Articles By Mark Ross
In the last five seasons, 21 of the 30 teams in MLB have appeared in the postseason. While this parity has been good for the game as a whole, the other side of the coin is that teams have had trouble maintaining success on a year-to-year basis. With that in mind, here are five teams that fared pretty well in 2014 that could take a step or two back this season.
Related: 5 MLB Teams on the Rise in 2015
Kansas City Royals
(89-73, 2nd in AL Central and Wild Card team in 2014)
The Royals were one of the feel-good stories of last season, ending their 29-year playoff drought and coming up just one game short of winning the World Series. Kansas City is still relatively young, so shouldn’t this team be considered a strong candidate to potentially repeat as AL champions?
Well, a lot went right for the Royals during both the regular season and their magical postseason run that saw them open the playoffs with eight straight wins. For one, Kansas City posted a run differential of plus-27 during the regular season, which was the second lowest (St. Louis, +16) of any team in the playoffs. Secondly, staff ace James Shields and long-time DH Billy Butler are both gone, with Edinson Volquez and Kendrys Morales expected to fill their spots.
Kansas City’s bullpen was lights out last season and while pretty much everyone is back, it’s too much to expect an encore performance in 2015. Kansas City also is still waiting for former top prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to live up to their billing, which puts even more pressure on veterans like Morales and new right fielder Alex Rios to produce at the plate.
The Royals have gotten worse, at least on paper, while the White Sox have clearly improved and the Indians and Tigers should remain competitive in the AL Central. It may be too harsh to call Kansas City a one-year wonder, but the Royals will be hard-pressed to follow up their memorable and magical 2014 ride.
(88-74, 2nd in AL West and Wild Card team)
After winning the AL West in 2012 and ’13, the A’s took a slight step back last season but still claimed one of the wild card spots. However, the 2015 A’s look nothing like the team that won 88 games in ‘14 following a flurry of moves orchestrated by general manager Billy Beane.
So much has changed on this roster that of Oakland’s eight All-Stars (including Jeff Samardzija who arrived via trade before the All-Star break and Jon Lester, who was acquired on July 31) only two of them remain. The pitching staff still has Sonny Gray at the front, but a bunch of question marks after that, while the projected starting infield is made up entirely of newcomers. The bullpen is basically intact, although incumbent closer Sean Doolittle is likely to miss the first few weeks of the season due to a shoulder injury.
Despite the success Oakland has enjoyed the past three seasons, the A’s never were able to break through in the playoffs. As a result, Beane decided to maximize the return on his most valuable assets, turning over a large a portion of his roster in the process. Beane’s hope is that the roster churn will result in another stretch of extended success, but don’t be surprised if this team takes its lumps this season.
San Diego Padres
(77-85, 3rd in NL West)
The Padres have made plenty of headlines this offseason, as first-year general manager A.J. Preller wasted no time in making over the roster. A series of moves brought in a new outfield in the form of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, along with an All-Star battery in catcher Derek Norris and workhorse starter James Shields.
San Diego has generated a fair amount of buzz leading into Opening Day, but there are still several reasons to be leery of the Padres breaking through and emerging as legitimate challengers to the defending World Series champion Giants and big-spending Dodgers in the NL West. For one, while the offense should certainly be improved compared to last season, it also wouldn’t take much considering San Diego was last in the majors in both batting average and runs scored in 2014.
Plus, each of the Padres’ new big bats has their own warts — Matt Kemp’s inability to stay healthy, Justin Upton’s swing-and-miss tendencies, Wil Myers’ lack of development — and team defense could be a season-long issue. Also, outside of Shields, who has a lot of mileage on his arm, the starting rotation is full of equal amounts of potential and question marks, many of them health-related. Put it all together and it seems like there are a lot of “ifs” when it comes Preller’s new-look Padres.
(79-83, tied for 2nd in NL East)
The Braves went from NL East champions and 96 wins in 2013 to a 79-83 afterthought last season. Unfortunately, things will probably get worse this season, as Atlanta hired former Indians and Rangers general manager John Hart as its new president of baseball operations to oversee the club’s makeover in preparation for christening its new stadium in 2017.
The first thing Hart set out to do was change the Braves’ offensive image, trading Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis away, leaving Freddie Freeman to anchor a makeshift lineup. The pitching should be solid with several talented starters to call on and Craig Kimbrel closing things out, but scoring runs figures to be even more of an issue for a team that struggled in that department in 2014.
The Nationals are clearly the class of the NL East, but the changes the Marlins made and the Mets’ emerging rotation could end up pushing the Braves farther down the division standings. Atlanta should have enough pitching to finish ahead of Philadelphia, but considering the Braves’ success over the past five seasons that also should tell you plenty as it relates to the not-so-sunny outlook for 2015.
New York Yankees
(84-78, 2nd in AL East)
Derek Jeter is no longer wearing pinstripes, but there will be no lack of “veteran” leadership for the Yankees this season. In fact, only one projected starter is less than 30 years old, 25-year-old Didi Gregorius, Jeter’s replacement at shortstop. One of the older teams in the majors last season, the Yankees actually got even longer in the tooth with the re-signing of second baseman Stephen Drew (32) and the return from suspension of Alex Rodriguez (turns 40 in July).
And while age is just a number for some older players, the unfortunate reality is that several of the Yankees’ elder statesmen simply aren’t aging well. Carlos Beltran (.233-15-49 in 2014), Mark Teixeira (.216-22-62) and Brian McCann (.232-23-75) all struggled last season to produce in accordance with their large contracts. There’s no reason to expect a big turnaround this season and there isn’t a wealth of young, promising prospects waiting in the wings to take over either.
The starting rotation may be a bit younger, but young or old there are plenty of health-related concerns surrounding Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia. The back end of the bullpen should be in fine shape with Dellin Betances and free-agent acquisition Andrew Miller finishing games off, but how many opportunities will they get?
To put it simply, the Yankees are getting older, they’re not very deep and both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays have made significant upgrades. Yankees fans aren’t used to their team not winning the World Series, let alone competing in the AL East, but the 2015 edition has the look of a pretender not a contender.
Half of the MLB teams finished with a losing record in 2014. Of these 15 teams, which are in the best position to experience better results on the diamond this season? Preseason hope is never a guarantee of success once the games that count begin, but fans of these five teams have plenty of reasons to be excited with Opening Day just around the corner.
Boston Red Sox
(71-91, 5th in AL East in 2014)
If any team knows what it’s like and takes to go from worst to first, it’s the Red Sox. Boston pulled off the feat in 2013, improving from 69-93 to 97-65 and eventually winning the World Series. While it’s premature at this point to paint the Red Sox as a legitimate championship contender, it’s also pretty clear that general manager Ben Cherington is focused on getting back to the postseason.
Following a flurry of offseason moves, the only aspect of the team that remains relatively unchanged is the bullpen. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were both signed to bolster the heart of the Red Sox lineup to give stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia some much-needed support. Boston also hopes it has budding superstars in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Cuban import Rusney Castillo.
The rotation is pretty much brand new too, as Clay Buchholz is all that remains from the quintet that Boston opened 2014 with. Rick Porcello (Detroit) and Wade Miley (Arizona) were both acquired in trades and Justin Masterson was signed to a one-year deal. Joe Kelly, who came over as part of the John Lackey trade with St. Louis last summer, is expected to round out this young and relatively unproven group. Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem for this Red Sox team. If the new-look rotation comes together and the bullpen gels, Boston could find itself back atop the AL East standings.
Chicago White Sox
(73-89, 4th in AL Central)
Whether you are a Cubs or White Sox fan, the Windy City is abuzz and eagerly anticipating the start of this season. Despite the additions the Cubs (see below) made, the White Sox were even more aggressive this offseason. General manager Rick Hahn took care of every item on his to-do list, adding a front-of-the-rotation starter (Jeff Samardzija) via trade, while signing a closer (David Robertson), a left-handed bullpen specialist (Zach Duke), a No. 2 hitter (Melky Cabrera) and a new DH (Adam LaRoche) in free agency.
These significant new pieces will join cornerstones Chris Sale (the ace) and Jose Abreu (the slugging first baseman from Cuba, pictured above right), as the White Sox look to join the Royals and Indians in the pursuit of ending the Tigers’ four-year reign in the division. There’s no question the White Sox have improved their roster, but this is not a team without flaws (back end of the rotation, lineup depth). That said, the front office and ownership were intent on getting better, and they put their money where their mouth was in hopes of accomplishing this. It’s now up to manager Robin Ventura and the players to make the moves pay off in the win-loss column.
(73-89, 5th in NL Central)
Is THIS the year the Cubs break their century-long World Series drought? Probably not, but expectations are definitely on the rise, as Theo Epstein and company’s comprehensive rebuilding plan should finally start bearing tangible fruit. Not only is the organization’s farm system ripe with impact talent, headlined by uber-prospect Kris Bryant, but Joe Maddon also appears to be the right manager to lead this team to the next stage – becoming a consistent contender.
While much of the focus in the first three years of the Epstein regime has been to strengthen and develop the farm system (mission accomplished), the franchise also showed its commitment to winning by signing ace Jon Lester in free agency, while also acquiring leadoff man/centerfielder Dexter Fowler, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, and bringing back reliable righty Jason Hammel. They beef up a roster that already featured All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, along with an underrated bullpen.
Things are looking up for the North Siders, but this team may still be a year or two away from being a legitimate contender. However, things could change, especially if Bryant (when he arrives) and fellow highly regarded prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara end up being as good as advertised. The Wrigley Field renovations won’t be finished for the April 5 season opener against archrival St. Louis, but it will be the team on the field, not the empty bleachers, that will have everyone’s attention.
(77-85, 4th in NL East)
The Marlins improved by 15 wins from 2013 to ’14, and while it may be too much to expect them to pull off an encore, Miami could make a serious push for a Wild Card spot. First off, any team that boasts NL home run leader Giancarlo Stanton has to be considered a threat, but it appears the lineup is starting to come together around him. Not only do the Marlins boast one of the majors’ best outfield trios in Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, but speedy Dee Gordon and the versatile Martin Prado were acquired via trades and Mike Morse was signed in free agency.
The rotation got some help too in the additions of veterans Mat Latos and Dan Haren, but it’s the eventual return of ace Jose Fernandez that could hold the key to this season. The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year made just eight starts last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He probably won’t be back on the mound until the summer, but Fernandez has the potential to be a difference-maker down the stretch.
Miami also benefits from the company it keeps in that once you get past Washington in the NL East, the other three teams all enter with plenty of question marks, especially Atlanta and Philadelphia. Whether the Marlins can take advantage of this remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Mike Redmond’s club is still in the postseason discussion come September.
(70-92, 4th in AL West)
Don’t look now, but it may be time to start taking the Astros seriously. Yes, this team is just a season removed from going 51-111, but last year saw a 19-game turnaround. Playoff contention is probably a bit too much to expect for 2015, but things appear to be headed in the right direction
Similar to the Cubs, Houston has a pretty stocked farm system that offered a glimpse of the future last season. George Springer made his much-anticipated debut last April and he didn’t disappoint, swatting 20 home runs in just 78 games before a quad injury ended his season in the middle of July. Springer and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who led the majors in 2014 with a .341 average and set a franchise record for hits (225), are the centerpieces to a lineup that now includes former Brave Evan Gattis and some other former top prospects (catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Jon Singleton) who need to take the next step in their development.
The rotation could surprise, especially if Dallas Kuechel and Collin McHugh can match last season’s success. The key will be if the other starters — expected to be veteran Scott Feldman, lefty Brett Oberholtzer and trade acquisition Dan Straily — can hold their own. If the starters can make it through five or six innings, the bullpen should be able to close things out, as Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek were both signed in free agency to bolster a group that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons.
Among the five teams on this list, Houston is definitely the one that has the most question marks entering 2015. The Astros are probably the farthest away from playoff contention, but that doesn’t mean new manager A.J. Hinch’s team won’t make some noise of its own this season either. Houston still has problems, but it finally has some hope for the future too.
This spring marks Year 4 of the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina and unfortunately, things have been trending in the wrong direction for the Tar Heels’ football program. Despite playing in a second straight bowl game (ineligible in Fedora’s first season), UNC’s win total has decreased each of the past two seasons since going 8-4 in 2012. While Fedora has been successful in implementing his fast-paced offense, the Tar Heels’ defense has steadily declined. Fedora brought in former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to overhaul the defense, while the offense returns all but one starter. In a seemingly wide-open ACC Coastal Division, can the Tar Heels find a way to put it all together and break through in 2015?
5 Storylines to Watch in North Carolina’s Spring Practice
1. Starting Over on Defense
There’s no way to sugarcoat it – North Carolina’s defense was abysmal last season. The Tar Heels finished 120th in FBS in total defense (497.8 ypg) and tied for 119th in scoring defense (39.0 ppg). Their woes on defense can pretty much be summed up in the 70 points and 789 yards East Carolina piled up in its Sept. 20 win in Chapel Hill. Not surprisingly, Fedora is basically starting over; hiring former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator to oversee the implementation of a new scheme. This process begins in earnest, as Chizik and his staff will use spring practice to introduce the new system, while getting a better idea of the personnel they have to work with. Six starters are returning on that side of the ball, but given all of the issues last season, it may as well be viewed as a blank slate.
2. Quarterback Controversy?
Marquise Williams was named third-team All-ACC after accounting for 3,856 yards of total offense and 35 total touchdowns in 2014. A senior, Williams has to be considered the favorite for the starting job, but he will miss spring practice due to a hip injury. Williams’ absence presents third-year sophomore Mitch Trubisky with a chance to impress the coaching staff. Trubisky threw five touchdown passes and four interceptions last season and he was recruited by Fedora for this offense while Williams came to UNC the year before Fedora was hired. Williams has proven himself capable of orchestrating Fedora’s system, but can Trubisky show enough this spring to create a viable QB competition come fall camp?
3. Sorting Out the Backfield
The seventh-ranked rushing offense in the ACC last season, North Carolina returns every player who ran the ball, including Joey Mangili, the punter. The key returnees are Williams, who led the team in attempts, yards and rushing touchdowns, along with a quintet of running backs in T.J. Logan, Romar Morris, Elijah Hood, Charles Brunson and Khris Francis. Logan, a junior, and Morris, a senior, have the most experience, while Hood was the top recruit of the 2014 signing class. The Tar Heels don’t lack for options and Fedora isn’t shy to use them. All five backs had at least 27 carries last season. The question is, will one or more of them emerge in the spring to the point a running back and not the quarterback will lead the team in carries this fall?
4. Development of the Offensive Line
North Carolina not only returns just about every key offensive weapon from last season, but also any lineman who started a game. Nine different Tar Heels started up front, a group that’s led by third-team All-ACC right guard Landon Turner and the junior trio of left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson and center Lucas Crowley. The returnees will be joined this spring by early enrollees Mason Veal and William Sweet with Tommy Hatton scheduled to arrive in the summer. Similar to the running backs, Fedora doesn’t lack for options along the offensive line. It’s figuring out which pieces fit best, as UNC looks to improve upon both its rushing production (151.4 ypg, 83rd in FBS, 4.0 ypc) and pass protection (28 sacks allowed, tied for 71st) this season.
5. Identifying Defensive Linchpins
The Tar Heels’ issues on defense are well documented, but one of the benefits of breaking in a new scheme and coaching staff is that the players can basically put the past behind them too. Competition in the spring should be pretty spirited, as everyone gets a chance to show the new coaches what they bring to the table. It would help both the coaches and the players if some leaders and/or building blocks emerge sooner than later, such as junior cornerback Brian Walker, junior defensive end Junior Gnonkonde or senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. The new guys, like early enrollees Jalen Dalton and Andre Smith and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Clarke, also will get their chances this spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook on North Carolina in the ACC:
The Tar Heels played in a bowl game in 2014, but won just six games and were one of the worst defenses in the entire nation. Every starter but one returns on offense, while former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has come to Chapel Hill to overhaul the defense. Offense shouldn’t be an issue for Larry Fedora’s team, but the defense must improve if North Carolina wants to be viewed as a legitimate contender in what appears to be a fairly wide-open ACC Coastal Division in 2015.
Derek Jeter has retired, but MLB still has plenty of elder statesmen who are proving that age is just a number. While the crop of younger superstars and impact players continues to grow, there are more than enough “old” guys still getting the job done. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the list below and one could put together a pretty solid All-Star team of players who are 35 years old and over, starting with a trio of sluggers who combined for nearly 100 home runs last season.
So with all due respect to MLB’s elders, here is one fan’s list of the best baseball players who are at least 35 years old as of Opening Day (April 6).
Opening Day (April 6) age listed in parentheses
1. David Ortiz, DH/1B, Boston Red Sox (39)
Big Papi turns 40 in November, but age has yet to catch up to his mighty bat. Ortiz cranked out 35 home runs last season and drove in 104, making it the second straight season he had gone 30-100. The heart and soul of the Red Sox, Ortiz is 34 home runs shy of 500 in his remarkable career.
