn’t risk averse and he won’t be afraid of hiring a college coach. The downside here is he would be seen clearly as a choice to benefit RGIII, and it might be hard to ever separate the two in the future.
Russ Grimm, former Steelers and Cardinals offensive line coach – A very interesting name floated by the Washington Post. He’s a beloved former Redskin and a Hall of Famer and a very well-respected offensive line coach who spent 2013 out of football. He was once a candidate to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers (and may or may not have been offered the job, depending on who you believe). He has no coaching experience above the offensive line, but many think he’s qualified and he’d electrify the fan base. A risky choice, but one that would be very popular.
Bill Cowher, former Steelers coach – Most people swear he’s done with coaching, but even if he does return he’d likely be looking for an organization with stability. The Redskins most definitely don’t have that.
Jon Gruden, former Bucs and Raiders coach – He may be the biggest, most electric available name and the feeling is that for the right price he could be lured out of the ESPN booth. He’s been away from the game for a little while, though, and there are better candidates.
Bill O’Brien, Penn State coach – It sounds as if he’ll have his pick of jobs, and there may be no more attractive one than the Houston Texans. Plus, he comes off the New England coaching tree and there might be a little too much chaos in Washington for his liking.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator New England – A former head coach in Denver, he’s got the credentials and the offensive background that most people think Snyder will favor. But there appear to be others higher on the list, and as another Patriot prodigy it’s hard to see him jumping at the Redskins mess.
— By Ralph Vacchiano, @RVacchianoNYDN
Locks of the Week
Inner division games featuring teams in must-win (or must-lose) mode are ripe for the picking in the regular-season finale.
Colts (-11) vs. Jaguars
Indy stampeded J-Ville, 37–3, in Week 4. The Colts are fresh off of big wins over the Texans (25–3) and Chiefs (23–7).
Patriots (-8.5) vs. Bills
EJ Manuel’s season is over, leaving Thad Lewis in charge of staggering Buffalo. Take Tom Brady at home in December.
Titans (-7) vs. Texans
Houston is a loss away from locking up the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Tennessee needs a win to save Mike Munchak’s job (maybe).
Panthers (-6.5) at Falcons
Cam Newton returns to his hometown of Atlanta with a chance to clinch the NFC South crown and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
49ers (-1) at Cardinals
Essentially a pick ‘em, San Francisco dusted Zona 32–20 in Week 6. But the red-hot Redbirds have won seven of their last eight games.
The Crescent and Queen Cities have been nearly unstoppable at home lately. Ride the hot hands in N’Awlins and Cincy.
Saints (-12.5) vs. Buccaneers
New Orleans is 7–0 at home, where Drew Brees has thrown 23 TDs and just three INTs under the lights at the Superdome.
Bengals (-6.5) vs. Ravens
Cincinnati is 7–0 at home and has scored 40 or more points in each of its last four games at Paul Brown Stadium.
These games may not be straight up upsets, but the numbers are big enough to bank on tight fights in these inner division games.
Cowboys (+6.5) vs. Eagles
Dallas will lose in the most painful way possible, it’s nearly guaranteed. That means there will be hope — false hope — in the fourth quarter.
Jets (+6) at Dolphins
The J-E-T-S are fighting to save the job of R-E-X Ryan and should be able to hang tough with a Fins club off a 19–0 loss at Buffalo.
Stay away from these games unless you’re a degenerate or a hometown homer who has to have action on all the action.
Broncos (-12.5) at Raiders
This number seems high, but Denver has won eight of its games by two touchdowns. So there’s that.
Seahawks (-11.5) vs. Rams
All Seattle has to do is win or tie and the “12th Man” will be rocking the Pacific Northwest with home field advantage.
Chargers (-9.5) vs. Chiefs
Kansas City is 2–4 following a 9–0 start to the season. What’s up, Andy Reid?
Steelers (-7) vs. Browns
Pittsburgh needs to win and have the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers all lose in order to make the playoffs. Is that all?
Giants (-3.5) vs. Redskins
Finally. The end is here. If there’s a way for both of these teams to lose, they’ll make it happen.
Vikings (-3) vs. Lions
Detroit has five losses in its last six games and has been eliminated from the playoffs. But don’t boo Jim Schwartz.
Packers (-3) at Bears
Be careful out there, Aaron Rodgers. Watch your collarbone, buddy.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 17, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports' editors.