2. Victor Martinez, DH/1B, Detroit Tigers (36)
Martinez was nothing short of spectacular last season, batting .335 with a career-high 35 home runs and 103 RBIs, finishing second in the AL MVP voting to Mike Trout. The power was the most surprising aspect of Martinez’ production, as he had hit only 13 the year before. Basically a full-time DH, VMart should continue to produce at the plate, provided he shows no ill affects from the surgery he underwent in February to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
3. Albert Pujols, 1B/DH, Los Angeles Angels (35)
The only one on this list who even approaches Pujols’ career numbers is Ortiz. However, there’s no debate that “The Machine” is not the player he once was. But then again, Pujols in his prime was truly something special, as evidenced by the fact that his 2014 line of .272-28-105 is considered a “down” year. Pujols’ best days may be behind him, but he’s still a very good hitter and someone pitchers don’t care to face.
4. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers (35)
Beltre turns 36 the day after Opening Day and he will start his 18th season just five home runs shy of 400. Beltre has been a model of consistency over the past five seasons, averaging .316-29-96 with a .899 OPS during this span, to go along with four All-Star invites and two Gold Gloves. The run production (19 HR, 77 RBI) was down somewhat last season, but that should bounce back with better health and lineup protection around him.
5. Matt Holliday, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (35)
Holliday has now hit 20 or more home runs in nine straight seasons. A career .308 hitter, he is 29 shy of 300 round-trippers while continuing to show a knack for getting on base (.370 OBP in 2014). Holliday also has averaged 95 RBIs and 90 runs scored over the last three seasons, while remaining a mainstay (454 GP of a possible 486) in the heart of the Cardinals’ lineup.
6. Jayson Werth, OF, Washington Nationals (35)
Werth got off to a rough start in Washington after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract in 2011. He slumped at the plate his first season (.232-20-58) before a broken wrist limited him to just 81 games in ’12. Since then, however, Werth has averaged a respectable .304-20-82 with an OBP of .396. He may never hit 30 home runs, but Werth has become a key piece in the Nationals’ lineup.
7. Torii Hunter, OF, Minnesota Twins (39)
After two productive years in Detroit, Hunter is back in Minnesota with the team that drafted him 20th overall in the 1993 draft. The Gold Glove standard in center field from 2001-09, Hunter has batted .301 over his last three seasons. He may no longer be an All-Star, but Hunter won’t hurt a team with his bat or glove either.
8. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers (36)
For the first time since 2003, Rollins will have a new double-play partner, as his offseason trade to the Dodgers broke him and Chase Utley up after 1,187 games together with the Phillies. Rollins’ best days at the plate are behind him, but he’s still capable of providing both power (17 HR in 2014) and speed (28 SB) from the leadoff spot for his new team. The four-time Gold Glove recipient also will greatly improve the Dodgers’ infield defense.
9. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies (36)
Injuries have taken their toll, but Utley showed last season that he still has something left in the tank. He was named to his sixth All-Star team on his way to batting .270 with 11 home runs, 78 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. Additionally, the 155 games played were his most since 2009. He may no longer be the power hitter he once was, but Utley still led all NL second baseman in RBIs and extra-base hits (53), and he continues to provide solid defense.
10. Mark Buehrle, P, Toronto Blue Jays (36)
Buehrle has won at least 10 games and pitched 201 or more innings in 14 straight seasons. He made his fifth All-Star team last season, going 13-10 with a 3.39 ERA in 32 starts. He’s never piled up the strikeouts in his career, but he rarely hurts himself with free passes (career 2.54 SO/BB ratio) either.
11. Adam LaRoche, 1B/DH, Chicago White Sox (35)
LaRoche signed with the White Sox after enjoying a successful four-year run with the Nationals. Following an injury-shortened 2011, LaRoche averaged 26 home runs and 85 RBIs for Washington, while providing Gold Glove-caliber defense at first.
12. Fernando Rodney, P, Seattle Mariners (38)
Rodney won just one game in seven decisions last season, but he also led the majors with 48 saves. An All-Star in his first season with the Mariners, Rodney matched his career high in saves while posting a 2.85 ERA.
13. Koji Uehara, P, Boston Red Sox (40)
Not as dominant as he was during Boston’s World Series run in 2013, Uehara still collected 26 saves while posting a 2.52 ERA last season. The Japanese import continues to baffle hitters, as evidenced by his 80 strikeouts and only eight walks (0.917 WHIP) in 64 1/3 innings.
14. Michael Cuddyer, OF/1B, New York Mets (36)
The 2013 NL batting champion (.331) played in just 49 games last season after breaking his left shoulder socket diving for a ball. The good news is that Cuddyer maintained his hitting stroke (.332-10-31) in the 190 at-bats he got, so the Mets are hoping their new starting left fielder will pick up where he left off.
15. Kyle Lohse, P, Milwaukee Brewers (36)
Lohse has never been an All-Star but that shouldn’t diminish the consistency he has shown on the mound. He’s won 11 or more games four straight seasons, including 2014’s 13-9 record. He’s not a strikeout artist (141 K in 198 1/3 IP), but he doesn’t walk many batters (45) either and he also tossed two complete game shutouts.
16. John Lackey, P, St. Louis Cardinals (36)
Lackey actually fared better in the AL with the Red Sox (11-7, 3.60 ERA) than he did following his July 31 trade to the Cardinals (3-3, 4.30 ERA). However, a full season in the NL and with Yadier Molina behind the plate should help Lackey post double-digit wins for the 12th time in his career.
17. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee Brewers (36)
Ramirez announced prior to spring training that his 18th season will be his last. A three-time All-Star and a career .285 hitter, Ramirez will probably come short of 400 home runs, as he enters this season with 369. When healthy, Ramirez is still a productive hitter that can provide solid defense at the hot corner.
18. Marlon Byrd, OF, Cincinnati Reds (37)
The offseason trade to the Reds means Byrd will play for his sixth team in four seasons. Following a disappointing 2012 marred by a 50-game suspension, Byrd has discovered his power stroke, clubbing 49 home runs over the last two seasons.
19. Bartolo Colon, P, New York Mets (41)
The seemingly ageless Colon will turn 42 in late May and will still probably make his usual 25-30 starts for the Mets. A 15-game winner last season, Colon was both durable (202 1/3 IP in 2014) and fairly precise (30 BB) with his location in his return to the NL after pitching nine seasons in the AL.
20. R.A. Dickey, P, Toronto Blue Jays (40)
Dickey hasn’t been able to repeat his 2012 NL Cy Young form, but he’s gone 14-13 in each of his first two seasons with the Blue Jays. The knuckleballer has given up a fair number of hits, but he’s been durable (68 GS, 440 1/3 IP in 2013-14) and has gotten his share of swings and misses (350 K) too.
Best of the Rest
Carlos Beltran, DH/OF, New York Yankees (37)
Basically a full-time DH now, Beltran’s production took a nosedive last season, going from .296-24-84 in 2013 to just .233-15-49 (in 109 G).
Jason Grilli, P, Pittsburgh Pirates (38)
Replaced by Mark Melancon as the Pirates’ closer, Grilli rebounded some following a trade to the Angels, posting a 3.48 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 40 games with his new team.
Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies (35)
After playing in just 151 games in 2012-13, Howard appeared in 153 last season, finishing with 23 home runs and 95 RBIs, but also leading the majors with 190 strikeouts and hitting just .223.
Cliff Lee, P, Philadelphia Phillies (36)
This is more a tip of the cap, as it’s possible Lee’s career is coming to an end. He has been placed on the 60-day DL with a left forearm strain and also is dealing with a tear in the flexor tendon. The 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner is 143-91 with a 3.65 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 13 seasons.
Joe Nathan, P, Detroit Tigers (40)
Despite collecting 35 saves, Nathan’s first season with the Tigers didn’t go as planned, as he finished with a 4.81 ERA and 1.53 WHIP.
Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Miami Marlins (41)
Suzuki will continue his pursuit of 3,000 hits (156 shy) with the Marlins after 14 seasons in the AL playing for the Mariners and Yankees.
Is MLB becoming a young man’s game? There’s certainly no lack of young, impact talent on major-league rosters. Look no further than the fact that the reigning AL MVP, last season’s World Series MVP, the majors’ top home run hitter and batting champion all fall into the 25 years old or younger crowd.
So who is the best of the best of baseball’s youngest superstars? Here is one fan’s list of the 25 best baseball players who are 25 years or younger as of Opening Day (April 6).
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Not only is Trout the best player 25 years or younger, he’s the best player period. The 2012 AL Rookie of the Year and reigning AL MVP, Trout has slashed a ridiculous .311/.403/.963 in his first three full seasons, while averaging 31 home runs, 97 RBIs, 118 runs scored and 33 stolen bases. If that’s not enough, consider this: even though Trout was the MVP last season, he posted better overall numbers in each of his first two campaigns.
2. Madison Bumgarner, P, San Francisco Giants
The 25-year-old lefty won’t be on this list next season, but that matters little after his postseason performance for the ages. Bumgarner put the Giants on his back and carried them to their third World Series title in five years by simply dominating the Pirates, Cardinals and Royals. The NLCS and World Series MVP, Bumgarner went 4-1 in the postseason with a mind-blowing 0.99 ERA in six starts (52 2/3 IP). He’s been pretty good in the regular season too, going 67-49 with a 3.06 ERA in 148 career starts.
3. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins
The Marlins’ $325 million man led the NL with 37 home runs last season, proof of the damage Stanton can do when he’s able to stay in the lineup. Now signed through 2027 (can opt out after 2020), Miami has its cornerstone to build around, a 25-year-old slugger who isn’t afraid to take a walk and is averaging one home run every 14.9 at-bats in his career.
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
The Braves have made wholesale changes in their lineup, but Freeman isn’t going anywhere. Freeman played in all 162 games last season, making his second straight All-Star team while posting respectable numbers (.288-18-78) at the plate and playing his usual solid defense at first. Atlanta has plenty of question marks entering this season, but Freeman is the least of the Braves’ worries.
5. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros
The diminutive (5-6), Altuve swung a big bat in 2014, leading the majors in batting average (.341) and hits (225), while pacing the AL in stolen bases (56). The All-Star second baseman racked up 47 doubles and struck out just 53 times in 660 at-bats. Don’t let his stature fool you – Altuve is a big-time player and one of the reasons to be excited about the Astros’ future.
6. Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington Nationals
The sixth pick of the 2011 draft broke out in a big way last season, as Rendon led the NL with 111 runs scored and pounded out 66 extra-base hits on his way to finishing fifth in the MVP voting. Rendon’s emergence forced All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to first, which is what happens when you flash 20/20 potential at the plate and a sufficient enough glove at the hot corner on the big-league level.
7. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
After scuffling somewhat in 2013, Rizzo put it all together last season, finishing second in the NL in home runs to Giancarlo Stanton with 32. A left-handed hitter with a pretty good eye at the plate (73 BB, 116 SO), Rizzo made the leap thanks to much more success against southpaws (.300 vs. LHP in 2014, .189 in ’13). With a better supporting cast around him, can Rizzo take the next step and become a MVP contender in 2015? He finished 10th last season.
8. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Puig may give his manager a headache, rub his teammates the wrong way at times and seemingly have no clue what’s going on around him, but you can’t deny his five-tool potential. An All-Star in 2014 who got some MVP votes, Puig has batted .305 in his first two full MLB seasons while showing flashes of both his power (35 HR) and speed (22), not to mention some pretty nifty glove work and a rifle for an arm out in right field. If he’s able to put it all together and stay focused for an entire season, watch out.
9. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
Other than Mike Trout, it’s entirely possible that Harper ends up eclipsing everyone ahead of him on this list. That’s how much talent and upside Harper, who is still only 22 years old, possesses. Already a two-time All-Star, Harper just needs to find a way to harness his all-out motor so that he can stay on the field for a full season. Once he does that, the numbers should start to pile up.
10. Jason Heyward, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Believe it or not, but Heyward just turned 25 this past August. Entering his sixth season in the majors, Heyward is making his St. Louis debut following his trade from Atlanta. A two-time Gold Glove recipient, Heyward provides plenty of value with his defense alone, but he’s also swatted 27 home runs in a season (2012), while stealing 20 or more bases twice (2012, ’14). A more than capable leadoff hitter (.351 OBP in 2014), it will be interesting to see if Heyward blossoms as a complementary piece in a much-deeper and more dangerous Cardinals lineup.
11. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
After a disappointing, some would even say discouraging, 2013, Castro bounced back in a big way, hitting .292 with 14 home runs and making his third All-Star team. With more lineup support and manager Joe Maddon now in charge, Castro could put together the best statistical season in his young career. Don’t forget he already has 846 career hits even though he turns 25 two weeks before the season starts.
12. Jose Fernandez, P, Miami Marlins
If not for last season’s Tommy John surgery, Fernandez would be higher on this list. The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, Fernandez may not make his season debut until the summer, but it shouldn’t be too long before he’s dominating opposing hitters once again.
13. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
A two-time Gold Glove recipient, Arenado hit .287 with 18 home runs in 111 games last season. With half of his games at hitter-friendly Coors Field, health appears to be the only obstacle in Arenado’s way of establishing himself as one of the NL’s top third basemen.
14. Matt Harvey, P, New York Mets
Another Tommy John patient, Harvey has the advantage over Jose Fernandez in that he will be back on the mound sooner. That’s good news for the Mets, considering the last time Harvey did toe the rubber he was making opposing hitters look downright silly (135 H, 191 K in 178 1/3 IP in 2013).
15. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta Braves
One of, if not the best, defensive players in baseball regardless of position, Simmons’ glove at shortstop is irreplaceable. Anything he provides at the plate is a bonus; although the Braves do hope Simmons can rediscover his 2013 form (.248-15-59) after hitting just .244 with only seven home runs last season.
16. Manny Machado, 3B/SS, Baltimore Orioles
After bursting on the scene in 2013, Machado has been slowed by injuries. Limited to just 82 games last season, the Orioles hope Machado’s health issues are behind him. Because when he’s in the lineup, Machado is a Gold Glove defender at third and a potent (.283-14-71 in 2013) threat at the plate.
17. Salvador Perez, C, Kansas City Royals
A workhorse backstop (146 G caught in 2014), Perez is a two-time All-Star because he’s just as productive with the bat. A .275 hitter over the past two seasons, Perez was a big part of the Royals’ World Series run in 2014.
18. Julio Teheran, P, Atlanta Braves
After a solid rookie season in 2013, Teheran took the next step and established himself as the Braves’ ace in ’14. While the record (14-13) wasn’t overly impressive, Teheran posted a 2.89 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 33 starts and was named to his first All-Star team.
19. Sonny Gray, P, Oakland A’s
The A’s traded away or bid farewell to several members of last season’s rotation, but Gray remains. The unquestioned ace of the rebuilt staff, Gray won 14 games in 2014 while posting a 3.08 ERA and recording two complete game shutouts in 33 starts.
20. Yordano Ventura, P, Kansas City Royals
The 23-year-old flamethrower went 1-0 with a 1.46 ERA in two World Series starts against the Giants. The Royals hope 2015 is the year Ventura establishes himself not only as one of the top strikeout arms in the AL, but also as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
21. George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
From a power-speed standpoint the only ones on the same level as Springer are Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, and Harper may even be a stretch. In just 78 games in his MLB debut, Springer cranked out 20 home runs before injuries got in the way. He stole only five bases, but the 30/30 potential is clearly there and take the over on the home runs if he cuts down on the strikeouts (114 in 295 AB).
22. Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
Nowhere near the power hitter like his teammate Giancarlo Stanton, Yelich still has a knack for getting on base (.362 OBP), scoring runs (94) and can steal his share of bags (21 SB). A Gold Glove left fielder, Yelich, Stanton and Marcell Ozuna form one of the youngest and most talented outfield trios in the majors.
23. Gerrit Cole, P, Pittsburgh Pirates
The potential is clearly there for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft, but Cole just hasn’t put it all together for a full season. Injuries and other issues have limited him to just 41 starts in two seasons, in which he’s gone 21-12 with a 3.45 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 255 1/3 innings.
24. Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
A menace on the base paths (56 SB), Hamilton got off to a blistering start last season before struggling through a second-half slump. His speed atop the Reds’ lineup cannot be underestimated, especially if he works on his plate discipline (34 BB, 117 SO), gets on base more (.292 OBP) and picks his spots to run a little more carefully (23 CS).
25. Corey Dickerson, OF, Colorado Rockies
Seemingly a man without a position entering last season, injuries presented Dickerson with an opportunity to play everyday. And the 25-year-old took full advantage, batting .312 with 24 home runs, 27 doubles, 76 RBIs and 74 runs scored. Even bigger numbers are not out of the question if Dickerson can improve against lefties (.253-3-14) and away from hitter-friendly Coors Field (.252-9-23).