Panthers (11-4) at Falcons (4-11)
The Cats can wrap up the NFC South crown and a first-round bye with win in Cam Newton’s hometown of Atlanta. In Week 9, Carolina cruised to a 34–10 win over the Dirty Birds. After a 1–3 start to the season, the Panthers are 10–1 — with only a loss at New Orleans, the team Carolina vanquished 17–13 last week. Panthers by 8
Packers (7-7-1) at Bears (8-7)
Mike McCarthy wants a “quicker” decision on the Week 17 status of Aaron Rodgers, who has missed the past eight games due to a collarbone injury suffered against, you guessed it, Da Bears in Week 9. The 188th meeting in the league’s longest running rivalry — which dates back to 1921 — may or may not have Mr. Discount “Daaa-ble Check” on the field. But he will be seen frequently during commercial breaks in the series Chicago leads 93–88–6 all-time. Chicago needs a win or a tie to clinch the NFC North. Bears by 1
Texans (2-13) at Titans (6-9)
Will this be the final game of Mike Munchak’s strained facial expressions? Or Chris Johnson’s strained no-gain runs? For all the grief he takes, CJ-might-make-it-to-1K needs just 50 yards on the ground to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth consecutive season. Titans by 5
Browns (4-11) at Steelers (7-8)
Pittsburgh needs to win and have the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers all lose in order to make playoffs. Is that all? Steelers by 10
Redskins (3-12) at Giants (6-9)
The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will watch from the sideline as his backup battles a two-time Super Bowl MVP in a throw away game that will mark the end of two of the stranger (and disappointing) 2013 seasons. Giants by 4
Ravens (8-7) at Bengals (10-5)
Cincinnati is a perfect 7–0 at home in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium this year. Bungles no more, the Bengals have scored at least 40 points in each of their last four games at home, with Andy Dalton throwing a combined 15 TD passes during that stretch. Bengals by 5
Jaguars (4-11) at Colts (10-5)
Indy clinched the AFC South long ago, following tap outs by the Titans, Texans and Jags. Now, Andrew Luck and Co. are hoping to earn a first-round playoff bye with a win and losses by both the Patriots and Bengals. Colts by 8
Jets (7-8) at Dolphins (8-7)
Rex Ryan is coaching to save his job, while Miami is holding out hope for a playoff berth. The Fins need to win plus have the Ravens lose or the Chargers win — or both lose or tie. Dolphins by 1
Lions (7-8) at Vikings (4-10-1)
Detroit has five losses in its last six games and has been eliminated from postseason contention. But don’t boo Jim Schwartz. Lions by 3
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (11-4)
Watch your back Tom Brady, Buffalo is the first team with three players with 10-plus sacks — Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5) and Jerry Hughes (10) — since the 2000 Saints. Patriots by 10
Buccaneers (4-11) at Saints (10-5)
New Orleans has lost five of its last six on the road. Luckily, this game is in the Superdome, where the Saints are 7–0 and Drew Brees has thrown 23 TDs and just three INTs. Saints by 11
Broncos (12-3) at Raiders (4-11)
Peyton Manning tossed his 10th, 11th and 12th TDs of his record-breaking season during a 37–21 win over the Raiders in Week 3. Broncos by 10
49ers (11-4) at Cardinals (10-5)
Arizona has won seven of its last eight games and look to be a serious challenge for the defending NFC champs. Before the hot streak, the Cardinals lost to the Niners, 32–20, in Week 6. 49ers by 3
Chiefs (11-4) at Chargers (8-7)
What did Andy Reid eat during Kansas City’s Week 10 bye. The Chiefs were 9–0 entering the off week and are 2–4 since then. Chargers by 1
Rams (7-8) at Seahawks (12-3)
All Seattle has to do is win or tie and the “12th Man” will be rocking the Pacific Northwest with an NFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Seahawks by 7
Eagles (9-6) at Cowboys (8-7)
Can Tony Romo finally win the big one? Wait… what? Romo isn’t going to play Week 17 due to a herniated disk in his back. That’s too bad. Romo is 0–2 with four INTs the last two years in Week 17 win-or-go-home division contests against the Redskins and Giants, respectively. It was the Eagles turn. Now, Kyle Orton will shoulder the responsibility of leading the Cowboys to the Super Bowl — which is what it will likely take to save Jason Garrett’s job in Big D. Eagles by 1
Last week: 11–5 // Season: 155–84–1
The holidays are a time for gift giving. For most NFL players, the ultimate prize is the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the winning team in the Super Bowl. Outsdie of the highest honor in team sports, however, individual awards are pretty sweet.
We’ve made a list and checked it twice to determine which players are deserving of recognition — and the corresponding trophy-case hardware — for their performances in 2013.
Most Valuable Player
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
A four-time MVP already, Manning has outdone himself this year. After exploding out of the blocks with a seven-TD effort on opening night, Manning has not slowed down — posting his best statistical season to date, with 5,211 yards, a record 51 TDs and 10 INTs while leading Denver to a 12–3 record.
Offensive Player of the Year
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
“Shady” produced one of the most memorable efforts of the season with his 217-yard, two-TD effort in a Philly snowstorm during a comeback win over the Lions in Week 14. He has also been the catalyst in coach Chip Kelly’s new offense.
Defensive Player of the Year
Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks
The leader of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” is also the league’s INT leader with eight picks returned for 125 yards (15.6 ypr) and a highlight-reel 58-yard TD.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
With Aaron Rodgers banged up for much of the season’s second half, Lacy has carried the load to keep Title Town in the playoff hunt. The first-year phenom out of Alabama has rushed for 1,112 yards and 10 TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Sheldon Richardson, DE, Jets
The 6'3", 294-pounder has anchored the Jets’ run defense while also pushing the pocket for 3.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. He also scored a “fat boy” TD as a fullback.
Comeback Player of the Year
Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs
After being benched in San Fran last season, Smith has charged back with a vengeance in Kansas City.
Coach of the Year
Andy Reid, Chiefs
K.C. is just the fourth team in history to earn a trip to the playoffs the season after losing 14 games.
Executive of the Year
John Elway, Broncos
“This one’s for John!” The signing of Wes Welker is just the latest high-profile bull’s-eye at Mile High.
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the stampeding Broncos to the staggering Texans.
1. Broncos (12-3) Von Miller out for season following ACL injury.
2. Seahawks (12-3) Fourteen-game home winning streak snapped.
3. Panthers (11-4) Cam Newton throws last-minute game-winning TD.
4. Saints (10-5) Kenny Vaccaro carted off field with broken ankle.
5. Patriots (11-4) LeGarrette Blount mocks Ray Lewis dance in win.
6. Colts (10-5) Jerrell Freeman hauls in two INTs in win at K.C.
7. 49ers (11-4) Say so long to Candlestick Park after 42 seasons.