Mookie Betts, 2B/OF, Boston Red Sox
Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B, Boston Red Sox
Shelby Miller, P, Atlanta Braves
Jake Odorizzi, P, Tampa Bay Rays
Marcell Ozuna, Miami Marlins
Wily Peralta, P, Milwaukee Brewers
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Trevor Rosenthal, P, St. Louis Cardinals
Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals
Alex Wood, P, Atlanta Braves
Others to Watch in 2015
Arismendy Alcantara, 2B/SS/OF, Chicago Cubs
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota Twins
Javier Baez, 2B/SS, Chicago Cubs
Trevor Bauer, P, Cleveland Indians
Archie Bradley, P, Arizona Diamondbacks
Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
Dylan Bundy, P, Baltimore Orioles
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Kevin Gausman, P, Baltimore Orioles
Scooter Gennett, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers
Ken Giles, P, Philadelphia Phillies
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Oakland A’s
Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
Matt Moore, P, Tampa Bay Rays
Wil Myers, OF, San Diego Padres
Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jose Peraza, 2B, Atlanta Braves
Carlos Rodon, P, Chicago White Sox
Addison Russell, SS, Chicago Cubs
Danny Salazar, P, Cleveland Indians
Danny Santana, SS/OF, Minnesota Twins
Aaron Sanchez, P, Toronto Blue Jays
Corey Seager, 3B/SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
Marcus Semien, 2B/3B/SS, Oakland A’s
Noah Syndergaard, P, New York Mets
Yasmany Tomas, 3B/OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Taijuan Walker, P, Seattle Mariners
Zack Wheeler, P, New York Mets
Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners
NOTE: Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman would have been on this list, but he tore his ACL in spring training and is out for the season.
Whether you are preparing for your fantasy baseball draft or just have an interest in the makeup of MLB bullpens, Athlon Sports has you covered. Below is a chart that identifies the closer and setup man for all 30 teams based on available information. This will be sure to change between now and Opening Day (April 6), as injuries and competition will continue to have an impact. Speaking of injuries, the Dodgers already know they will be without closer Kenley Jansen for at least the first month, as he continues his recovery from foot surgery. While nothing has been decided, look for either Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell or Brandon League to get the save chances while Jansen is sidelined.
|Arizona||Addison Reed||Brad Zeigler||Evan Marshall, Oliver Perez|
|Atlanta||Craig Kimbrel||Jim Johnson||Jason Grilli, Luis Avilan|
|Baltimore||Zach Britton||Darren O'Day||Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz|
|Boston||Koji Uehara||Edward Mujica||Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow|
|Chicago (AL)||David Robertson||Zach Duke||Jake Petricka, Zach Putnam|
|Chicago (NL)||Hector Rondon||Pedro Strop||Jason Motte, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm|
|Cincinnati||Aroldis Chapman||Jumbo Diaz||Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover|
|Cleveland||Cody Allen||Bryan Shaw||Scott Atchison, Nick Hagadone|
|Colorado||LaTroy Hawkins||Adam Ottavino||Rex Brothers, John Axford|
|Detroit||Joe Nathan||Joakim Soria||Al Albuquerque, Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain|
|Houston*||Luke Gregerson||Pat Neshek||Chad Qualls, Josh Fields|
|Kansas City||Greg Holland||Wade Davis||Kelvin Herrera|
|Los Angeles (AL)||Huston Street||Joe Smith||Fernando Salas, Cam Bedrosian|
|Los Angeles (NL)||Joel Peralta||Brandon League||J.P. Howell, Kenley Jansen (Inj.)|
|Miami||Steve Cishek||A.J. Ramos||Mike Dunn, Aaron Crow|
|Milwaukee||Francisco Rodriguez||Jonathan Broxton||Will Smith, Jim Henderson|
|Minnesota||Glen Perkins||Casey Fien||Brian Duensing, Caleb Thielbar|
|New York (AL)*||Dellin Betances||Andrew Miller||David Carpenter, Adam Warren|
|New York (NL)||Jenrry Mejia||Jeurys Familia||Vic Black, Bobby Parnell (Inj.)|
|Oakland||Tyler Clippard||Ryan Cook||Eric O'Flaherty, Sean Doolittle (Inj.)|
|Philadelphia||Jonathan Papelbon||Ken Giles||Jacob Diekman, Justin De Fratus|
|Pittsburgh||Mark Melancon||Tony Watson||Jared Hughes|
|St. Louis||Trevor Rosenthal||Jordan Walden||Matt Belisle, Seth Maness|
|San Diego||Joaquin Benoit||Kevin Quackenbush||Dale Thayer|
|San Francisco||Santiago Casilla||Sergio Romo||Jeremy Affeldt, Jean Machi|
|Seattle||Fernando Rodney||Danny Farquhar||Tom Wilhelmsen, Yoervis Medina|
|Tampa Bay||Brad Boxberger||Kevin Jepsen||Grant Balfour, Jake McGee (Inj.)|
|Texas||Neftali Feliz||Kyuji Fujikawa||Shawn Tolleson, Roman Mendez|
|Toronto*||Brett Cecil||Aaron Sanchez||Steve Delabar, Marco Estrada|
|Washington||Drew Storen||Casey Janssen||Craig Stammen|
*Houston, New York (AL) and Toronto are using spring training to determine roles.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed not one, but two running backs on Thursday as DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews became the latest pieces added to Chip Kelly’s ever-changing puzzle. Combined with holdover Darren Sproles. Kelly definitely doesn’t lack for backfield options, but that is a good thing as it relates to each player’s fantasy value for 2015?
Consider that Murray led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,845 yards. He did that by carrying the ball a league-high 392 times. LeSean McCoy, who Kelly traded last week to Buffalo, led the Eagles with 1,319 yards on 312 carries. Sproles and Chris Polk, whose roster spot could now be in jeopardy, combined for another 501 yards on 103 carries.
Combined, Philadelphia running backs totaled 415 carries or just 23 fewer than Murray had by himself. While it’s a pretty safe bet that the Eagles will run the ball more than they did last season, it just doesn’t seem likely that Murray will come anywhere near to the 392 carries he had last season, not with Ryan Mathews and Sproles also capable of doing things with the football.
While Murray appears to be a good fit for Kelly’s offense, the reality is that there is no guarantee he will be the workhorse for the Eagles that he was for the Cowboys. Consider that McCoy saw his touches go down from 364 in 2013, when he led the league in rushing, to 340 last year. While that may not seem like a lot, his yards from scrimmage went down even more – from a league-best 2,146 in 2013 to 1,474 last season. And McCoy didn’t have a sidekick like Mathews, who rushed for 1,255 yards in 2013 with the Chargers, in the same backfield.
There’s also the matter of Philadelphia’s quarterback change, with Sam Bradford poised to replace the departed Nick Foles as the starter. Besides learning a new offense, Bradford has plenty of rust to shake off, as he’s played in just seven games in the last two seasons combined.
With all of this in mind, here’s the fantasy outlook for each Philadelphia RB as we look ahead to 2015:
Will still serve as the No. 1 back, but probably safer to assume a workload of around 325-350 carries, not 392. Also worth mentioning that he goes from one of the best offensive lines in the NFL to one that struggled at times last season. Kelly also is reportedly seeking to trade guard Evan Mathis, a two-time Pro Bowler and a very good run-blocker. Murray caught 57 passes last season, but don’t be surprised if that number is cut in half if not more because of Sproles’ presence.
2015 Outlook: From a no-questions-asked top-five option to a borderline top-10 RB with a fair amount of uncertainty attached. Reduced workload is all but a given, which not only impacts his yardage totals, but also could affect his scoring opportunities.
A little surprising that Mathews still signed with Philadelphia after Murray was reeled in. Instead of having the chance of being the No. 1 for another team, Mathews now is looking at a reduced workload, barring injury. Mathews also has had trouble staying on the field himself, as he’s played 16 games just once in his five-year career and was limited to eight last season.
2015 Outlook: Mathews’ role is the least defined at this point, but his versatility should get him some touches. That said, other than serving as Murray’s obvious handcuff (which can’t be overlooked given Murray’s injury history), it’s tough to gauge Mathews’ value given the uncertainly regarding workload. Right now, I would peg him in the RB3/flex territory.
Even with Murray and Mathews on board, Sproles’ role shouldn’t change that much. He ran the ball 53 times for New Orleans in 2013 and had 57 carries for Philadelphia last season. The more surprising statistic, however, was that his receptions plummeted from 71 with the Saints to just 40 with the Eagles. There’s really no reason to expect this to change, especially with the addition of Mathews, who has recorded 146 receptions in 62 career games. If anything, Sproles could see fewer touches on offense and instead serve as the primary kick returner.
2015 Outlook: Sproles was a disappointment for his fantasy owners last season and the new additions don’t exactly instill great hope for a huge rebound in 2015. At best, Sproles is a flex option with more value in PPR leagues and those that include special teams contributions in their scoring.
The NFL’s new league year isn’t even a day old but you wouldn’t think so based on all the moves that have already transpired. Not only has free agency gotten off to a furious start, but last week’s LeSean McCoy trade ended up being the appetizer to Tuesday’s swapfest.
The end result? Numerous All-Pros have switched teams, the AFC East suddenly got a lot more interesting, defensive players are getting paid, running backs aren’t and everyone is trying to figure out what Chip Kelly is doing. Even though it’s still early in free agency and there are probably more trades to come, it’s never too early to identify some winners and losers in the aftermath of all of these transactions. One thing is pretty clear; the biggest winner thus far has been NFL fans.
Ndadmukong Suh & Darrelle Revis
Suh got $114 million, including $60 million guaranteed, from the Dolphins to make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Revis got his Super Bowl ring with New England, saw his $20 million team option declined by the Patriots and still winds up with a $70 million deal ($39 million guaranteed) to go back to the Jets. These are two of the best players in the league period, and they certainly cashed in on their status as such.
Other Defensive Players
Ndamukong Suh and Darrelle Revis aren’t the only defenders who capitalized on being a free agent this offseason either. While Revis left for the Jets, the Patriots did retain safety Devin McCourty, signing him to a five-year, $47.5 million contract ($28.5 million guaranteed). Cornerback Byron Maxwell is leaving Seattle after inking a six-year, $63 million deal from the extremely active Eagles.
Even All-Pro linebacker Justin Houston, who didn’t make it to free agency after Kansas City applied the franchise tag, is looking at a nice paycheck. Houston is set to make $13.2 million in 2015, assuming he and the Chiefs don’t come to agreement on a long-term deal before he has to sign his one-year tender. And that’s just the big names, as guys like Davon House, Buster Skrine, Pernell McPhee, Brooks Reed, Dan Skuta and Stephen Paea also fared pretty well contract-wise.
Julius Thomas & Owen Daniels
Thomas got the big bucks he was seeking from Jacksonville to the tune of $46 million over four years ($24 million guaranteed). However, Thomas’ departure from Denver turned out to be Daniels’ gain. He signed a three-year, $12 million deal to reunite with Gary Kubiak, his head coach in Houston and offensive coordinator last season in Baltimore, to join the Broncos and become Peyton Manning’s new favorite tight end.
The heart-breaking Super Bowl loss to the Patriots probably still stings, but you know Wilson was smiling from ear to ear when he found out Jimmy Graham was coming to Seattle. Not only does Wilson now have his new favorite target, he also has a big payday coming his way, as this is the last year of his rookie contract.
Yes, the Lions lost Ndamukong Suh, but Detroit rebounded nicely in acquiring Haloti Ngata from Baltimore. Ngata is just three years older than Suh and he is established in his own right as a two-time, first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens.
But perhaps the most important thing is that Ngata comes a lot cheaper, as he’s set to make $8.5 million in the final year of his contract, while the Dolphins will pay Suh $60 million through 2017 alone. The Lions still have work to do along its defensive line with several other free agents, but Ngata is a good piece to start off the post-Suh era with.
The Jets’ rookie head coach has been on the job less than three months and he’s already seen his general manager trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to beef up the offense. On defense, Darrelle Revis returns with a new running mate, former Brown Buster Skrine, along with veteran linebacker and team leader David Harris. And the team still has enough cap space to make a few more moves. If the Jets figure out their quarterback situation, Bowles’ debut season could turn out to be quite successful.
Anyone Who Covers the Eagles
Whether or not Chip Kelly’s wheeling and dealing pays off on the field remains to be seen, but he’s certainly provided plenty of subject matter for anyone who covers his team. Between trading the franchise’s all-time leading rusher to swapping quarterbacks with the Rams, Kelly has guaranteed that the Eagles will remain in the spotlight from now up through the draft, and probably beyond.
Running Backs Not Named LeSean McCoy
McCoy got traded from Philadelphia to Buffalo, where he got a new contract. As for the rest of his peers? Well, not much has happened, as the market is still sorting itself out. But it’s clear how teams are approaching their backfields has changed when you look at the fact that DeMarco Murray, the reigning rushing champion, not only is still waiting to sign, he also hasn’t exactly been actively pursued by his old team. And it’s not like there’ s a lack of options on the market, as Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson, Pierre Thomas and DeAngelo Williams are available after being cut by their former teams, as is Justin Forsett, Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller and a host of others.
Those that have already found new teams, aren’t exactly breaking the bank. Mark Ingram re-signed with New Orleans for $16 million over four years, less than half of that guaranteed, while Frank Gore is headed to Indianapolis for a modest $12 million ($6.5 million guaranteed) over three years. No wonder Jackson has started his “Save the Running Back” movement (check out savetherunningback.org), as ball carriers are quickly being thrust down the NFL food chain.
Everyone knew New Orleans had cap issues, but few if any thought those woes would result in the trade of Jimmy Graham to Seattle. Not only did Brees lose his favorite target in Graham, the Saints also cut running back Pierre Thomas and linebacker Curtis Lofton because of their salary cap crunch. Running back Mark Ingram was re-signed, and New Orleans did bolster its offensive line by acquiring center Max Unger from the Seahawks along with their first-round draft pick. But Unger can’t catch passes and the Saints still have cap issues. These were probably not the changes Brees was expecting following a disappointing 7-9 showing last season.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have their ring, but the champs are finding out just how heavy is the head that wears the crown. Before free agency even started, the team cut ties with Vince Wilfork, the anchor of their defensive line, and declined options on both starting cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner).
New England used its franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski and retained safety Devin McCourty, but Revis bolted for the big money the Jets offered and Browner seems likely to sign with a new team as well. To make matters worse, the division seems to be getting tougher with Miami adding Ndamukong Suh, Rex Ryan transforming the Bills by trading for LeSean McCoy and the Jets adding Revis and acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Bears. The Patriots are the class of the AFC East until someone else beats them, but their streak of six straight division titles could be in jeopardy this season.
San Francisco 49ers
It has been an offseason to forget for the 49ers. First they lose Jim Harbaugh to Michigan because of an apparent internal power struggle. The end result is defensive line coach Jim Tomsula gets promoted to the top job while pretty much the rest of Harbaugh’s staff is sent packing.
Personnel-wise, not only has San Francisco already watched running back Gore and offensive lineman Mike Iupati sign elsewhere, All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement. Yes, the 49ers signed wide receiver Torrey Smith to bolster the offense, but this team still has a dozen pending free agents meaning there are plenty of holes to fill. And there also are the reports that fans are already looking to bail on their season ticket commitments just one season into the tenure of Levi’s Stadium. With every other team in the NFC West making moves to get better, 2015 could turn out to be a rough season for Tomsula and the 49ers.
Oakland Raiders & Cleveland Browns
Entering free agency, the only team with more cap space at its disposal than Oakland and Cleveland was Jacksonville. While the Jaguars made a splash by singing tight end Julius Thomas (and is DeMarco Murray next?), the Raiders and Browns have not been as successful in their efforts. The Raiders have been rebuffed by several of their big targets and while they have been busy, their additions to this point (Malcolm Smith, Rodney Hudson, Roy Helu, Curtis Lofton, Dan Williams) don’t exactly grab your attention.
The Browns have even less to show for their efforts, adding only quarterback Josh McCown and wide receiver Brian Hartline, who were each cut by their respective teams. It’s still early, but it’s safe to stay that each of these teams, and especially their fan bases, were hoping for more.
It’s Championship Week on the college hardwood with Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament just days away. What’s that, you weren’t aware because the NFL has been dominating the news cycles, Twitter and basically any other medium you can think of? Don’t worry, March Madness will still get its due, but not until the NFL cedes the spotlight.
NFL free agency has just begun, but it’s the trade of Jimmy Graham from New Orleans to Seattle that’s rocked the fantasy football landscape. While not the only trade that was announced as the new league year kicked off with a bang, this one carries the biggest fantasy implications.
The most productive tight end in the NFL over the past four seasons, Graham has caught 355 passes for 4,396 yards and 46 touchdowns since 2011. Much of Graham’s success was due to his status as Drew Brees’ No. 1 target in the Saints’ pass-happy offense.
As talented as Graham is, it’s pretty safe to assume he won’t see near the same volume of targets with the Seahawks, who operate a much more run-oriented, deliberate (some would say conservative) offense. Marshawn Lynch’s presence has a lot to do with that, but so does a defensive-minded philosophy that has resulted in back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl.
Consider that Brees led the league with 659 pass attempts last season, while Russell Wilson finished 19th with 452. That’s a pretty big gap. While Graham immediately becomes Seattle’s top pass-catcher, it’s just not in the Seahawks’ m.o. to throw a ton of passes.