8. Chiefs (11-4) Three of four losses have come at Arrowhead.
9. Bengals (10-5) Andy Dalton throws four TDs in blowout victory.
10. Cardinals (10-5) Carson Palmer throws four INTs, wins at Seattle.
11. Eagles (9-6) Soar to prime time 43-point victory over Chicago.
12. Cowboys (8-7) Tony Romo to miss rest of season with back injury.
13. Bears (8-7) Apparently, it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia.
14. Ravens (8-7) Joe Flacco denies knee was cause of poor play.
15. Chargers (8-7) Win three-straight games for first time all year.
16. Dolphins (8-7) Ryan Tannehill sacked seven times in shutout loss.
17. Steelers (7-8) Troy Polamalu forces late fumble in wild win.
18. Packers (7-7-1) Lose heartbreaker to Steelers in Lambeau snow.
19. Lions (7-8) Jim Schwartz outburst at fans may be last straw.
20. Jets (7-8) Did Rex Ryan coach his last game at home?
21. Rams (7-8) Robert Quinn breaks team sack record with 18.
22. Titans (6-9) Rally from 10-point deficit to win at Jacksonville.
23. Giants (6-9) Win in overtime despite Eli Manning’s 26th INT.
24. Bills (6-9) Set new franchise season sack record with 56.
25. Vikings (4-10-1) Adrian Peterson rushes for just 45 yards in return.
26. Raiders (4-11) Penalized 12 times for 73 yards in sloppy defeat.
27. Falcons (4-11) Gearing up for draft, worst-to-first season in 2014.
28. Browns (4-11) Ed Reed INT caps off sixth consecutive defeat.
29. Jaguars (4-11) Retiring center Brad Meester has first career catch.
30. Buccaneers (4-11) Set new season low with just 170 total yards.
31. Redskins (3-12) Fall to 0–5 in NFC East following loss to Dallas.
32. Texans (2-13) Extend franchise record with 13th straight defeat.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
“Shady” shined under the bright lights on Sunday night, with 18 carries for a Week 16-best 133 yards (7.4 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 54–11 blowout victory over the Bears. But McCoy wasn’t the only Eagle to take flight — albeit on the ground. Bryce Brown added nine carries for 115 yards (12.8 ypc) and a 65-yard TD. First-year coach Chip Kelly’s offense was in top form, as Philadelphia totalled 28 first downs and 514 total net yards, including 289 yards rushing on 36 carries (8.0 ypc).
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
Another week, another prime time performance from Peyton. The four-time MVP — who is on a drive for five — completed 32-of-51 passes for 400 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during a 37–13 win over Houston. Manning broke Tom Brady’s single-season record for touchdown passes, with his 48th, 49th, record-tying 50th and record-breaking 51st scoring strikes of an amazing 2013 season. “It’s a unique thing and a neat thing to be a part of NFL history, even though it may be temporary,” said Manning, who also joked that Brady might retake the top spot as soon as next season. “I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts, and hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back once somebody throws for more.”
Nate Washington, WR, Titans
Sure, Titans-Jaguars was one of only three games without playoff implications. And two Broncos receivers — Eric Decker (10 catches, 131 yards, two TDs) and Demaryius Thomas (eight catches, 123 yards, one TD) — had bigger days statistically. But Washington’s six catches for 117 yards (19.5 ypc) and one TD should not be overlooked. Tennessee was able to pull off a come-from-behind victory thanks to Washington’s big plays, none bigger than his 30-yard fourth-quarter go-ahead TD, which helped the Titans earn their first AFC South win.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals
Cincy’s red-haired signal-caller was red-hot during a 42–14 win over Minnesota. Dalton completed 27-of-38 passes for 366 yards, four scoring strikes and no picks for a season-high 136.5 passer rating. The Bengals improved to 7–0 at home and clinched the AFC North division crown thanks to a Baltimore loss to New England later in the day. A second-round pick out of TCU in 2011, Dalton has led Cincinnati to the postseason in all three of his seasons as the team’s starting quarterback.
Think back to early August, when the preseason picks were just coming out and 32 teams in 31 NFL cities were overflowing with optimism. Almost every team in the league had playoff, if not Super Bowl aspirations. Everyone’s expectations were sky high.
And the higher the expectations, in some cases, the farther the fall.
So before the NFL begins its postseason and before it hands out all it’s awards, here’s a look at 10 players who should’ve been contenders for elite status during the 2013 season. At least that’s what we all seemed to expect.
So while there were other disappointments around the NFL, it’s hard to find players who disappointed all of us more than these:
1. Giants QB Eli Manning – The Giants began the season with a Super Bowl countdown clock in their locker room and nobody laughed, in large part because they had a franchise quarterback. But then Manning threw 15 interceptions in the first five game, on his way to a franchise record-tying 25 so far. A few years ago he called himself “elite,” then went out and played like it and won a Super Bowl. This year he’s suffering through arguably his worst NFL season and the Giants are one of the biggest disappointments in the league.
2. Redskins QB Robert Griffin III – Maybe expectations should’ve been tempered because he was coming off major knee surgery, but he declared himself healthy and the Redskins were the defending NFC East champs. But Griffin has hardly looked anything like RGIII this season and opponents don’t fear him the way they did when he was a rookie. His numbers aren’t terrible, but they’re down across the board and he’s not as effective as a runner. There’s also been controversy swirling around him and his coach as the Redskins continue to lose.
3. Texans QB Matt Schaub – He’s one of the forgotten members of the QB Class of 2004, mostly because he was a third-rounder who needed to be traded to find a job to call his own. And he had, with a Texan team that was perennially underachieving, but seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough this year. Instead, Schaub has been booed out of his own stadium and (despite playing this Sunday in place of an injured Case Keenum) replaced by his now-fired coach. His numbers are so miserable he likely will have a hard time finding a starting job anywhere next year.
4. Falcons WR Roddy White – It’s hard to believe that the Falcons were just a few feet away from winning the NFC championship last season. Now they’re in contention for the first pick in the draft. And a big reason is the surprise ankle injury that White has been suffering through since opening day. He has played in 11 games, but he’s been mostly ineffective with just 43 catches for 479 yards and a touchdown. And, at 32, there’s a chance that in the future those numbers will only get worse.
5. Ravens RB Ray Rice – He was a huge part of the Ravens’ championship run last year and he was coming off of four straight seasons with 1,000 yards rushing and over 1,500 total. There was no reason to expect a major decline at age 26. Whether or not it was his injured hip, the decline has been steep. He’s already missed three games and he’ll be lucky to get to 800 rushing yards and 400 yards receiving. His totals will be his worst since his rookie year.
6. Dolphins WR Mike Wallace – He was one of the top free agents on the market last offseason and landed a $60 million contract because the Dolphins thought he’d be the missing piece that would elevate QB Ryan Tannehill and put them over the top. Instead, for most of the season everyone wondered what they bought and why, as Wallace struggled to find any chemistry with his quarterback. He does have 64 catches for 867 yards and four touchdowns with two games to go and statistically it’ll be one of his finest seasons. But seven times in 14 games he’s had less than 50 yards receiving, which isn’t good for a guy paid to be one of the top receivers in the league.
7. Bills RB CJ Spiller – His 1,200 rushing yards and 1,700 total yards last season was supposed to be just the start, but an ankle injury spoiled most of his season and he likely won’t even get to 1,000 yards rushing. He’s had just three 100-yard rushing games to go along with two games where his total was in the single digits. And he’s only reached the end zone twice.
8. Texans DE JJ Watt – How is it possible that a guy who’ll likely finish with double-digit sacks is a disappointment? Because his 9 ½ pales in comparison with the 20 ½ he had last season and there was a lot of talk about him challenging the NFL single-season sack record – shattering it, too. Much like the Texans defense he was supposed to anchor, he didn’t come close to living up to the hype.
9. Vikings DE Jared Allen – Much like Watt, Allen’s disappointment is about the hype. Despite the fact that he’s 31 he said in the offseason that Michael Strahan’s sack record (22 ½) was “reachable” – which he knew because he had 22 two years ago. Last year he dropped all the way down to 12, though, and that proved to be a trend, not an aberration. Now he’s only at nine with just two games to go.
10. Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe – In 2010 and 2011, Bowe was one of the NFL’s best receivers and certainly one of the most unheralded. And this year with the Chiefs on an 11-3 tear and new QB Alex Smith playing terrific football, shouldn’t Bowe’s numbers be even better? But in the Andy Reid West Coast offense, he hasn’t been the big play threat everyone hoped. He has caught 52 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns, but given how good the Chiefs are and the amount of points they’re scoring, he really should be so much more.
— By Ralph Vacchiano, @RVacchianoNYDN
The college bowl season is a great opportunity for us to get a look at the next crop of fantasy football stars. Pre-draft Combine and Pro Day workouts are fun, but nothing beats evaluating a player in live game action under the bright lights of a bowl game.
So get ahead of your competition and check out these 12 future fantasy football stars.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
vs. Fresno State, Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Lee is the most NFL-ready WR on this list. He wins with short-area quickness, smooth route-running and reliable hands. Lee has the versatility to line up all over the field.
His numbers have suffered this season because of knee and shoulder injuries and shaky QB play. But he’s just a year removed from a huge 118-catch, 1,721-yard campaign. He went for 73 catches and 1,143 yards in his freshman year.
Lee isn’t a true game breaker, but his polish could result in big numbers in the pros. Think Marvin Harrison.
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
vs. Cincinnati, Belk Bowl, Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET on ESPN
Ebron is more WR than TE. And that’s just fine for fantasy owners.
This guy has all the tools to post big-time receiving numbers at the next level. Ebron goes 6’4, 245 pounds with impressive speed, acceleration and change-of-direction ability. He’s averaged a sizzling 16.3 yards per catch as the focal point of North Carolina’s passing game this year. He’s had catches of 71 and 79 yards. You don’t see that type of explosive ability from many TEs.
Ebron’s athleticism will allow him to line up all over the formation for his NFL team. The junior is expected to declare for the 2014 draft and will likely be a 1st-round pick. It shouldn’t take him long to emerge as a fantasy factor.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
vs. Miami, Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 28 at 6:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
Bridgewater’s draft stock has taken a hit recently, and recent reports have him contemplating staying in school another year. But he remains the most polished and well-rounded QB prospect in college football. He’s tossed 55 TDs vs. 12 INTs over the past 2 seasons. That’s impressive -- even if Bridgewater isn’t facing elite competition.
He has NFL-caliber arm strength and accuracy. Scouts laud his quick release. But it’s his ability to read defenses and dissect coverages that will help him make a seamless transition to the NFL. Bridgewater is a pocket passer but can pick up yards on the ground when he needs to. That will add to his fantasy potential.
If there’s a concern here, it’s Bridgewater’s wiry 6’3, 196-pound frame. He at least does a good job avoiding hits when he scrambles.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
vs. Texas, Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 30 at 6:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
Mariota made a surprising decision to return to school for 2014. He might have been in the mix to go No. 1 overall had he declared. The kid’s game could still use some polishing, though. He’ll only be more ready to make a fantasy impact when he comes out in 2015.
The most obvious comparison for Mariota is Colin Kaepernick. That might be a bit lofty -- Mariota doesn’t have Kaepernick’s arm strength and might fall a bit short in the accuracy department, too. But he has a similar combination of passing and rushing ability.
Mariota threw 30 TDs vs. just 4 INTs in 2013. On the ground, he’s ripped off 1,334 yards and 14 TDs over the past 2 seasons. Former Oregon HC Mike Bellotti calls Mariota “a more natural runner” than Robert Griffin.
Mariota isn’t as safe a fantasy prospect as Bridgewater, but he certainly has more upside.
Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
vs. Arizona State, National University Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30 at 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
This isn’t the next Jimmy Graham. But he’s the closest thing in the college game.
Amaro is a 6’5, 260-pound freak of an athlete. He’s projected to run the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range.
He’s posted some videogame-like numbers in 2013. Amaro sits 11th among all players with 1,240 receiving yards. His 98 catches rank 7th. (Remember that this is a TE we’re talking about.) He’s topped 100 yards in 5 of 12 games. Texas Tech’s pass-heavy spread offense has surely boosted Amaro’s production, but this guy is the real deal.
Amaro does damage as a traditional in-line TE or split out in the slot. He’s explosive off the snap with a size-speed combination that makes him a matchup nightmare. Amaro knows how to use his big frame to shield smaller defenders. And he has a pair of big, sticky hands.
In short, he’s everything NFL teams are looking for in a “new-age” TE. Amaro will be wildly productive in the NFL -- and a difference-maker in fantasy. The junior hasn’t officially declared for the 2014 draft but will compete with Ebron to be the 1st TE off the board if he does.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
vs. Duke, Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
Johnny Manziel’s top target will likely emerge as a better pro than the 2012 Heisman winner.