This trade doesn’t change the type of player Graham is, as his addition could be a difference-making move in Seattle’s quest to return to the Super Bowl for the third straight season. However, fantasy-wise, this trade definitely impacts Graham’s value in a negative way.
Had Graham remained in New Orleans, there would have been an interesting debate between him and New England’s Rob Gronkowski for which should be the first tight end taken in a fantasy draft. Now, Gronk is clearly the No. 1 choice at his position because of Graham’s change of scenery.
And while Graham’s numbers will go down, there’s no reason to expect them to plummet. Between this trade and Julius Thomas signing with Jacksonville, how everyone lines up behind Gronk in the rankings figures to be a fluid situation. At this point, the safest think to assume is that it will take a lot more upheaval across the league to knock Graham from top-five status among his TE peers.
As for the quarterbacks…
It’s fair to say that Brees’ loss is Wilson’s gain, but exactly how much will either be impacted? Even though Brees loses a dynamic, explosive target that is a matchup nightmare and was a great fit in New Orleans’ offense, don’t expect the Saints to change their spots.
Brees will still throw a ton of passes and the beneficiaries figure to be Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills and Marques Colston, along with whomever the Saints get to replace Graham at tight end. While the loss of Graham may seem like a big blow, I am still comfortable ranking Brees as a top-five fantasy QB.
As for Wilson, don’t expect him to become a gunslinger now that he has Graham to throw to. That’s not how the Seahawks operate, and given their results since Wilson became the starter, there’s no reason for them to change their ways. Also keep in mind that even though he didn’t throw a ton of passes, Wilson provides value with his legs, which is why he finished sixth in fantasy points this past season.
Guess who finished fifth? That’s right, Brees. And that’s exactly how I have them ranked at this point headed into 2015.
NFL free agency hasn’t even officially started, but the Miami Dolphins are already making waves, reportedly landing former Detroit Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The biggest fish on the market, it’s fitting that Suh ends up with the Dolphins, with the bait being a six-year, $114 million deal with $60 million in guaranteed money.
Give Miami credit. The team made it very clear that Suh was their No. 1 target and the Dolphins went out and got their man. Miami’s defense was 24th against the run last season and adding Suh, who anchored the league’s No. 1 rushing defense, should have an immediate impact in that department.
The Dolphins figure to field one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL next season with Suh joining Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Earl Mitchell and Dion Jordan. Suh and Wake alone give Miami a pair of Pro Bowl defensive linemen who can wreak havoc.
But while the front four of the Dolphins’ defense is in great shape, the same cannot be said for the back seven. Before Miami lured Suh to South Beach, the team cut ties with cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Philip Wheeler. Dannell Ellerbe, another linebacker, could be next.
It’s not just the defense that’s seen some attrition, as wider receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson were both released. And there’s still a chance that Mike Wallace, the Dolphins’ leading target and big free-agent acquisition two offseasons ago, could end up getting traded.
To put it another way, Miami has 21 current free agents of its own, but its spending spree is probably limited to Suh. The Dolphins were tight against the cap prior to signing Suh, a position that doesn’t look to get any better considering the $60 million he’s slated to get in the first three years of his new deal.
So while the team can scratch off the top thing on its offseason to-do list, there’s still plenty of work left to be done. Between the players that have already been released, the other free agents on their roster and last year’s results, it’s fair to say the Dolphins still have needs at cornerback, safety, linebacker and guard, and possibly even wide receiver and tight end. With limited wiggle room as it relates to the salary cap, most of these holes are going to have to be addressed via the draft. This puts pressure on general manager Dennis Hickey, head coach Joe Philbin and the rest of the coaching and player personnel staff who will be involved in those critical decisions come the end of April.
Ready and willing to make Suh the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, it’s clear Miami is in win-now mode. The Dolphins finished 8-8 last season, two games out of the final Wild Card spot. There’s no question Suh is a game-changer who will have a tremendous impact on the defense, but he’s just one piece to the puzzle Miami’s brain trust is putting together. A playoff berth in 2015 certainly seems possible for the Suh-led Dolphins, although that could depend on how the rest of the team fills out around him.
DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing last year, but will the free agent running back re-sign with the Dallas Cowboys? The team used its franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant, which put Murray on the open market with free agency set to kick off on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
The perceived value of running backs appears to be changing, as evidenced by the recent trade of another former rushing champion, LeSean McCoy. However, Murray is just 27 years old and has rushed for 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons, so he appears to be the best option in a market that doesn’t lack for options. There are about 30 running backs (and eight fullbacks) that are unrestricted free agents.
Murray does come with some durability questions, as last season was the first in his four-year career that he played in all 16 games, and there are some observers who credit much of his success to Dallas’ outstanding offensive line.
With all of this in mind, here are five possible destinations (in alphabetical order) for Murray and a few other teams that may be interested in adding him to their backfield.
The Cardinals went 11-5 and made the playoffs last season despite dealing with a rash of injuries and getting next-to-nothing from its running game. Arizona was second to last in the NFL with 1,308 yards rushing. Murray led the league with 1,845 by himself. Emmitt Smith went from Big D to the desert, why not Murray?
Even though the Cowboys used the franchise tag on Bryant rather than Murray, I don’t think it’s any secret they want to keep their No. 1 running back too. We’ve already seen what Murray can do behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. It’s just a matter of making the financials work.
The Colts made it to the AFC title game thanks in large part to Andrew Luck’s right arm. As talented as Luck is, he can’t do it alone (Exhibit A: AFC Championship Game vs. New England), and beefing up the running game would certainly help. Not only would it make Luck that much more dangerous in the pocket, it also would likely mean less punishment from opposing pass rushers. Luck already has been sacked 100 times in just three seasons.
The Jaguars haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. The offensive line is a work in progress, but the Jaguars are in position to do something that other teams are becoming less and less willing to do – pay big money for a running back. If it’s all about the money for Murray, than Jacksonville could be his destination.
The Raiders have a new head coach in Jack Del Rio, who has a ton of cap space to use to overhaul his roster. Derek Carr is a young quarterback who may be the long-term answer under center and what better way to help him develop than to give him plenty of ground support? Oh there’s also the intrigue of Oakland going with a Murray & Murray running back tandem in DeMarco and Latavius.
Other Teams to Watch
The Atlanta Falcons have plenty of cap space to add Murray to the mix, but I think other areas on the roster are more of a priority. The Falcons seem content to see how Devonta Freeman, last year’s fourth-round pick out of Florida State, fares with a larger workload… Adrian Peterson is still a member of the Minnesota Vikings, but for how long? Going from Peterson to Murray doesn’t seem like that much of a drop off, if that’s the direction the team chooses to go… The San Diego Chargers also appear to have a need with Ryan Mathews a free agent, Danny Woodhead coming back from a broken leg and second-year back Branden Oliver unproven. The Chargers were 30th in rushing last season.
Although plenty of teams need a running back the caliber of Murray, I’m just not sure how many are willing to pay him accordingly. Unless the Colts or Jaguars or Raiders decide to break the bank, I think the offers will be close enough that Murray will decide to stay put. The benefits of being a Cowboy, such as running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, outweigh the potential financial windfall he can make elsewhere. It will take some work as it relates to the salary cap, but in the end, Dallas gets to keep its No. 1 wide receiver and running back, which makes Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and especially Tony Romo happy.
Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Julius Thomas is looking to cash in as the top tight end in this year’s free agent class. Unheralded when Denver drafted him in the fourth round in 2011, the former Portland State football and basketball player has developed into one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL.
Thomas played in just nine games in his first two seasons with the Broncos before breaking through in a big way in 2013. The season Peyton Manning also came to town, Thomas exploded for 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up this past season with another 12 scores, although an ankle injury limited him to just 13 games and his other numbers went down (43, 489).
An athletic target with outstanding hands making him one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the league, Thomas could be a difference-maker for a team looking to upgrade at tight end. A return to Denver looks unlikely, so the question must be asked – how will Thomas fare without Manning throwing passes to him?
Here are five potential landing spots (in alphabetical order) for Thomas, whether it’s based on need or available cap space or both, as well as a few other teams to keep an eye on with free agency set to officially begin on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
Everyone knows how good the Falcons’ offense was with Tony Gonzalez a part of it. I’m not saying Thomas is a future Hall of Famer like Gonzalez, but he would have to be considered an upgrade over Levine Toilolo. Atlanta has plenty of cap space to give Matt Ryan another weapon in the passing game.
Jordan Cameron is a free agent, but I think both he and the Browns are ready to move on. Tight end isn’t Cleveland’s biggest need, but the Browns have plenty of cap space and an uncertain situation at quarterback. Whomever ends up under center, he will need targets to throw to and Thomas would fit the bill, especially in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers
As good as the Packers’ offense is, can you imagine what it would be like if it added Thomas to the mix? Green Bay has other positions to address (including trying to re-sign Randall Cobb), so tight end may be more of a luxury than need right now. But oh what a potential luxury it could be for Aaron Rodgers if Thomas were to sign with the Packers.
The Jaguars can pretty much be considered an option for any big free agent because of two things – 1) they have plenty of holes to fill and 2) they have plenty of cap space. That said, Thomas also makes a lot of sense because of what his presence could mean to the development of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. Call it a win-win for both the team and player.
With Marshawn Lynch back in the fold, the Seahawks’ focus this offseason will shift to signing Russell Wilson and other key players to long-term contracts. However, that doesn’t mean the team won’t look at adding some new pieces too. Thomas would definitely give Seattle’s passing game a different element.
Other Teams to Watch
Rex Ryan has his running back in LeSean McCoy, but Thomas could be the next Pro Bowler to join the new-look Buffalo Bills. Adding Thomas to the offense would make things easier on both the quarterback and the likes of McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Waktins … With Andre Johnson seemingly on his way out, the Houston Texans probably need a wide receiver more than a tight end. However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas wouldn’t fit nicely in head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense… The Oakland Raiders already have a young tight end in Mychal Rivera and much bigger holes to fill elsewhere. But since they have so much cap space and apparently are itching to spend it, they at least need to be mentioned here.
The Packers are certainly intriguing, given the quarterback similarities, but I don’t think they can offer Thomas enough money to make it worth his while. And if it’s all about the money, then it’s a two-horse race between the Jaguars and Raiders. However, I also like the Falcons’ and Seahawks’ chances. Seattle would give Thomas a chance to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender not far from where he played his college ball, while Atlanta has been a good place for tight ends to thrive. In the end, I think the Jaguars will simply present Thomas with an offer he can’t refuse.
NFL free agency is a week away, but it was a different type of player movement that grabbed everyone’s attention with the reported trade of running back LeSean McCoy from Philadelphia to Buffalo. The trade, which can’t be made official until the new league year begins at 4 p.m ET on Tuesday, would also reunite Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso with his college coach at Oregon, Chip Kelly.
McCoy has spent his entire six-year career with the Eagles since they drafted him in the second round (53rd overall) out of Pittsburgh in the 2009 draft. Only 26 years old, McCoy is Philadelphia’s all-time leading rusher with 6,792 yards. A two-time, first-team All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, McCoy also is one of the league’s most dangerous receivers out of the backfield, as evidenced by his 300 career catches for 2,282 yards. In 90 career games, McCoy has accounted for 54 touchdowns (44 rushing, 10 receiving).
While some of this move appears to be financially driven on the Eagles’ part (McCoy has three years and $25 million remaining on his contract, Alonso has two years left on his rookie deal), there’s no denying this also would impact McCoy’s fantasy value for the upcoming season. Even though his numbers were down this past season compared to 2013 when he led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards, McCoy still ran circles around his Buffalo counterparts.
Between injuries and ineffectiveness, the Bills saw four different backs in 2014 register at least 36 carries with Fred Jackson leading the way at 525 yards on 141 attempts. Jackson, Anthony “Boobie” Dixon, C.J. Spiller and Bryce Brown (McCoy’s Eagle teammate in 2012-13), combined to rush for 1,383 yards on 360 carries. That’s 3.8 yards per carry compared to McCoy’s 4.2 on 312 totes.
While it’s safe to say Philadelphia’s offensive line is better than Buffalo’s, the real difference lies in offensive systems. Since coming to the NFL in 2013, Kelly has introduced his up-tempo, spread scheme, which is known for churning out the plays. After finishing second to Denver’s record-breaking offense in 2013, the Eagles led the way with 1,127 plays from scrimmage this past season.
On the other hand, Buffalo was in the middle of the pack with 1,020 plays and scored 8.2 fewer points per game than Philadelphia. Rex Ryan is the now the Bills’ head coach, but remember he’s always been fond of the “ground and pound” approach when it comes to running the ball. Not only does that style not suit the shifty and elusive McCoy, it also tends to create extended, lengthy drives when successful.
Following an impressive debut season in Kelly’s system in 2013, there were concerns that McCoy’s role could be changing after the Eagles acquired Darren Sproles from the Saints. Some of those fears were realized, as McCoy wound up No. 12 in fantasy points among RBs.
Now, although McCoy’s No. 1 back status seems secure with his new team (Jackson is 34 years old and Spiller is a free agent), his fantasy status among his peers is anything but. Opinions will change several times between now and before the start of the 2015 season, but if McCoy does wind up in Buffalo, his days being viewed as a top-10 fantasy RB could be over.
The New England Patriots’ reign as Super Bowl champions is just beginning, but for everyone else the focus has already shifted to the 2015 NFL and fantasy football seasons. The offseason work has really yet to begin, with free agency still about a month away and the draft even farther out, but here’s Athlon Sports’ initial fantasy football rankings for the upcoming season.
Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell who piled up 2,215 yards from scrimmage is our pick for No. 1 (although the possibility of a two-game suspension could change our stance down the road), with teammate Antonio Brown checking in at No. 6 as the first wide receiver listed. Seven of the top 10 players are running backs, along with three wide receivers. This means no quarterback or tight end cracks our early top 10, not even MVP Aaron Rodgers or the mighty Gronk.
Again, this list will change as soon as free agency kicks off and once more following the draft. But for now, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant are Cowboys, Demaryius and Julius Thomas are Broncos, there are no rookies listed and no kickers made our top 150. While it’s anyone’s guess as to where these four prime free agents will wind up (my money is on the wide receivers staying put), there’s a pretty good chance kickers will be shut out of the top 150 even after the dust settles.
|14||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||NYG|
|122||Robert Griffin III||QB||WAS|
OFFENSIVE SCORINGRankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points
For the second offseason in a row, seven NFL teams have hired new head coaches. Unlike last year, however, the most recent coaching carousel took a few unexpected turns.
While Atlanta, Chicago and the Jets all fired their head coach on Dec. 29, the day after the regular season ended (also known as Black Monday), the most surprising dismissal came when Denver fired its head coach the day after the Divisional Round of the playoffs. This offseason also saw a mutual parting of ways in San Francisco and Buffalo’s head coach exercising an opt out clause in his contract.
Fortunately, the dust has settled and the coaching carousel has once again come to a complete stop. While it’s entirely too early to fully evaluate each team’s decision, here is an early impression on each hire.
1. Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills
Previous Job: Jets head coach
Career Record: 46-50 (Jets, 2009-14)
While it didn’t end well for Ryan with the Jets, the Bills couldn’t have scripted a better ending to the strange Doug Marrone saga than to land their former foe. Marrone exercising his opt out clause, while costly, could be a blessing in disguise as the franchise now gets a chance to reboot with the brash, boisterous Ryan leading the charge. Ryan’s familiarity with the AFC East should not be overlooked nor the notion that the Bills have already become a more interesting team to follow simply because of his presence and personality. The only thing keeping Ryan from receiving a perfect grade is a questionable track record when it comes to quarterbacks, although he did get to back-to-back AFC Championship Games with Mark Sanchez at the helm. At least Ryan has a new offensive coordinator (Greg Roman) to help him try and change his QB rep with EJ Manuel (or whoever ends up getting the starting job).
2. John Fox, Chicago Bears
Previous Job: Broncos head coach
Career Record: 119-89 (Panthers, 2002-09; Broncos, 2011-14)
3. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
Previous Job: Seahawks defensive coordinator
Career Record: First season
Quinn may have been the last one to land a job on this list, but give credit to the Falcons for being willing to wait. The architect of the defense that played in back-to-back Super Bowls, Quinn finally gets his well-deserved shot at being a head coach. Mike Smith’s firing was somewhat surprising, given the success he had, but the transition from him to Quinn should be somewhat seamless given their similar backgrounds. It’s hard to gauge how successful a rookie head coach will be, but I like Quinn’s chances provided he’s able to upgrade his defensive personnel and stabilize the offensive line.
4. Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders
Previous Job: Broncos defensive coordinator
Career Record: 68-71 (Jaguars, 2003-11)
John Fox's defensive coordniator in Denver the past three seasons, Del Rio has earned his second shot at being a head coach. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Del Rio grew up a Raiders fan and seems to fit their persona to a tee. It certainly didn’t hurt that owner Mark Davis thought the same thing, as he began his pursuit of Del Rio before the regular season ended. Del Rio has experience with young, rebuilding teams and a pretty good track record when it comes to defense. What’s more, Del Rio wanted this job, which is saying something considering how far this franchise has fallen. But with Del Rio now in charge, along with building blocks like linebacker Khalil Mack and Derek Carr, the Silver and Black could be heard from sooner rather than later.
5. Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos
Previous Job: Ravens offensive coordinator
Career Record: 61-64 (Texans, 2006-13)
Kubiak initially stated he would remain in Baltimore, but then John Elway fired John Fox and everything changed. Drafted by Denver in 1983 and where he spent his entire playing career as Elway's backup, Kubiak is the logical fit from the franchise’s standpoint. Between his nine seasons as a player and his 11 as an offensive coordinator, Kubiak has spent as much time as a Bronco as his new boss. Kubiak also enjoyed success with the Texans, but his two playoff appearances were preceded by just one winning season in his first five and were followed up by a nightmarish 2013 campaign that led to his firing after a 2-11 start. On the field, Kubiak’s West Coast offense and Peyton Manning’s skill set do not seem like the ideal fit, and there’s also the matter of Elway not leaving any room for doubt when it comes to expectations. Keep in mind that Fox took this team to a Super Bowl while Kubiak has yet to make it past the Divisional Round. Welcome home Gary, now get to work.
6. Todd Bowles, New York Jets
Previous Job: Cardinals defensive coordinator
Career Record: 2-1* (Dolphins, 2011)
Bowles opened many an eye with his work with the Cardinals’ defense the past two seasons (especially 2014), and he was able to parlay that into his dream job. A New Jersey native, Bowles should be pretty familiar with all of the attention, both wanted and unwanted, that comes with being the head coach of a team that calls the media capital of the world home. A former safety, Bowles’ playing experience should help him develop relationships with his new charges. He also has been a head coach before, serving as the Dolphins’ interim for three games in 2011 after Tony Sparano was fired. Unfortunately all of this experience doesn’t really prepare him for one of the biggest challenges awaiting him – finding out if Geno Smith can be a successful starting quarterback in the NFL.
7. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers
Previous Job: 49ers defensive line coach
Career Record: 1-0* (49ers, 2010)
Nothing against Tomsula, but it’s hard to not perceive his hiring as nothing more than CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke finding their yes-man. How else can you explain Jim Harbaugh leaving the 49ers to become the head coach at Michigan for the same amount of money and the subsequent search that included interviews with at least eight other candidates yet resulted in the hiring of the only one without any previous coordinator or head coaching experience in the NFL? Sorry, one game as the interim head coach in 2010 doesn’t really count nor does his one season as head coach of NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire, who didn’t even qualify for the playoffs that year. And even though Tomsula’s hiring has since been endorsed by the players, how can you justify choosing him over say an experienced head coach like Rex Ryan or a hot coordinator like Adam Gase, who the 49ers interviewed twice, or even in-house candidate Vic Fangio? And then there's the matter that after Tomsula was hired every assistant coach that served under Harbaugh was fired, except one. The popular opinion following Harbaugh’s decision to bolt for his alma mater was there was a power struggle between him and upper management. Tomsula’s hiring pretty much confirms this, no?
*Interim head coach
The Super Bowl is over, which means the NFL season is complete and it’s almost time for baseball! Spring training will start up in two weeks in Florida and Arizona with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs set to open the 2015 MLB season on Sunday night, April 5. Opening Day will follow, as the San Francisco Giants look to defend their World Series title.
Florida plays host to 15 teams, the Grapefruit League, during spring training, while the greater Phoenix metropolitan area is home to the other 15 teams that make up the Cactus League.
To help get you ready for the upcoming season, Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine is available on newsstands and to order online now. Starting with 22 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between.
This year's edition includes "15 Things to Watch in 2015," a look back on the 2005 MLB Draft, features on World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, the return of New York Yankees outcast Alex Rodriguez, and Joe Maddon’s arrival as manager of the Chicago Cubs, and much more. As always, there are team-by-team previews for all 30 clubs, with rosters, stats and schedules as well as analysis on the top 10 prospects in their farm system. Athlon also offers its predictions on how this season will shake out, both for the regular and postseason, as well as for the major awards. Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview is the most complete preseason publication available today. Order your copy now!
|Team||Location||Pitchers & Catchers||Position Players|
|Reporting Date||First Workout||Reporting Date||First Workout|
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Atlanta Braves||Lake Buena Vista, FL||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 25||Feb. 26|
|Baltimore Orioles||Sarasota, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Boston Red Sox||Lee County, FL||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Chicago Cubs||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 25||Feb. 25|
|Chicago White Sox||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 24|
|Cincinnati Reds||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|Cleveland Indians||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 20||Feb. 22||Feb. 24|
|Colorado Rockies||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 27||Feb. 27|
|Detroit Tigers||Lakeland, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 24|
|Houston Astros||Kissimmee, FL||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Kansas City Royals||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Los Angeles Angels||Tempe, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 26|
|Miami Marlins||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 20||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 24|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Phoenix, AZ||Feb. 20||Feb. 22||Feb. 25||Feb. 26|
|Minnesota Twins||Fort Myers, FL||Feb. 22||Feb. 23||Feb. 27||Feb. 28|
|New York Mets||Port St. Lucie, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 21||Feb. 24||Feb. 26|
|New York Yankees||Tampa, FL||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 25||Feb. 26|
|Oakland A's||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Clearwater, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 24||Feb. 24|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Bradenton, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|San Diego Padres||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|San Francisco Giants||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 24||Feb. 24|
|Seattle Mariners||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Charlotte County, FL||Feb. 21||Feb. 23||Feb. 25||Feb. 28|
|Texas Rangers||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 25||Feb. 26|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Dunedin, FL||Feb. 23||Feb. 23||Feb. 27||Feb. 27|
|Washington Nationals||Viera, FL||Feb. 20||Feb. 21||Feb. 26||Feb. 26|
For a fourth time in their history, the New England Patriots are the champions of the NFL. While the party is just getting started in Foxboro, Mass., and for Patriots fans worldwide, the rest of the league’s focus has already shifted to the 2015 season.
While the next game that counts is more than seven months away, it’s not too early to hazard a guess as to which teams could be meeting in Super Bowl 50 (that’s right, no Roman numerals for this one) a year from now. With free agency and the draft on the horizon, a lot will obviously change between now and this fall, but here is an early look at the teams seemingly best positioned to wind up in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7, 2016. It’s pretty obvious which two head up this list.
New England Patriots
2014 record: 12-4 (AFC East, AFC, Super Bowl XLIX champions)
Congratulations to the Patriots, who captured their fourth Lombardi Trophy in improbable fashion. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s championship legacies have been cemented, but do they have a “Drive for Five” in them? Brady restructured his contract in late December to free up cap space, which is something the team desperately needs. Defensive backs Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty headline a group of pending free agents that also includes a pair of running backs (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Brady will turn 38 in August and he’s not the only aging keystone piece on this roster. Still, as this season demonstrated, don’t say New England’s championship widow is closing, at least not until its shut tight, locked, the blinds pulled down and the curtains drawn.
The (Shell-Shocked) Runner-ups
2014 record: 12-4 (NFC West, NFC champions, lost to New England in Super Bowl XLIX)
You could say the Seahawks now know how the Packers (see below) feel, but there’s no question this missed (blown?) opportunity is going to hurt more. Just ask the "Legion of Boom," as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Jeremy Lane are each dealing with serious injuries that will likely require surgery and/or extensive rehab. But while the coaching staff, team, fan base, analysts and anyone who watched one of the most improbable endings in Super Bowl history will play the “what if” game for who knows how long, there’s a silver lining to this seemingly dark cloud. This team’s not going anywhere and there’s every reason to think Seattle has a good shot at making playing on a third straight Super Sunday come next February. Even though there are more than 20 pending free agents on the roster, only three (CB Byron Maxwell, WR Jermaine Kearse, OL James Carpenter) are starters. And while a decision will likely be made regarding running back Marshawn Lynch’s future with the team, the majority of the core is already signed to long-term deals. The biggest exception being quarterback Russell Wilson, who technically has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but don’t be surprised to see that change before the season kicks off. It’s not going to be easy for the Seahawks to bounce back from what transpired at the end of the game, but motivation for next season certainly shouldn’t be an issue.
The Motivated Mile-Highers
2014 record: 12-4 (AFC West champions, lost to Indianapolis in AFC Divisional Round)
Even though John Elway shook up his coaching staff following the disappointing home loss to the Colts, Gary Kubiak’s experience as a head coach and with the franchise should make for a mostly seamless transition. The key to the Broncos’ hopes of making another Super Bowl run lies in whether or not Peyton Manning returns (my guess is he will) and what Elway does in free agency and the draft. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas will likely be Elway’s priorities in free agency, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and linebacker Brandon Marshall are also among the list of 20 Broncos slated to hit the market.
The Cheesed-off Pack
Green Bay Packers
2014 record: 12-4 (NFC North champions, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship Game)
Blowing a 16-0 halftime and 19-7 fourth-quarter lead in Seattle in the NFC title game is going to gnaw at the Packers for a long time. Fortunately, the majority of the pieces are in place for Green Bay to contend again, led by two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. Wide receiver Randall Cobb highlights the team’s list of pending free agents, but the Packers do have rookie Davante Adams waiting in the wings. Defensive line, linebacker and tight end are all position groups that could see a lot of changes this offseason.
The Other Contenders
(in alphabetical order)
2014 record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Carolina in NFC Wild Card Game)
Before the season even started, the Cardinals were working with a shorthanded roster, and this situation only got worse as the weeks progressed. Yet, Bruce Arians continued to push the right buttons, as Arizona kept winning. A 9-1 start, gave way to a 2-5 finish, including the Wild Card loss in Carolina, as season-ending injuries to Carson Palmer and Andre Ellington decimated the offense. The good news is that Palmer, who signed a contract extension shortly before tearing his ACL for a second time, and Ellington both should be back to full speed, as well as All-Pro defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, who missed all of 2014. The front office has quite a bit of work ahead of it in terms of salary cap management, and there also will be a new defensive coordinator in charge with Todd Bowles leaving to becoming the Jets’ head coach.
2014 record: 10-6 (AFC Wild Card berth, lost to New England in Divisional Round)
The Ravens couldn’t put the Patriots away on the road in the Divisional Round despite building 14-point leads on two different occasions. With 30 pending free agents and little wiggle room when it comes to projected cap space, changes are coming to this roster, and Joe Flacco also must get acquainted with his new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman. Justin Forsett, who went from being an afterthought to the No. 5 rusher in the NFL, is a free agent, as is wide receiver Torrey Smith, kicker Justin Tucker and a slew of defensive backs. Tight end Dennis Pitta’s health (another serious hip injury) is a question mark, and his replacement, Owen Daniels, is a free agent. It’s also worth noting that defensive stalwarts nose tackle Haloti Ngata and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are all on the other side of 30 years old.
2014 record: 12-4 (NFC East champions, lost to Green Bay in Divisional Round)
Jason Garrett not only removed himself from the coaching hot seat, he signed a five-year contract extension after getting the Cowboys back to the postseason. Now the challenge for Garrett and owner/general manager Jerry Jones is keeping the band together. Reigning rushing champion DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, who hauled in a league-high 16 touchdowns, are both free agents and there are mixed opinions regarding whether Jones will be able to re-sign both given their expected contract demands combined with the team’s existing financial obligations. The franchise tag could be an option for one or both, but this is a situation that bears watching, as otherwise the league’s fifth-highest scoring offense will return intact. Expect defense to be the focus in the draft, as Dallas needs to find its next superstar defensive lineman and to take a long, hard look at its underwhelming secondary. The healthy return of middle linebacker Sean Lee should provide a huge boost, but he’s just part of the puzzle.
2014 record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to New England in AFC Championship Game)
After upsetting the Broncos at home and making it to the AFC title game are the Colts ready to take that next step? Well, a 45-7 loss to New England is enough reason to think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. And there’s also the matter of Indianapolis’ backfield, where it could be argued that its best two running backs are returning from season-ending injuries. Reggie Wayne is a free agent and his days as a Colt could be numbered, as younger guys like linebacker Jerrell Freeman need to be the team’s priority this offseason. Even if Freeman is re-signed, the defense could use more playmakers and the offensive line shored up to reduce the punishment Andrew Luck has taken in his first three seasons. The good news is there should be plenty of resources available to beef up the roster.
2014 record: 11-5 (AFC North champions, lost to Baltimore in AFC Wild Card) Game)
The Steelers won their division, but couldn’t get past the Ravens in the playoffs, as the offense clearly felt Le’Veon Bell’s absence. Next season, the offense should be just fine with the trio of Bell, All-Pro Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger back to terrorize defenses. A reliable backup running back must be found to spell Bell, and the passing game could be even more potent if wideouts Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton continue to develop. Expect the youth movement to continue on defense with Keith Butler replacing Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau as coordinator and the futures of long-time Steelers like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor up in the air.
The Wild Card
San Francisco 49ers
2014 record: 8-8 (3rd in NFC West)
The 49ers are the early pick for most interesting team to watch in 2015. Jim Harbaugh is gone, off to Michigan, with former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula now in charge and offensive coordinator Jeep Chryst (QBs coach) the only holdovers from a staff that made three straight trips to the NFC title game prior to 2014’s 8-8 showing. Decisions will have to be made on pending free agents running back Frank Gore, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and offensive lineman Mike Iupati, among others, and there could be other roster changes due to salary cap constraints. The defense will get All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman back from injury, but the jury is still out on quarterback Colin Kaepernick following a disappointing season. This team has the talent to contend next season or it could totally implode and struggle to break even.
Other Teams to Watch
(in alphabetical order)
2014 record: 10-5-1 (AFC Wild Card berth, lost to Indianapolis in AFC Wild Card Game)
Yes, the Bengals flamed out in the Wild Card round for a fourth straight season, but this team is relatively young and will have plenty of cap space (projected to be around $30 million) at its disposal to address weaknesses. While it’s perfectly reasonable to place all of the blame for Cincinnati’s postseason failures on quarterback Andy Dalton, keep in mind that he was without wide receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert (combined 1,157 yards receiving, 12 TDs in 2013) for basically the entire season, while No. 1 target A.J. Green also was hampered by injuries. On the other side of the ball, Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict played in just five games because of knee injuries. Burfict’s return is up in the air following microfracture surgery, but the Bengals’ future still looks bright, thanks to the emergence of rookie running back Jeremy Hill. Whether through free agency or the draft, the NFL’s least-productive pass rush (20 sacks) must be addressed.
2014 record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card berth, lost to Dallas in NFC Wild Card Game)
Jim Caldwell got the Lions to the playoffs in his first season, but don’t bank on a repeat trip. Ndamukong Suh is unquestionably the team’s biggest question mark headed into free agency, but he’s just one of five defensive linemen slated to hit the open market. Detroit has already severed ties with long-time center Dominic Raiola, so the offensive line will have a different look to it, and the secondary continues to be an area of weakness that needs to be addressed. Adding to the Lions’ degree of difficulty for 2015 is a schedule that includes the NFC and AFC West divisions, as well as games against New Orleans and Philadelphia.
New Orleans Saints
2014 record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC South)
Plenty went wrong for the Saints this past season, between injuries to key players, a defense that bottomed out for the second time in three years, and a seeming lack of chemistry and leadership both on and off of the field. However, New Orleans will remain a threat in the NFC South and beyond as long as Drew Brees stays healthy and the offense produces. According to Brees, the coaching staff and front office identified what went wrong and what needs to be fixed, but the problem lies in the fact that the Saints currently just aren’t up against the cap, they are well over it, to the tune of more than a projected $20 million. Getting key pieces like safety Jairus Byrd and wide receiver Brandin Cooks back from injury will help, but running back Mark Ingram is a free agent and some other veterans, like all-time leading receiver Marques Colston, could end up being cap casualties.
San Diego Chargers
2014 record: 9-7 (3rd in AFC West)
The Chargers came one game short of a Wild Card berth, but that doesn’t mean the season was a total failure. Besides beating Seattle and Baltimore, San Diego lost by one point to Arizona in the season opener and held its own against New England in early December. Mike McCoy has gone 9-7 in each of his first two seasons as a head coach, and there’s a chance the Chargers could take another step forward in 2015. The schedule (crossover games vs. AFC and NFC North divisions) won’t be easy, but the offense is in good hands with Philip Rivers at quarterback. The running game will need to be ironed out, with Ryan Mathews and a bunch of offensive linemen pending free agents, and the pass rush is lacking. However, there are plenty of pieces to build around and cap space shouldn’t be a major hurdle towards adding some reinforcements.
Two teams with their sights set on making history will conclude the 2014 NFL season when the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks face off Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX on NBC. The Seahawks have come to University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., with a goal of becoming just the eighth franchise in history to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The Patriots, who accomplished said feat in the 2003-04 seasons, are looking to snap a two-game losing streak on Super Sunday and claim the franchise’s fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Although Deflate-gate has unfortunately (pardon the pun) taken some of the air out of this matchup, the focus should finally shift back to what will happen on the field by the time kickoff approaches. Not only do we have the top two seeds from each conference going head-to-head, we also will be treated to storylines such as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the historic duo in search of their record-tying fourth Super Bowl ring, versus Pete Carroll and Seattle’s vaunted “Legion of Boom” defense.