Evans brings a mix of Anquan Boldin’s physicality and Vincent Jackson’s downfield playmaking ability. This is a 6’5, 225-pounder with excellent leaping ability, body control and vice-grip hands. Even when he’s covered, he’s open because of his dominant catch-point skills.
Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline ranks Evans as the top WR in the class.
“Large, game impacting receiver that physically beats defenders in the middle of the field or outraces opponents down the flanks,” Pauline wrote. “Has all the necessary talents to be a big time number one wide out in the NFL.”
Evans might not rack up huge yardage at the next level, but he could be a catch and TD machine.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
vs. South Carolina, Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET on ABC
When you think of Wisconsin RBs, you usually think of big bruisers like Montee Ball or (gulp!) Ron Dayne. That’s not Gordon.
This guy is a home run hitter. Gordon has busted off runs of 65, 70, 71 and 80 yards this year. He’s totaled 1,466 yards on just 181 carries -- a juicy 8.1-yard average.
Gordon has drawn comparisons to Jamaal Charles as a 1-cut runner with elite speed and acceleration. While Gordon might not have Charles’ 4.3 wheels, he packs more punch at 6’1 and 203 pounds. If the redshirt sophomore declares for the 2014 NFL Draft, he has a chance to be the 1st RB off the board.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
vs. Oklahoma, Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
‘Bama has sent a bunch of backs to the big leagues lately -- Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy -- with varying degrees of success. Yeldon might be more talented than all of them.
As a true freshman in 2012, Yeldon ripped off 1,108 yards and 12 scores on 175 carries. That 6.3-yard average was just a shade lower than Lacy’s 6.5 mark. Yeldon has had another efficient campaign this year, taking 190 totes for 1,163 yards and 13 scores. He’s also a capable pass-catcher, with 29 grabs for 291 yards over the past 2 seasons.
At 6’2 and 218 pounds, Yeldon is almost the same exact size as Adrian Peterson when he came out of Oklahoma. Like Peterson, Yeldon boasts an impressive combination of speed and power. He busts plenty of tackles and has recorded 9 runs of 30+ yards over the last 2 years.
Yeldon isn’t eligible for the 2014 draft but is the early favorite to be the 1st RB off the board in 2015. He has all the makings of an elite fantasy back.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
vs. Oklahoma State, AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX
The comparisons to A.J. Green are warranted. Green-Beckham is a rangy 6’6, 225-pounder with scary athleticism and fluidity.
Rivals.com ranked Green-Beckham as the top prospect in the 2012 class. CBS’ Tom Lemming called him the best high school WR since Randy Moss.
“He's got everything,” Lemming said. “Height, super long arms, leaping ability, speed, and most of all, production.”
Green-Beckham hasn’t disappointed at Missouri. A drug suspension marred his freshman season, but he averaged 14.1 yards per catch and scored 5 times in limited action. That included TDs of 70 and 80 yards.
He’s taken a giant leap forward in 2012. Green-Beckham leads Mizzou with 12 scores and is tied for the team lead with 55 catches. He’s averaging 15.1 yards per catch and has 6 grabs of 35+ yards.
Green-Beckam has more fantasy upside than any of the WRs listed above him here. You’ll just need to wait until 2015 to cash in on it. He’s not eligible for this spring’s NFL draft but will more than likely be a high 1st-rounder in 2015.
Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
vs. Clemson, Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Hyde totaled 1,408 yards and 14 TDs on a 7.7 yards-per-carry average this season. He heads to the Orange Bowl riding a streak of 8 straight 100-yard games.
The Buckeye doesn’t have the big-play ability of a Yeldon or Gordon, but he’s a big, bruising pile-driver. A 6’0, 242-pound tackle-breaking machine. Scouts are also high on his quick feet and vision. Hyde has been compared to Frank Gore. NFL.com’s Charles Davis believes Hyde might be better than Eddie Lacy.
While he doesn’t project to contribute much in the passing game -- just 14 catches this year -- Hyde could be a big-time producer in non-PPR fantasy leagues. He has the size and skill set to be a perennial 300-carry, 10-TD RB.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
vs. Ohio State, Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Watkins is by far the most explosive WR set to enter the big leagues in 2014. He has the speed to take the top off defenses but is at his best with the ball in his hands in open space.
“Watkins is one of the best ‘catch and run’ playmakers I've seen in the college game,” NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks wrote. “He excels at maneuvering through traffic with the ball in his hands, but also displays the toughness to run through arm tackles on the perimeter.”
Watkins is averaging 14.1 yards per catch for his college career. He’s made 15 grabs of 40+ yards, including 91- and 96-yarders this season. Watkins has topped 100 yards in 14 of 35 career games.
Watkins’ speed and explosion have drawn comparisons to Torrey Smith. And he’s probably a more well-rounded receiver than Smith was coming out of Maryland. Watkins is capable of making a 1st-year fantasy impact and should quickly emerge as a perennial stud.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
vs. Auburn, BCS National Championship, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
The best player in college football is a redshirt freshman. Winston has been dominant in his debut season at Florida State, setting NCAA freshman records with 3,820 passing yards and 38 TDs. He’ll only get better as a passer with more seasoning.
But it’s Winston’s combination of size (6’4, 228 pounds) and athleticism that makes him such an intriguing fantasy football prospect. He could make a Cam Newton-like impact with his legs at the pro level.
This article was written by Jared Smola and provided to Athlon Sports courtesy of DraftSharks.com. Online since 1999, Draft Sharks won the 2010 and 2012 FSTA awards for the most accurate fantasy football projections in the industry.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 16, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports' editors.