And they aren’t the only ones expected to take on starring roles Sunday night either. Seattle has Russell Wilson, set to become the youngest quarterback to start two Super Bowls, as well as Richard Sherman, the brash mouthpiece of the Seahawks’ defense, and Marshawn Lynch, the bruising running back who clearly would prefer to do all of his talking on the field. New England has Rob Gronkowski, its All-Pro tight end who is never at a loss for words and has the Legion of Boom’s full attention.
Even though New England and Seattle were once both members of the AFC (1977-2001), this is just the 17th all-time meeting between these two teams. The series is tied 8-8 with the most recent matchup occurring in 2012. The Seahawks beat the Patriots 24-23 in Seattle in what was just the sixth career start for Wilson. Needless to say, the stakes are considerably higher for their first-ever postseason pairing.
New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks
Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: New England -1
5 Things to Watch
Backfields in Motion
Marshawn Lynch is getting the most attention, thanks to his “talkative” media sessions earlier this week, when it comes to the running backs and for good reason. Fourth in rushing (1,306 yards) in the regular season, Lynch’s 157 yards were pivotal in Seattle’s overtime comeback win over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Even though Russell Wilson is fully capable of making plays with his legs, the priority for New England’s defense is to prevent Lynch from going Beast Mode on it. That doesn’t mean that the Patriots’ running game should be completely overlooked, however. For one, LeGarrette Blount rumbled for 148 yards and three scores in the AFC title game. And there also is the fact that the Seahawks have allowed more than 130 yards rushing to each of their postseason opponents. Seattle’s the run-happy team, but New England’s ground game also could wind up being a factor come Super Sunday.
Wide Receiver Play
Similar to the backfields, while Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” is as good as advertised, New England’s secondary is no slouch. Headed up by All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, the Patriots’ back end also features former Seahawk Brandon Browner serving up the big hits and Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty. To put it another way, both wide receiver corps have their work cut out for them. If Seattle can get big plays out of Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse like the ones that happened late in the NFC title game, it should only make things easier on Russell Wilson and open up the running game even more. On the other side, New England has tight end Rob Gronkowski to take some of the burden off of the wideouts, but Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell will still need to make their presence felt. If anything, maybe all of the attention directed towards keeping Gronk in check will free up Edelman or LaFell, or perhaps maybe Danny Amendola, to make plays elsewhere. After all, no tight end has ever been named Super Bowl MVP.
Coaching Chess Match
Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll have plenty in common. Both have won a Super Bowl, come from defensive backgrounds, and each is well respected by players and coaching peers alike. Both also are known for running franchises their way, as well as for thinking outside of the box and going against the grain when it comes to in-game decisions and play calling. Belichick and the Patriots have gotten plenty of attention for the unconventional formations they have used this postseason, while Carroll had the guts to not only call for a fake field goal in the NFC title game, but later an onside kick that, if not recovered, likely would have ended the Seahawks’ Super Bowl repeat hopes. What either has in store for Sunday is anyone’s guess, but this head-to-head matchup could be just as entertaining, and equally important, as anything that happens on the field. And just to add some extra spice to this pairing, there’s this: Carroll was New England’s head coach from 1997-99 before he was fired and replaced by none other than Belichick. Revenge anyone?
In last year’s Super Bowl win, Seattle dominated Denver in the turnover department (4-0). The Seahawks picked off Peyton Manning twice and also recovered two fumbles. Seattle converted three of the takeaways into touchdowns (one coming on a INT return by MVP Malcolm Smith), or nearly half of its 43 points. This season, the Seahawks and the Patriots both did a good job protecting the ball and maximizing their opponents’ mistakes. New England tied for second (plus-12) in turnover margin, while Seattle was next at plus-nine. In the playoffs, the Patriots have posted a plus-three margin in two games, while the Seahawks are even because of their five turnovers in the NFC Championship Game. And just how important is protecting the football on Super Sunday? Very, considering that the team with fewer turnovers is 36-3 in Super Bowl history, a statistic each team is familiar with. Combined, these two teams have played in seven previous Super Bowls. In those seven appearances, the team that won the turnover battle is 3-1. Only once did either team finish with more turnovers than its opponent and that game did not end well. In Super Bowl XLVI New England had just one turnover (interception), but it was still costly in a tough loss to the Giants. And as for that one loss when winning the turnover battle? That was in 2006, when Seattle posted a plus-one margin against Pittsburgh, but still lost Super Bowl XL. However, that is definitely the exception rather than the rule when it comes to ball security, as a winning percentage of 92.3 over a sample size of nearly 40 games will certainly attest.
Related: 5 X-Factors for Super Bowl XLIX
Red Zone Success
In the regular season, Miami was the only team with more red zone possessions on offense than New England’s 67. The Patriots found paydirt 39 times or 58.2 percent, making them the ninth-most efficient team once they got to their opponent’s 20-yard line. Seattle converted a little more than half of its red zone looks (31 of 60) into touchdowns, putting them 20th. This success has carried over into the postseason, as the Seahawks are at 50 percent (3 of 6) in this category. The Patriots meanwhile have turned all but one of their 10 red zone trips (90 percent) into six points. Not surprisingly, the difference for Seattle has been on other side of the ball. After limiting teams to a league-low 37 red zone possessions in the regular season, the Seahawks have allowed touchdowns on just three of seven such trips in the playoffs. This is why despite committing four first-half turnovers, Seattle only trailed Green Bay 16-0, as the Packers got to the Seahawks’ one-yard line on successive drives following a takeaway, but ended up kicking a short field goal both times. Compare that to New England, whose defense yielded a touchdown on five of the six red zone possessions it faced against Baltimore and Indianapolis. A three-point swing may not seem like much, but ask Green Bay what the difference is between a touchdown and a field goal.
One way or the other, history will be made Sunday. Either Seattle joins the exclusive club of repeat Super Bowl champions or Bill Belichick and Tom Brady cement their legacies with a fourth Lombardi Trophy. Russell Wilson also has a chance to enter some pretty exclusive company with a second Super Bowl victory, especially considering this is just his third NFL season.
There is certainly no lack of intriguing storylines for this game, which is to be expected when it involves the league’s top two teams. But when it comes to the matchups on the field, it really boils down to one — how will New England’s offense fare against Seattle’s defense? Will it be another coronation for Belichick and Brady or will the “Legion of Boom” steal the Super Sunday spotlight once again? At least we don’t have to wait much longer to find out.
Athlon editors pick which team will win Super Bowl XLIX and who will be named MVP:
|Rob Doster||24-20||Tom Brady|
|David Fox||35-24||Marshawn Lynch|
|Braden Gall||27-23||Darrelle Revis|
|John Gworek||24-20||Marshawn Lynch|
|Steven Lassan||27-24||Marshawn Lynch|
|Mitch Light||30-24||Tom Brady|
|Rich McVey||27-21||Tom Brady|
|Mark Ross||26-22||Russell Wilson|
|Nathan Rush||24-23||Marshawn Lynch|
It’s No. 1 vs. No. 1 when the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks conclude the 2014 NFL season in Super Bowl XLIX this Sunday. University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., will host a pair of 14-4 teams, as the Seahawks are looking for a second straight Lombardi Trophy and the tandem of Bill Belichick-Tom Brady are aiming for a fourth.
And those are just a few of the significant numbers associated with this game. Here are some other noteworthy statistics and figures to analyze and dissect prior to kickoff.
7: Franchises that have won back-to-back Super Bowls
Seattle is trying to join the exclusive club of repeat world champions, whose membership currently includes: Green Bay (Super Bowls I & II), Miami (VII & VIII), Pittsburgh (IX & X, XIII & XIV), San Francisco (XXIII & XXIV), Dallas (XXVII & XXVIII), Denver (XXIII & XXXIII), and New England (XXXVIII & XXXIX). It’s been 10 years since the Patriots went back-to-back.
4: Coaches who have faced their former team in the Super Bowl
Carroll went 27-21 as New England’s head coach from 1997-99 before he was fired and replaced by Bill Belichick. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Carroll is the fourth head coach to face his former team in the Super Bowl. The others are Weeb Eubank, Dan Reeves and Jon Gruden. Ewbank (Super Bowl III w/ the Baltimore Colts) and Gruden (XXXVII w/ Tampa Bay) were victorious against their former employer while Reeves (XXXIII w/ Atlanta) was not.
6: Super Bowl starts for Tom Brady, appearances by Bill Belichick
Come Sunday, Brady will break a tie with John Elway for the most Super Bowl starts by a quarterback, while Belichick’s sixth will tie him with Don Shula among head coaches. A win over Seattle would tie Brady with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most (four) by a starting quarterback. Belichick’s fourth Lombardi Trophy would tie Chuck Noll for the most by a head coach.
28: Career postseason starts for Tom Brady entering Super Bowl XLIX
Brady leads his peers in pretty much every postseason-related category, including starts, wins (19), passing yards (7,017) and touchdowns (49). His passer rating in the playoffs is 88.5, a number that goes up to 93.8 when looking at just his five Super Bowl appearances. Brady is 3-2 on Super Sunday, completing 64.5 percent of his passes for 1,277 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles lost.
7: Career postseason starts for Russell Wilson entering Super Bowl XLIX
Wilson’s passer rating in the postseason is an impressive 96.3, and that’s after throwing four interceptions in the NFC Championship Game. He’s lost just one playoff game thus far, and is set to become the youngest quarterback to start two Super Bowls, breaking a mark previously held by Tom Brady (Elias).
10-0: Russell Wilson’s record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks
In just his third season, Wilson already has beaten five quarterbacks who have started and won a Super Bowl. Three of those victories have come in the postseason, including the NFC title game win over Aaron Rodgers two weeks ago and in Super Bowl XLVIII over Peyton Manning. Wilson is 3-0 against Rodgers, has beaten Peyton and Eli Manning and Drew Brees two times each, and is 1-0 against his Super Sunday counterpart, Tom Brady. Wilson got the better of Brady in a 24-23 win at home in 2012, his rookie season.
826: Difference in rushing yards between Russell Wilson and Tom Brady
In 18 games thus far, Wilson has rushed for 896 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s averaging nearly seven yards per carry and has yet to lose a fumble, as he finished in the top 20 in the regular season in both rushing yards (tied 16th) and touchdowns (tied 17th). Tom Brady, who is certainly not known for his mobility, has rushed for 70 yards (1.6 ypc) with one touchdown and a total of three lost fumbles. Wilson’s ability to make plays with his legs could be a big factor on Sunday.
13: Fourth-quarter points Seattle’s defense has given up over it last eight games
During their current eight-game winning streak, the Seahawks have owned the fourth quarter. Pete Carroll’s defense has allowed just one touchdown (Carolina, Divisional Round) and a pair of field goals (Green Bay, NFC Championship Game) in the final quarter over the last eight games, outscoring opponents 87-13 during this stretch.
267: Rushing yards Seattle has given up in two playoff victories
After giving up just 81.5 yards rushing per game in the regular season (3rd in NFL), the Seahawks yielded more than 130 to both the Panthers and Packers. While these two teams needed 60 carries to get those 267 yards (4.5 ypc), this is still an area Seattle needs to shore up before facing LeGarrette Blount and company Sunday.
7: Rushing touchdowns New England’s defense has allowed this season
The Patriots have allowed a total of seven touchdowns on the ground this season. Six of those were in the regular season with the other coming against Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game.
22: Rushing touchdowns scored by Seattle this season
The Seahawks led the league with 20 rushing touchdowns during the regular season and added two more in their comeback victory in overtime over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. Marshawn Lynch is responsible for 14 of these with six of them coming in a two-game span earlier this season.
20: Touchdown passes caught by New England tight ends this season
All-Pro Rob Gronkowski is responsible for 14 of these, while Tim Wright has the other six TDs. Combined, Gronkowski, Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui have caught 126 passes for 1,612 yards (12.8 ypr) and the 20 scores in 18 games. Compare that to Seattle, which has allowed 74 receptions for 752 yards (10.2 ypr) and 11 touchdowns to opposing tight ends.
+24: New England’s and Seattle’s combined turnover margin
In the regular season, the Patriots and Seahawks finished tied for second (plus-12) and fourth (plus-nine), respectively, in turnover margin. Both teams have a knack for forcing turnovers while doing a good job of protecting the football. In the playoffs, New England has five takeaways and just two giveaways, while Seattle has had five of each. All of Seattle’s turnovers happened in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay.
Related: 5 X-Factors for Super Bowl XLIX
61.8: Percentage of drafted players on New England’s and Seattle’s rosters combined
Between each team’s active 53-man roster and those on injured reserve, the Patriots (10 on IR) and Seahawks (15) are made up of a total of 131 players. Of those 131, 81 or 61.8 percent were drafted. New England leads the way with 41 drafted players, 31 of them being their own picks. Seattle’s roster is comprised of 40 drafted players, 28 of them homegrown Seahawks.
17: Second-round draft picks on New England’s and Seattle’s rosters combined
Seventeen of the 81 total drafted players (active roster and injured reserve) on the Patriots’ and Seahawks’ rosters were taken in the second round. Not surprisingly, the first round is next with 14 selections, followed by the fourth round (11). For what it’s worth, 40 of the 81 picks were “Day 3” selections, meaning they were taken in one of the last four rounds.
For the second straight year, the No. 1 seeds in both the AFC and NFC are set to face off for the Lombardi Trophy with the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on tap for Super Bowl XLIX. As it relates to the topic of worst teams to play in the Super Bowl, it's pretty safe to say neither the Patriots nor Seahawks have much to worry about. However, while the 2014 Patriots may not enter the discussion, the 1985 team hailing from New England headlines Athlon Sports’ list of the worst teams to ever play on Super Sunday.
1. 1985 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 46-10 to Chicago in Super Bowl XX
New England went 11-5 in the regular season to earn a Wild Card berth, getting hot at the right time. The Patriots won eight out of nine during one stretch and then rode its defense late in the season and in the playoffs. New England forced 16 turnovers in its three postseason victories, including six against Miami in the AFC Championship game. An opportunistic defense carried an inconsistent offense all season long, at least up until the Super Bowl.
Despite taking an early 3-0 lead, Chicago scored 44 straight points and thoroughly dominated New England in posting the biggest victory in Super Bowl history at the time. For the game, the Patriots managed 123 total yards on offense, including just seven yards rushing, turned the ball over six times and gave up seven sacks.
2. 1979 Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl result: Lost 31-19 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV
Credit Los Angeles for taking full advantage of its schedule and division, as the Rams (9-7) won the NFC West even though they beat only two teams that finished with a winning record. The offense was marginal, as their quarterbacks combined for a 19:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season, and the team finished with a -8 turnover differential.
In the postseason, Los Angeles downed Dallas 21-19 in the Divisional round thanks to a tipped pass that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown with 2:06 remaining. In the NFC Championship game against Tampa Bay, the Rams' offense managed just three field goals, but that was more than enough thanks to a stifling defensive effort that held the Buccaneers to zero points, just five completed passes and seven first downs.
The first team to make the Super Bowl having won just nine games in the regular season, Los Angeles hung with defending world champion Pittsburgh for the first three quarters of Super Bowl XIV. The NFC champion Rams held a three-point lead at halftime and went ahead by two in the third quarter, only to watch the Steelers score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 31-19 win. If not for three interceptions by Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, this game may not have ended up as close as it did.
3. 2003 Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl result: Lost 32-29 to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII
This Carolina team mastered the art of winning the close one. Champions of the NFC South with an 11-5 record, the Panthers won just two games in the regular season by more than six points. Seven of the victories were by three points or fewer, as the team’s point differential was +21, or 1.3 per game. The Panthers out-rushed their opponents, but this was mainly due to the fact they had nearly 100 more rushing attempts. Still the ground game produced just nine rushing touchdowns (opponents had 10), while quarterback Jake Delhomme posted a 19:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Panthers seemed to get all of the breaks in the postseason, starting with a 29-23 double overtime victory in St. Louis in the NFC Divisional round. Carolina squandered an 11-point fourth quarter lead to the Rams that included St. Louis head coach Mike Martz opting to hold the ball for a game-tying field goal even though the Rams were inside the 20 with less than a minute remaining and still had one time out. Both teams missed field goals in the first overtime session, as John Kasay made his 40-yard attempt only to find out it didn’t count due to a delay of game penalty on the Panthers. He then missed the subsequent 45-yard attempt. Delhomme took matters into his own hand at the start of the second overtime period, hitting Steve Smith for the game-winning 69-yard touchdown only 10 seconds into it. Carolina’s defense came up big on the road in the NFC title game against Philadelphia, injuring Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and picking off four passes in the 14-3 win.