Dolphins (8-6) at Bills (5-9)
Buffalo edged Miami, 23–21, in Week 7, thanks to a fourth-quarter forced fumble from Mario Williams that set up a game-winning FG. Dolphins by 3
Vikings (4-9-1) at Bengals (9-5)
Andy Dalton is happy to be back in Cincinnati, where he has thrown 14 TDs and five INTs, compared to 13 TDs and 11 INTs on the road. Bengals by 8
Broncos (11-3) at Texans (2-12)
Peyton Manning carries a 16–3 career record vs. Houston — a team with 12 straight losses. Broncos by 13
Titans (5-9) at Jaguars (4-10)
Talk about a slump-buster. J-Ville was 0–8 before beating Tennessee, 29–27, in Week 10. The Jags are 4–2 since their winless start. Titans by 2
Browns (4-10) at Jets (6-8)
Cleveland has hit the 10-loss mark yet again. New York still has a shot with Geno Smith at QB. Jets by 2
Saints (10-4) at Panthers (10-4)
The game of the week pits the NFC South’s top two teams against each other in a winner-take-all heavyweight fight. New Orleans defeated Carolina, 31–13, in Week 14. Panthers by 1
Colts (9-5) at Chiefs (11-3)
A pair of former No. 1 overall picks go head-to-head when Andrew Luck plays Alex Smith. AFC playoff pecking order is also up for grabs in what could be a potential postseason preview. Chiefs by 5
Cowboys (7-7) at Redskins (3-11)
Who would have guessed RG3 would have more detractors than Tony Romo this season? Cowboys by 6
Buccaneers (4-10) at Rams (6-8)
Tampa Bay is 4–2 since an 0–8 start to the year. St. Louis has only won two straight weeks once this year — against the Jaguars and Texans. Rams by 5
Giants (5-9) at Lions (7-7)
Matthew Stafford is coming off a rough week, but nothing like Eli Manning’s five-INT debacle. Lions by 10
Cardinals (9-5) at Seahawks (12-2)
This NFC West birdfight is a rematch of Seattle’s 34–20 win at Arizona in Week 7. Seahawks by 11
Raiders (4-10) at Chargers (7-7)
The Silver-and-Black shocked the Bolts, 27–17, in Week 5, as Philip Rivers threw three INTs. Chargers by 8
Steelers (6-8) at Packers (7-6-1)
Odds are, Matt Flynn will continue to start in place of Aaron Rodgers when Blitz-burgh visits Title Town in a rematch of Super Bowl XLV. Steelers by 1
Patriots (10-4) at Ravens (8-6)
New England lost to Baltimore twice last year — 31–30 in Week 3 and 28–13 in an AFC title game defeat Tom Brady blamed himself for. Ravens by 1
Bears (8-6) at Eagles (8-6)
Strange coincidence, the current division leaders in the NFC East and North are both plus-15 net points this season. Eagles by 3
Falcons (4-10) at 49ers (10-4)
ESPN executives at Monday Night Football were loving this matchup preseason. But not now. 49ers by 13
It’s fantasy football Super Bowl time. This week, the majority of leagues across the country will crown a champion who will win bragging rights, trophies, a few dollars, a trip to Vegas, who knows? And while every league is different, there are several key players acquired throughout the season who push a contender over the top, regardless of scoring, league size or any other variable.
With that in mind, here’s a look at this year’s best fantasy stars — with a mix of high-rounders who lived up to expectations, longshots who panned out and undrafted All-Pros who helped make up for a few expensive, high-pick busts.
QB – Peyton Manning, Broncos
Obviously, Manning wasn’t the fantasy risk in 2013 that he was in 2012, when he was fresh off four neck surgeries and playing for a new team. But the Manning faithful have been rewarded with his best statistical season yet (4,811 yards, 47 TDs).
QB – Nick Foles, Eagles
A waiver wire goldmine, Foles has thrown 23 TDs and just two INTs in just eight starts in place of the injured Michael Vick.
RB – LeSean McCoy, Eagles
“Shady” has bounced back from an injury-riddled 2012 season and thriving in Chip Kelly’s new-look Philly offense — with a league-leading 1,343 rush yards, 507 receiving yards and eight total TDs.
RB – Eddie Lacy, Packers
The rookie out of Alabama got off to a slow start, with 51 yards through the first three games. But he’s been a beast since, with 977 yards and seven TDs in the last 11 games.
WR – Josh Gordon, Browns
Those who stashed away Gordon during his two-game suspension have been rewarded with an NFL-best 1,467 yards and nine TDs.
WR – Alshon Jeffery, Bears
Teammate Brandon Marshall was the early-round pick, but Jeffery has been a second-year sensation, with 1,265 yards and seven TD grabs.
WR – Eric Decker, Broncos
Manning’s WR3 in Denver has been a fringe WR1 in fantasy, with 1,130 yards and eight TDs.
TE – Jimmy Graham, Saints
Drew Brees’ red zone target has scored in nine games, with five multi-TD contests to his credit.
K – Justin Tucker, Ravens
A recent fantasy football playoff hero with six FGs — including two from 50-plus yards — in Week 15.
DEF – Seattle Seahawks
The Legion of Boom has held six opponents to 10 or fewer points.
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the soaring two-loss Seahawks to the cellar-dwelling two-win Texans.
1. Seahawks (12-2) Legion of Boom has five INTs in shutout victory.
2. 49ers (10-4) Frank Gore records seventh 1,000-yard season.