Carolina’s reward for earning the franchise’s first NFC crown was a Super Bowl XXXVIII matchup with New England. The game was scoreless until 3:05 left in the second quarter, when the teams combined for 24 points, including a 50-yard Kasay field goal that cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-10 at the half. All the other scoring took place in the fourth quarter, including Delhomme’s game-tying touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left, but Kasay proceeded to kick the ball out of the bounds. Tom Brady got the ball on the 40-yard line and six plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning 41-yard field goal with just four ticks remaining. While the final score may have been close, New England dominated the box score, out-gaining Carolina by nearly 100 yards (481-387) and nearly doubling the Panthers in first downs (29 to 17).
4. 2008 Arizona Cardinals
Super Bowl result: Lost 27-23 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII
The greatest season in Arizona Cardinals franchise history is largely the product of great timing and having all of the breaks go your way, at least up until the game that counts the most. Arizona won the NFC West with a 9-7 record that included a spotless divisional mark (6-0) thanks to one of the top scoring offenses in the league at 26.7 points per game.
The flip side of this, however, is the fact that the rest of the Cardinals’ division went a combined 13-35, as they beat just two teams in the regular season that finished with a winning record and stumbled into the postseason losing four of their final six games. A suspect defense (team finished with +1 point differential in regular season), caught a break in the Wild Card round when it got to face Atlanta rookie quarterback Matt Ryan making his first career playoff start on the road. The Cardinals then got plenty of help from Carolina’s Jake Delhomme, who tossed five interceptions at home in their Divisional matchup. Arizona claimed its first conference championship with a 32-25 home victory over No. 6 seed Philadelphia, thanks to a late Kurt Warner touchdown pass and despite being out-gained by the Eagles (454 to 369).
In the Super Bowl, Arizona had its chance to completely cash in on all of its good fortune, fighting back from a 13-point, third-quarter deficit against Pittsburgh to take a 23-20 lead on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald with less than three minutes remaining. Alas, it was not meant to be, as Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes in the end zone with 42 seconds left for one of the more memorable plays in Super Bowl history, much to the chagrin of the Cardinals and their fans.
5. 1994 San Diego Chargers
Super Bowl result: Lost 49-26 to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX
San Diego won the AFC West with an 11-5 record, and its losses were by seven or fewer points except for one. That one game, you ask? It was a 38-15 loss to San Francisco in Week 15. Foreshadowing perhaps? This was not a powerful team by any stretch, as the Chargers’ point differential was +75, an average of less than five points per game, and the ground game averaged less than four yards per carry.
San Diego's defense carried the team throughout the season, and especially in the playoffs. The Chargers came back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to Miami in the AFC Divisional round, winning the game 22-21 on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds left followed by a missed 48-yard field goal by the Dolphins with one second on the clock. In the AFC Championship game, San Diego trailed Pittsburgh 13-3 at one point only to take a 17-13 lead with 5:13 remaining. The Chargers needed one final goal-line stand with just over a minute left to finish the job, despite being out-gained by a wide margin (415 to 226) and having the ball less than 23 minutes.
San Diego entered Super Bowl XXIX against San Francisco as the biggest underdog ever (18.5 points) and lived up to that billing. Steve Young threw four of his Super Bowl-record six touchdown passes in the first half, as the closest the Chargers ever were to the 49ers in this one was 14-7 late in the first quarter. The 49ers led 42-10 with less than five minutes left in the third quarter before the Chargers scored two meaningless touchdowns. This game still holds the records for most combined points (75) and total touchdowns (10) in Super Bowl history, with the majority of the damage (49 and 7) done by game MVP Young and his 49ers.
6. 1987 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 42-10 to Washington in Super Bowl XXII
Denver took full advantage of a strike-shortened season, not to mention three games played with replacement players, to win the AFC West with a 10-4-1 record. Quarterback John Elway led one of the more productive passing offenses in the league, but the Broncos' rushing offense (3.9 ypc) lagged behind. The Broncos needed another miracle (see No. 8 below) to get past Cleveland in the AFC title game, this time at home. And just like what took place the previous season with "The Drive," the Browns delivered once again, as a late fumble sealed the Broncos’ 38-33 win and return trip to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, Denver's third Super Bowl trip was anything but a charm. The Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead on Washington in the first quarter, only to watch the Redskins storm back with 35 points in the second quarter. Washington finished with a Super Bowl-record 602 total yards, including a record 280 yards rushing, in the rout. Denver was out-gained by its opponent in all three of its playoff games, so perhaps the end result against Washington wasn’t all that surprising after all.
7. 1996 New England Patriots
Super Bowl result: Lost 35-21 to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI
Before the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady reign began in New England, the head coach-star quarterback pairing was Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe. However, this Patriots team relied more on defense than offense, as it won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. Bledsoe did throw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns in the regular season, but the defense allowed over 4,000 through the air as well. The defense was much more stout against the run, giving up less than 94 yards rushing per game, but their own ground attack fared even worse (92 ypg).
New England got a major break in the playoffs when Jacksonville upset top-seeded Denver (13-3) at home in the Divisional round. The Patriots then dispatched of the upstart Jaguars 20-6 at home to earn the franchise’s second AFC championship. Even though the offense sputtered against Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI, the Patriots hung around until the Packers scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. Bledsoe threw four interceptions and the Patriots finished with a grand total of 43 yards rushing, as the Packers sealed the deal with MVP Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the latter part of the third quarter.
8. 1986 Denver Broncos
Super Bowl result: Lost 39-20 to New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI
Denver got off to a 6-0 start to the season, but finished just 5-5. Still the Broncos’ 11-5 record was good enough to win the AFC West, thanks to a defense that led the conference in rushing yards allowed. The problem for the Broncos’ offense, however, was that it only generated 27 more yards on the ground than their defense gave up. After getting by New England 22-17 at home in the Divisional round, quarterback John Elway orchestrated “The Drive” late in the fourth quarter in Cleveland to get the Broncos to their second Super Bowl. Unfortunately, this one ended like the franchise’s first big game appearance (versus Dallas in Super Bowl XII in 1978), as the Broncos managed just 52 yards rushing and Elway got sacked four times (one went for a safety) in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
9. 1992 Buffalo Bills
Super Bowl result: Lost 52-17 to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII
This Buffalo team maintained the Bills’ run in the AFC, capturing the East division title with a 11-5 record, powered by the NFL’s top rushing offense and third-ranked scoring offense (23.8 ppg). The defense was average in terms of where it ranked in points allowed, but generally got the job done. A third straight trip to the Super Bowl almost didn’t happen, however, as Buffalo trailed Houston 35-3 early in the third quarter of its Wild Card game. Backup quarterback Frank Reich, filling in for an injured Jim Kelly, orchestrated what became known as “The Comeback” with the Bills pulling out a 41-38 victory in overtime.
Buffalo then easily defeated Pittsburgh and Miami by a combined score of 53-13 to reach their third straight Super Bowl, this time against Dallas. The Bills held a 14-10 lead in the second quarter, only to watch the Cowboys score the next 17 points and pile on 21 more in the fourth quarter. As talented and good as this Dallas team was, Buffalo could ill afford to give them many breaks, which they certainly did. The Bills turned it over a Super Bowl-record nine times, including five fumbles, which led to 35 of the 52 points the Cowboys scored.
10. 2000 New York Giants
Super Bowl result: Lost 34-7 to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV
After losing two games in a row in early November, New York’s record stood at 7-4. Undeterred, head coach Jim Fassel guaranteed that this team would not miss the playoffs. He made good on that promise as the Giants won their last five, albeit just one of those victories came against a team that finished with a winning record, to capture the NFC East title.
Similar to Baltimore, their eventual opponent in the Super Bowl, this Giants team was built around defense. The G-Men held opponents to 15.4 points per game and less than 1,200 yards rushing total (72.3 ypg) during the regular season. This was especially the case in the playoffs, as the Giants yielded a total of 10 points in wins over Philadelphia and Minnesota, including shutting out the Vikings in the NFC Championship game by holding them to 114 total yards and forcing five turnovers.
The problem for the Giants, however, was their offense and this was especially the case in Super Bowl XXXV against the Ravens. Baltimore’s defense, considered one of the best in the history of the game, kept the Giants’ offense scoreless, as their only points in the game came on a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ron Dixon in the third quarter. For the game, the Giants’ offense mustered a total of 152 yards and quarterback Kerry Collins was responsible for four (all INTs) of the Giants’ five turnovers.
One way or the other, history will be made when the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks meet in Super Bowl XLIX this Sunday. Either Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will win their fourth Super Bowl rings, tying for the most among their respective positions, or the Seahawks will become just the eighth franchise in history to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
While Belichick and Brady are obviously critically important to their team’s potential success Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., Seattle has a pretty good head coach and quarterback in its own right, not to mention a very good defense. Here are five reasons why the Seahawks will claim their second straight Lombardi Trophy on Super Sunday:
Defense Wins Championships
It may be a cliché, but it’s one that has worked pretty well for Seattle these past two seasons. The NFL’s No. 1 defense in terms of yards and points allowed in 2013 and ’14, no one has forgotten what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning and the Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl. The highest-scoring offense the game had ever seen, all Denver managed against Seattle’s defense was one touchdown that didn’t come until the final play of the third quarter.
After experiencing a few bumps in the road in the middle of the season, the Seahawks’ defense has found its groove. During the current eight game-winning streak, this unit has allowed 235 yards and less than 10 points per contest. It has been particularly dominant during this stretch in the fourth quarter, yielding just one touchdown and a total of 13 points. New England’s offense has put up 80 points in its two playoff wins, but it’s not like Seattle hasn’t been down this road before.
Marshawn Lynch finished the regular season fourth in rushing with 1,306 yards and tied for first (DeMarco Murray) with 13 touchdowns. New England’s collection of five running backs (Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden) combined for 1,551 yards and 13 scores, albeit with nearly 100 more (376 to 280) carries. Lynch is leading the postseason with 216 yards on 39 attempts (5.5 ypc), including 157 in the NFC Championship Game win over Green Bay.
Every defense knows that slowing down Lynch is priority No. 1, but it’s easier said than done. The Patriots have fared pretty well against the run, giving up just seven rushing touchdowns in 18 games thus far, but they also have had some trouble against some of the league’s better backs. Knowshon Moreno (134 yards rushing), Matt Forté (114), Chris Ivory (107), and Knile Davis (107) all broke the century mark against the Patriots in the regular season with Davis’ teammate Jamaal Charles (92) and Eddie Lacy (98) both coming close. And in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore, Justin Forsett gashed Bill Belichick’s defense for 129 yards on 24 carries (5.4 ypc). In nine career playoff games, Lynch is averaging five yards per carry with eight touchdowns. This includes just 39 yards on the ground (on 15 carries) in last year’s Super Bowl win. You don’t think Lynch wants to “redeem” himself with a big game Sunday and, more importantly, that he won’t get the opportunity (i.e., touches) to try and do so?
Russell Wilson Rebound
If Seattle hadn’t come back and defeated Green Bay in overtime to win the NFC Championship Game, much of the blame would have been pinned on Wilson. His four interceptions against the Packers were the most the three-year starter had thrown in his career (55 starts, including playoffs), while the 44.3 passer rating was his second lowest in a game.
But despite the horrendous start, Wilson rebounded to lead his team to 15 fourth-quarter points, his rushing touchdown getting things started, and then throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse on the first possession of overtime. Statistically speaking, Wilson had never put together a game this bad before, and yet he still won.
Set to become the second-youngest quarterback to start two Super Bowls (eclipsing Tom Brady’s mark), I’m expecting better results from Wilson compared to two weeks ago. Possessing a 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio in the postseason prior to the Green Bay game and based on his showing in last year’s Super Bowl (18-of-25, 206 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 26 yards rushing), Wilson is the least of the Seahawks’ worries headed into their matchup against the Patriots.
As we saw last year, Seattle’s defense ended up being ideally suited to slow down Denver’s prolific, high-octane offense. Not only did the Seahawks have the physical secondary that could match up (and beat up) the Broncos’ pass-catchers, they had a pass rush that could disrupt Peyton Manning’s timing and force him to move him from his spot in the pocket. While the pass rush produced just one sack, Manning was picked off twice and also fumbled the ball when he was brought to the ground.
There’s no reason why this same defensive game plan won’t be as effective against New England. Brady’s not the most mobile of quarterbacks either and teams that can generate consistent pressure (like Miami, Kansas City, Baltimore) have given the Patriots’ offensive line some trouble. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski could be considered the difference-maker, but Seattle seems well suited to match up against him, with guys like All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner and hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor lurking.
On the other side of the ball, I’ve already touched on the challenge that Marshawn Lynch (see above) poses for a sometimes-shaky New England rushing defense and, outside of the NFC title game, the Seahawks generally do a good job protecting the football. The Patriots used five turnovers to help fuel their wins over the Ravens and Colts, while the Seahawks had committed just five in the seven games leading up to the NFC Championship Game.
I’m not saying Bill Belichick and his coaching staff don’t have another trick or two up their sleeves that they will throw at Seattle this Sunday, but when it comes to how the Seahawks appear to match up against the Patriots’’ strengths, I like their chances.
Team of Destiny
To even be in a position to win back-to-back Super Bowls, Seattle had to overcome several obstacles along the way, including a sluggish start to its season and both history and adversity in the playoffs. As is always the case with the team that wins the Super Bowl, no sooner is the Lombardi Trophy in tow then the talk shifts to doing it again. And after sitting at just 3-3 in the middle of October, there was plenty of doubt when it came to the Seahawks’ repeat chances.
But then Pete Carroll’s team went back to the drawing board, got healthy and proceeded to roll off nine wins in its last 10 games to finish the regular season at 12-4, champions of the NFC West and the No. 1 seed for a second straight campaign. A seemingly easy 31-17 win over Carolina in the Divisional Round was anything but, as Seattle became the first defending Super Bowl champion to win a playoff game the following season since New England nine years ago.
Then despite five turnovers and staring at a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit at home against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks not only weathered a wild final four minutes that produced a tie score, they also made the plays necessary to finish their memorable comeback on the first possession of overtime.
Now all that stands in Seattle’s way of becoming just the eighth franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls is New England, the last team to accomplish this feat (2003, ’04 seasons). History aside, the ties between these two teams goes beyond Super Sunday. Carroll was the Patriots’ head coach from 1997-99. He went 27-21 those three seasons, including 1-2 in the playoffs, before he was fired and replaced by none other than Bill Belichick.
This is not the first “revenge” game in Super Bowl history for a head coach (actually it’s the fourth), but with the Seahawks’ repeat hopes at stake, there’s no question how sweet a victory Sunday would be for Carroll. And given how this season has played out for Seattle, I don’t think New England will be able to keep these Seahawks from accomplishing what the Patriots did more than a decade ago.
The 49th edition of the NFL’s annual showcase game, also known as the Super Bowl, will take place this Sunday. From its humble start 48 years ago, the Super Bowl has grown into the most-watched event of the year.
With all of the hype, anticipation and subsequent analysis related to aspects like commercials, the halftime show or alternative programming choices, it’s not hard to lose sight of the game itself. After all the whole reason for having a Super Bowl in the first place is to determine the annual champion of the most popular, and lucrative, sport in America.
Along those lines, here are the most amazing, interesting, intriguing and/or bizarre statistics culled from 48 years of Super Bowl history:
111,500,000: Average audience of Super Bowl XLVIII
FOX’s broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII last February was the most-watched television program in U.S. history, according to the NFL. Even though Seattle beat Denver by 35 points, the average audience of 111.5 million people surpassed the previous mark of 111.3 set during Super Bowl XLVI (New England vs. New York Giants) three years ago. Three of the last four Super Bowls have set average viewership records. You’re up NBC.
$4.5 million: Average cost of a 30-second commercial for Super Bowl XLIX
Considering the viewership records the Super Bowl has set in recent years, it should come as no surprise that the cost of air time has gone up as well. NBC’s going rate for a 30-second spot during its upcoming Super Bowl XLIX broadcast was between $4.4 and $4.5 million, up from FOX’s $4 million price tag the previous year. Consider that for Super Bowl I, which was played in 1967, a 30-second spot cost just $42,000. Then again, more than 110 million people weren’t watching when Green Bay beat Kansas City 48 years ago either.
3,734,938: Combined attendance for all 48 Super Bowls
Despite the threat of some wintry precipitation, a sellout crowd of 82,529 packed MetLife Stadium last February for the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl. That continued the Super Bowl’s sellout streak (all but Super Bowl I) and also pushed the all-time attendance mark past 3.7 million. Weather should not be an issue one way or the other come Sunday. For one, the game is out in Glendale, Ariz., which usually sees temperatures in the high 60s this time of year. Secondly, University of Phoenix Stadium, which hosted 71,101 seven years ago for Super Bowl XLII, has a roof that can be closed if necessary.
6,329: Media credentials issued for Super Bowl XLVIII
As expected, media participation for last year’s Super Bowl was at an all-time high with New York City, the media capital of the world, serving as the backdrop and host city for many of the events surrounding the game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The previous record was 5,156 for Super Bowl XLVI, which took place in Indianapolis in 2012. While it’s unlikely this year’s game in Glendale will draw more media than last year’s, it should still comfortably exceed the 338 credentials that were issued for Super Bowl I.