3. Broncos (11-3) Loss to Bolts snaps 14-game home winning streak.
4. Saints (10-4) Good grief! Charlie Brown benched in loss to Rams.
5. Panthers (10-4) Captain Munnerlyn posts team-record fifth pick-six.
6. Chiefs (11-3) Clinch playoff berth one year after finishing 2–14.
7. Patriots (10-4) Tom Brady unable to pull off game-winning drive.
8. Bengals (9-5) Kevin Huber has broken jaw, cracked vertebrae.
9. Colts (9-5) Robert Mathis breaks franchise sack record (16.5).
10. Cardinals (9-5) Escape with wild overtime victory at Tennessee.
11. Eagles (8-6) Chip Kelly to Texas? Rumors are pure “speculation.”
12. Ravens (8-6) Justin Tucker 61-yard FG ices road win at Detroit.
13. Packers (7-6-1) Matt Flynn keeps hope alive in epic win at Dallas.
14. Bears (8-6) Jay Cutler returns, leads comeback at Cleveland.
15. Dolphins (8-6) End seven-game losing streak against New England.
16. Chargers (7-7) Time of possession (38:49-to-21:11) beats Denver.
17. Lions (7-7) Megatron defends Matthew Stafford after MNF loss.
18. Cowboys (7-7) Dez Bryant leaves field early after epic collapse.
19. Steelers (6-8) Antonio Brown shines on Sunday night in Cincy.
20. Jets (6-8) Geno Smith “let Rex (Ryan) down” with pick-six.
21. Rams (6-8) Rattle Drew Brees, shock the Saints for upset win.
22. Titans (5-9) Score 17 points in final 3:12 to force overtime, lose.
23. Giants (5-9) Eli Manning ties career-worst with 25th INT of year.
24. Bills (5-9) EJ Manuel earns first road win in return to Florida.
25. Vikings (4-9-1) Optimistic Adrian Peterson will return this week.
26. Falcons (4-10) Score 20 points off of seven Washington turnovers.
27. Raiders (4-10) Matt McGloin tosses four INTs, loses fumble in loss.
28. Buccaneers (4-10) Convert just 1-of-10 on third down in loss to 49ers.
29. Browns (4-10) Have lost at least 10 games in six straight seasons.
30. Jaguars (4-10) Leading receiver Cecil Shorts (groin) placed on IR.
31. Redskins (3-11) RG3 watches from sideline as Kirk Cousins loses.
32. Texans (2-12) Lose 12th straight, fall to 0–12 all-time at Indy.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs
Give the ball to Jamaal. That was the motto of Kansas City coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith during a 56–31 win at Oakland. Charles had just eight carries for 20 yards and one trip to the end zone on the ground. But through the air, the track star out of Texas had eight catches for 195 yards (24.4 ypc) and four scores, including a highlight-reel 71-yard sprint to the end zone. Charles’ five total TDs tied the Chiefs franchise single-game record and his 195 receiving yards were the third-most by a running back since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
Matt Flynn, QB, Packers
With MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined by a collarbone injury, Flynn stepped up to deliver his best performance of the season in an unlikely 37–36 come-from-behind win on the road in Dallas. Trailing 26–3 at halftime, Flynn threw four second-half TDs — while Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw two INTs in the final three minutes — to earn the Packers’ second straight win and keep Title Town in the NFC playoff picture. Flynn finished 26-of-39 for 299 yards, four TDs and one INT in an unbelievable winning effort. “What a feeling,” Flynn said. “As we were taking a knee, we were thinking, ‘Is this real? Is this happening?’”
Greg Jennings, WR, Vikings
No Adrian Peterson? No problem. Minnesota’s offense was too much for Philadelphia to handle in a 48–30 victory. Jennings hauled in a career-high 11 catches for 163 yards and a 57-yard TD from quarterback Matt Cassel. On the ground, the Vikings were without A.D. and backup Toby Gerhart but were still able to gash the Eagles with third-stringer Matt Asiata, who finished with three TDs — or the same number of career carries he had entering his first start.
Robert Quinn, DE, Rams
St. Louis’ pass rush battered Drew Brees in a 27–16 upset win over New Orleans. Quinn led the charge with two sacks for 16 lost yards, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. In his third season, Quinn has an NFL runner-up 15 sacks and league-leading seven forced fumbles, establishing himself as a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Quinn continues to show marked improvement — with five sacks as a rookie, 10.5 sacks last season and 15 (and counting) this year. The sky is the limit for the 6'4", 264-pound 23-year-old.
At the start of their game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles were a disaster. As snow fell all around them at Lincoln Financial Field, they couldn’t seem to find their footing. Their high-octane offense sputtered. They looked a dome team from the South trying to find its way through unfamiliar elements.
It certainly didn’t bode well for their dreams of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII in the Meadowlands in New Jersey – the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl in the history of the league.
Then a funny thing happened: As eight inches of snow fell on Philadelphia, the Eagles unleashed an avalanche on the Lions, burying them with 299 rushing yards and 28 fourth-quarter points in a 34-20 win. They proved they have the ingredients to win in the cold and bad weather, including a strong running game, an ability to adapt when the quarterback is “off”, a solid physical defense and a history of playing or practicing in the cold.
So if they somehow sneak out of the NFC and make it to the Super Bowl, they’ll be all right if the weather gets crazy on Super Sunday (Feb. 2, 2014).
But there are some current NFL contenders that would be much better off if the Super Bowl was played in the sun:
Indianapolis Colts (8-6) – They haven’t been the same since the loss of Reggie Wayne anyway, but they are a team that relies heavily on their quarterback. They like to score points, they’re comfortable in shootouts and their game is finesse. Their defense is terrible at stopping the run – something they’d need to do in the snow – and they’ve been searching for a running back since they lost Ahmad Bradshaw for the season. Trent Richardson isn’t the answer. In fact, they might not have one at that position at all.
Miami Dolphins (7-6) – They may be extreme longshots to get through the minefield of the AFC, but they might be the team least suited for a New York Super Sunday. They have a middling defense, a weak offensive line and a rushing attack that (behind Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas) is nearly non-existent. It is impressive that they won in Pittsburgh on Sunday, where there was light snow and windchills in the teens. But that seems more like an aberration and a sign of how awful the Steelers really are.
Detroit Lions (7-6) – Just look at what happened to them on Sunday in Philly. Their game is so reliant on Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, but they melted in the snow. Stafford threw for 148 yards and Johnson caught three passes for 49 yards. Now the reality is they’re so good that it might take a blizzard to take them out of the game. But if they’re out, the Lions can’t run the ball well enough to win. And their supposedly strong, physical defense got absolutely manhandled by Philly. That should’ve been their biggest ally in the snow.
Dallas Cowboys (7-6) – They go as far as Tony Romo lets them go, and he’s shaky enough in big situations as it is. The elements only figure to make him shakier, despite having to play games in the oft-frigid NFC East. It would help if the Dallas defense wasn’t statistically the worst in football and if they weren’t such a remarkably pass-heavy team. DeMarco Murray can be dangerous – and he was good in the cold Monday night in Chicago – but he’s too inconsistent to be relied upon in a big spot.
New Orleans Saints (10-3) – They’re 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road, which is alarming enough – though to be fair their road losses are in Seattle, New England and … wait, in New Jersey against the Jets? Really? The problem with the Saints is nobody relies more on their two most dangerous elements: Their passing game and their incredibly loud home stadium. Teams just can’t win in the Superdome the last few years and the Saints throw for 302.9 yards per game (second in the NFL) and run for just 91.4 (25th). A bad-weather game of any kind will likely kill their chances long before they get to the Super Bowl. It’s why they so desperately need to avoid a trip to Seattle for the NFC championship game.
Arizona Cardinals (8-5) - They play a tough, physical brand of defense, which should help them in bad weather situations, and they also create a lot of turnovers. But they don’t have an imposing running game and they’re 2-4 on the road. Between their struggles away from home and the fact that they make their home in the dessert, they’re not likely to thrive in the white stuff.
Denver Broncos (11-2) – First, let’s be honest. They might be the best team in the AFC regardless of where it’s played, but there will always be a nagging wonder about Peyton Manning’s ability to handle the cold weather. He seemingly dismissed that with 359 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday in a rout in 15-degree weather. Of course, that was at home against the Titans, so who knows what happens in a big game? But Manning can play and the Broncos can run. Their defense is a bit of an unknown only because of the number of blowouts and shootouts they’ve been involved in have skewed the stats. They play and practice in the cold, though, so they’re better suited for it than any of Manning’s Colts teams were.
By Ralph Vacchiano
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 15, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports’ editors.
Chargers (6-7) at Broncos (11-2)
Historically, Peyton Manning has had tough times against the Bolts — snapping a 13-game winning streak in 2005, throwing six INTs in ’07 and four INTs with a pair of pick-sixes in ’10. But Manning didn’t have any problems in Week 10 this year, passing for 330 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during a 28–20 win at San Diego. The Broncos were a quick-strike offense that day, with scoring drives lasting 57 seconds, 1:25, 2:27 and 3:26, respectively. Broncos by 10
Redskins (3-10) at Falcons (3-10)
One year ago, Washington and Atlanta hosted playoff games. How quickly a team can get caught in the undertow of NFL parity and flipped from first to worst in its division standings. Falcons by 3
49ers (9-4) at Buccaneers (4-9)
There are no moral victories in the NFL. A loss is a loss is a loss, obviously. But San Fran’s four defeats are at Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and at New Orleans — a quartet of teams with a combined 38–14 record this season. 49ers by 8
Seahawks (11-2) at Giants (5-8)
Much has been made of Russell Wilson’s 14–0 career record at home in Seattle. Fewer Hawks fans are eager to bring up Wilson’s 5–5 mark (including playoffs) in the Eastern Time Zone. Seahawks by 9
Eagles (8-5) at Vikings (3-9-1)
The good news is it appears Adrian Peterson will not need surgery on his mid-foot sprain, which is not of the dreaded Lisfranc variety according to recent MRI results. The bad news is A.D. is in a walking boot and unlikely to play in Week 15, backup Toby Gerhart has a hamstring issue and third-string back Matt Asiata has three career carries for nine yards in 2012. Eagles by 7
Patriots (10-3) at Dolphins (7-6)
New England beat Miami, 27–17, in Week 8. But the win was Tom Brady’s worst statistical game of the season, with season lows in completions (13), attempts (22) and passing yards (116). Brady’s 116 yards were his fewest since 2009. Patriots by 2
Bills (4-9) at Jaguars (4-9)
J-Ville has won four of its last five since coming back from London, where the Jags fell to 0–8 after a rock-bottom 32-point loss to the 49ers. Jaguars by 1
Texans (2-11) at Colts (8-5)
Indianapolis overcame a 21–3 halftime deficit to pull off a 27–24 win at Houston in Week 9. In three career games against the AFC South rival Texans, Luck has seven TDs and zero INTs. Colts by 6
Bears (7-6) at Browns (4-9)
Marc Trestman backs Jay Cutler as Chicago’s top QB, despite Josh McCown’s recent success. That’s nothing. Cleveland has had four guys throw TDs this season, including a punter. Browns by 1
Chiefs (10-3) at Raiders (4-9)
K.C. destroyed Oakland, 24–7, in Week 6, with the Chiefs D notching 10 sacks and three INTs. Chiefs by 8
Jets (6-7) at Panthers (9-4)
The Cats’ top-ranked scoring defense (14.5 ppg) had not allowed more than two TDs in a single game until the Saints scored three times in one quarter during last week’s 31–13 loss — which was only the second time all season Carolina allowed 24 or more points. Meanwhile, the Jets have scored 14 or fewer points in seven games, including four games in single digits. Panthers by 11
Packers (6-6-1) at Cowboys (7-6)
Obviously, the status of Aaron Rodgers is the giant cheese block in the room. But since even the doctor in charge isn’t sure of what to do about Title Town’s most valuable collarbone, let’s talk about Tony Romo’s 13–20 career record in December and January, instead. This rematch of the 1967 “Ice Bowl” will be awfully cold for the losing team in this must-win showdown. Cowboys by 8
Cardinals (8-5) at Titans (5-8)
Bruce Arians beat Tennessee twice last season as the Colts interim coach, with a 19–13 win in Music City and a 27–23 victory at Indy. Cardinals by 1
Saints (10-3) at Rams (5-8)
New Orleans has marched to a 7–0 record at home and a 3–3 mark on the road. But St. Louis plays in a dome, where N’Awlins is 8–1. Saints by 5
Bengals (9-4) at Steelers (5-8)
Andy Dalton has been unstoppable at home — with 14 TDs, five INTs and a perfect 6–0 record that includes victories over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger. On the road, however, Dalton has been vulnerable — with 11 TDs, nine INTs and a 3–4 record that includes losses to Brian Hoyer, Jay Cutler and Ryan Tannehill. Bengals by 1
Ravens (7-6) at Lions (7-6)
Tampa-born, Dallas-raised and Georgia-educated Matthew Stafford is happy to be in a heated dome after last week’s blizzard in Baltimore. Lions by 1
Last week: 14–2 // Season: 137–70–1