6: Most Super Bowl starts by a quarterback and appearances by a head coach
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will forever be entwined, so it’s fitting that each lead the way at their respective positions in Super Bowl appearances. Brady’s sixth start breaks a tie with John Elway for the most in history, while Belichick will tie Don Shula with his sixth appearance this Sunday. A win over Seattle also would put Brady and Belichick in select company. Brady would tie Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most wins by a starting quarterback (four), while Belichick would tie Chuck Noll for the most by a head coach.
24-24: Coin toss winners' record in the Super Bowl
For the second year in a row, the Super Bowl winner won the coin toss, but deferred. Following Baltimore’s lead the year before, Seattle won the toss, but elected to give the ball to Denver, the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, to start the game. The Seahawks’ strategy paid off, as the Broncos’ first snap resulted in a safety, setting the tone for what ended up being a 43-8 rout. Seattle is just the fifth team in Super Bowl history to defer, and all of these instances have taken place in the last six years. The Seahawks joined the Ravens and Packers (Super Bowl XLV in 2011) as the only teams to defer and go on to win the Lombardi Trophy.
12 seconds: Quickest score in Super Bowl history
Last year, an errant shotgun snap from Denver center Manny Ramirez to Peyton Manning resulted in a safety for Seattle after Knowshon Moreno covered up the ball and was “tackled” in the end zone. Just 12 seconds into Super Bowl XLVIII, the safety not only gave the Seahawks a 2-0 lead, it also marked the fastest score in the game’s history, surpassing Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return, which took 14 seconds, to open Super Bowl XLI. Coincidentally, Manning played in that Super Bowl too, as his Colts overcame the 7-0 deficit to beat Hester’s Bears 29-17.
59 minutes, 48 seconds: How long Seattle led Super Bowl XLVIII
Thanks to the quickest score in Super Bowl history (see above), the Seahawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Broncos just 12 seconds into the game. A field goal following the free kick staked Seattle to the first-ever 5-0 lead in Super Bowl history and that was all that the Seahawks would need. A 22-0 halftime lead ballooned to 36-0 before Denver finally got on the scoreboard on the final play of the third quarter. By the time Seattle put the finishing touches on the 43-8 rout they had led Super Bowl XLVIII for all but the first 12 seconds, when the game was tied 0-0.
9: Defensive players who have been named Super Bowl MVPs
A 69-yard interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble recovery were enough to earn Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith MVP honors in last year’s Super Bowl. Relatively unknown entering the game, Smith wrote his name into the record books as the ninth defensive player to be named MVP of the biggest game of the year. Not surprisingly, quarterbacks lead the way with 26 of the 49 (Super Bowl XII had co-MVPs) awards, followed by running backs (seven) and wide receivers (six). Smith’s recognition last year broke a three-way tie between linebackers, defensive ends and safeties (2 each) for the most Super Bowl MVPs given to a defender. And while a return specialist (Desmond Howard, Super Bowl XXXI) has been named MVP, the same can’t be said for a tight end, offensive lineman or kicker. You reading this Rob Gronkowski?
36-3: Record of the team with fewer turnovers in the Super Bowl
Just like the score, Seattle dominated Denver in the turnover department, picking Peyton Manning off twice and recovering two fumbles (one by Manning), in the 43-8 rout last year. The Seahawks returned one of the picks for a touchdown and turned two other Bronco miscues into scores as well, which is yet another reason why they tied the record for the third-largest margin of victory in Super Bowl history.
9: Bills’ Super Bowl record for turnovers
While Seattle dominated Denver in the turnover department (4-0) last year, it still pales in comparison to what Dallas did to Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII. The Cowboys crushed the Bills 52-17, as the AFC champs coughed up the ball a record nine times. Strangely enough, Dallas also claims the No. 2 spot for takeaways with eight against Denver in its Super Bowl XII win and forced Baltimore into seven miscues in a losing effort in Super Bowl V. How did the Cowboys lose to the Colts after forcing seven turnovers?
414: Kurt Warner's record for passing yards
The former grocery bagger threw for a Super Bowl-record 414 yards in St. Louis’ win over Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. This included his 73-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce with just over two minutes remaining. Warner also owns the No. 2 passing performance (377 yards for Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII loss to Pittsburgh) and the No. 3 performance (365 yards for St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI loss to New England).
204: Timmy Smith's Super Bowl rushing record
Denver began Super Bowl XXII by taking a 10-0 lead into the second quarter over Washington. But then Doug Williams and Timmy Smith happened. The record 35-point second quarter put the game all but out of reach by halftime. The game was special for a variety of reasons. First, Williams was the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, while Smith became the only player to top 200 yards rushing. He finished with 204 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries as the Redskins set the Super Bowl record for total offense (602 yards). Ironically, Smith ended his NFL career with just 602 yards rushing (21 games).
22.6: Lowest QB rating for a Super Bowl winner
Ben Roethlisberger completed 9-of-21 passes for 123 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XL win over Seattle. It is the worst performance by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But Big Ben can take some solace in this: at 23 years and 340 days old, he’s the youngest quarterback to ever win the big game.
13: Demaryius Thomas’ Super Bowl receptions record
It’s little consolation, but Thomas’ 13 catches in last year’s loss to Seattle set a new receptions record. Thomas’ output, which totaled 118 yards and a touchdown, topped the previous mark of 11, which was shared by four players: Cincinnati’s Dan Ross (Super Bowl XVI), San Francisco's Jerry Rice (XXIII), New England’s Deion Branch (XXXIX) and the Patriots' Wes Welker (XLII). At the time, the record meant more to Rice and Branch than Ross and Welker, as not only did their teams win, but each also took home MVP honors following their 11-catch efforts.
10: Largest comeback in Super Bowl history
Powered by the aforementioned quarterback-running back duo of Doug Williams and Timmy Smith, Washington turned a 10-0 deficit in Super Bowl XXII into a 42-10 rout. It’s the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, a mark that was tied in Super Bowl XLIV. In that game, New Orleans fell behind Indianapolis 10-0 before coming back to win 31-17. The Saints’ comeback also is memorable in that it featured the first onside kick ever attempted before the fourth quarter in a Super Bowl.
7: Fewest rushing yards by a team in a Super Bowl
Seattle held Denver to just 27 yards rushing in its runaway victory last year, yet another example of how dominant the Seahawks’ defense was. As impressive as that statistic is, however, it still doesn’t compare to what Chicago’s defense did in Super Bowl XX. Regarded as one of the best defenses in NFL history, the Bears’ Monsters of the Midway were unstoppable during the 1985 season and the Super Bowl was no different. Led by Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary and the enormous, yet versatile William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Chicago held New England to a record-low seven yards rushing in the 46-10 rout. The Patriots' 123 total yards of offense that game is the second-lowest total in Super Bowl history as well.
3: Fewest points scored in a Super Bowl
The 1971 Miami Dolphins are the only team to ever play in a Super Bowl and not reach the end zone. Miami's 24-3 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl VI still stands as the fewest points scored by a team in the history of the game. The 1974 Minnesota Vikings are the only other team to score fewer than seven points on Super Sunday. In the Vikings' defense, they did reach the end zone — albeit via a defensive touchdown when Terry Brown recovered a Steelers’ fumble in the end zone. But Fred Cox missed the extra point, as the Vikings also set the Super Bowl record for fewest yards of total offense with 119.
1: People to win the Super Bowl as a head coach and player
Tom Flores won two Super Bowls as the head coach of the Raiders and was technically on the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs roster. However, he did not see any time on the field in Kansas City's win against Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears, Eagles and Cowboys, caught two passes for 28 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl VI. He then led the Bears to a win in Super Bowl XX in 1986 to become the only Super Bowl-winning coach who also earned a ring as a player.
0: Super Bowls without at least one field goal attempt
Four times has a Super Bowl featured one combined field goal attempt, but never has a Super Bowl lacked for at least one field goal try. Super Bowl VII, XXIV, XXXIX and XLII each featured just one three-point attempt.
Season-opening foes will reconvene Sunday afternoon with much more on the line when the Green Bay Packers face the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game on FOX. All that stands between the Seahawks (13-4) becoming the first team in 10 seasons to make it to back-to-back Super Bowls are the Packers (13-4), the team they beat 36-16 more than four months ago.
Green Bay is looking for its first Super Bowl berth since winning the Lombardi Trophy four seasons ago and enters having won 12 of its last 14 games. All eyes will be on the health of Aaron Rodgers, the likely MVP who is dealing with a torn calf muscle.
Seattle has won seven games in a row and 10 of its last 11, and also is riding an eight-game home playoff winning streak at CenturyLink Field. The “12th Man” will no doubt be in full force, as the Seahawks hope to get one step closer to become the first repeat Super Bowl champion since New England (2003-04 seasons).
Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawkss
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 18 at 3:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Seattle -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Aaron Rodgers’ Left Calf
May as well get the obvious one out of the way, no? Rodgers’ torn calf muscle is going to take some time to heal completely, so he will continue to be limited by it. However, as we saw last week against Dallas, a “limited” Rodgers is still an extremely dangerous one, as he torched the Cowboys for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Rodgers’ mobility was clearly compromised, as he lost a fumble on a sack and was pretty much relegated to staying in the pocket. However, Dallas only brought Rodgers down twice and was unable to generate any sort of consistent pressure. With plenty of time to scan the field for an open receiver, Rodgers spent most of the second half throwing frozen ropes against a helpless Dallas secondary. A repeat performance figures to be much tougher against Seattle’s defense, which limited Rodgers to just 23-of-33 passing for 189 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. The Seahawks also picked him off once and sacked him three times. The Packers’ offensive line made great strides in pass protection as the season went on, but this unit will have its work cut out for it against the Seahawks’ relentless pass rush. Seattle won’t take anything, even a less-than-100-percent Rodgers, for granted, so it will be interesting to see how the likely MVP fares against the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense (on the road no less) on one good leg.
2. Eddie Lacy vs. Marshawn Lynch
While the head-to-head battle between a pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson will no doubt be fascinating to watch and one of the keys to this game, it’s not the only offensive positional pairing to keep an eye on. Both teams like to run the ball, especially Seattle, and each has a punishing ball carrier in Lacy and Lynch. Seventh and fourth, respectively, in rushing this season, Lacy and Lynch also share one other thing in common – each is hard to bring down. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Lynch and Lacy are first and second in yards after contact over the past two seasons. In the first meeting between their teams, Lynch had the upper hand, finishing with 110 yards rushing and two scores. Lacy meanwhile was limited to 34 yards on 12 carries and had to leave the game early in the fourth quarter due to an apparent concussion. Lacy was back on the field the next week and after hitting a lull in the middle of the season, he appears to have hit his stride. Lacy has averaged 99 yards rushing per game over his last seven contests, including 101 in the Divisional Round win against Dallas. Lynch managed just 59 yards on 14 carries against Carolina, but to be fair the Panthers’ rush defense is much stingier than the Cowboys’ and the Seahawks were pretty much in control of their Divisional Round affair from the start. For this contest, there’s little argument that Lacy has the tougher challenge as it relates to the defenses, but Green Bay still needs production from him given Rodgers’ limited mobility. On the other side, Seattle fans have seen Lynch’s “Beast Mode” in the playoffs before (vs. Saints in 2010 and ’13 seasons) and would no doubt love an excuse to pelt CenturyLink Field with even more Skittles showers Sunday afternoon.
3. Packers’ Pass-Catchers vs. Legion of Boom
As much attention as Aaron Rodgers’ calf is getting, another popular storyline has been the matchup between Green Bay’s wide receivers and Seattle’s secondary. Headlined by three All-Pros, the back end of the Seahawks’ defense is the best in the NFL, while the Packers have one of the more feared one-two punches at wide receiver in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. In the season opener, it’s fair to say the Legion of Boom won the battle, as Rodgers threw for 189 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Nelson and Cobb combined for 15 catches that went for 141 yards and the lone score (Cobb). After the game much was made of the fact that Rodgers didn’t throw a single pass in the direction of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, basically using just one side of the field. Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy have already come out and said that won’t happen this time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Sherman will be busier than usual either. Instead, look for the Packers to move Nelson and Cobb around to get the matchups they want, while rookie Davante Adams will more than likely see most of his snaps lined up on Sherman’s side of the field. Adams came up big last week with a team-high 117 yards and a touchdown against Dallas, but the Cowboys have zero Pro Bowlers in their secondary while the Seahawks have three All-Pros. Thanks to Adams’ emergence as well as the effectiveness of tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers, it’s fair to say Rodgers has more targets at his disposal now than he did in the season opener. However, Seattle’s defense is whole and healthy and still features the best secondary in the league. Even if Rodgers’ calf and the offensive line hold up long enough to give him time to throw, will the results be any different than they were four months ago?
For just the second time ever, a conference championship game pits the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense vs. the top scoring defense (1980 NFC, DAL vs. PHI). There’s no mystery which team fits each bill nor is there any surrounding the overarching storyline headed into this contest. Aaron Rodgers fared pretty well last week with a torn calf muscle, but Dallas’ defense and Seattle’s are two entirely different units. It sounds rather simplistic, but in the classic offense vs. defense matchup, I tend to side with the latter. Especially when that defense is playing at home, is on a pretty good roll and is one win away from getting back to the Super Bowl. And oh yeah, the last postseason game in any round that featured the No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense was none other than the most recent Super Bowl. And we all remember how that game turned out.
Prediction: Seattle 27, Green Bay 19
For the third time in the last four seasons, the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium, as the Indianapolis Colts take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday night on CBS. After knocking off Peyton Manning and Denver, Andrew Luck and the Colts (13-5) are looking for their second straight road upset, while Tom Brady and the Patriots (13-4) are aiming to get back to the Super Bowl after coming up just short the past two seasons.
Coming off of his first career road playoff victory (against the man he replaced in Indianapolis no less), Luck will need to beat another future Hall of Fame quarterback to secure his first Super Bowl berth. Luck is 0-3 in his career against the Patriots, including a 42-20 home loss back in November.
With a win, Brady would earn the right to play in a record-tying sixth Super Bowl, giving him and Bill Belichick a shot at their fourth ring. However, the last time they were in this position, playing in the AFC title game at home; they were unable to get the job done, losing 28-13 to Baltimore two seasons ago.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 18 at 6:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: New England -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Andrew Luck Solve His Patriot Problem?
Luck has already accomplished much in his first three seasons. Although not a Super Bowl winner like 2012 draft classmate Russell Wilson, Luck is a three-time Pro Bowler who has experienced postseason success with the Colts quicker than his predecessor, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Luck is 3-2 in the playoffs in his first three seasons. Manning didn’t get his first playoff victory until his sixth season and it took three more after that before he played in his first Super Bowl. For Luck to get to the Super Bowl it will require his first career victory over New England. Luck is 0-3 against the Patriots, including a 43-22 loss in last season’s Divisional Round. While he’s averaged 322.7 yards passing per game against the Patriots, he’s completed less than 54 percent of his attempts with more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six). Luck is not the first elite quarterback to struggle against Bill Belichick’s team (see Manning), but if he wants to continue to eclipse the man he replaced under center and get Indianapolis back to the Super Bowl, he will need to elevate his play against the team that has ruled the AFC since 2001.
2. Tom Brady’s Conference Championship Game Curse?
The all-time leader in NFL playoff history in yards (6,791) and touchdowns (46), Brady’s postseason resume speaks for itself. He’s 19-8 overall, 13-3 at home and has won three Super Bowls in five appearances. For all of Brady’s success, however, he has not been at his best in the AFC Championship Game. Since the 2006 season, Brady is just 2-3 in these contests, including losses in each of the past two seasons. Beyond the record, however, is the fact that Brady’s numbers haven’t been that impressive. In these five games, he’s thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (five) and his completion percentage of 60.5 is three points below his career rate. Last Saturday, Brady set a personal-best in the postseason with 367 yards passing in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore while the three touchdown passes tied for his second most (shares the record of six with two others). Brady’s status as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play is secure, regardless of what happens in this game. However, if he wants to get another shot at tying Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl rings, Brady needs to put together a better performance than he has in recent conference championship games. After all, there’s a reason the Patriots have played in the last three AFC title games but only made it to one Super Bowl.
3. Will Either Team Gain Much Ground?
New England’s 42-20 win In Indianapolis in November featured a season-high 246 yards rushing. Jonas Gray led the ground assault with 201 yards and franchise-record four touchdowns on 37 carries. The Colts managed a meager 19 yards on 16 carries, as they were forced to play catch up most of the game. Since then, plenty has changed in each team’s backfield. The Patriots brought back LeGarrette Blount after he was released by Pittsburgh, and he has taken over as the No. 1 rusher, while Gray has all but disappeared. Indianapolis also has overhauled its running back rotation, as Dan Herron (Cincinnati’s sixth-round pick in 2012) and undrafted rookie Zurlon Tipton have replaced an ineffective Trent Richardson and injured Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his ankle against New England. While Blount has been solid (4.7 ypc, 3 TDs) in his second stint with the Patriots, the offense has relied less on the run, rushing for a season-low 14 yards in last week’s win over Baltimore. The Colts on the other hand, have made more of a concerted effort to get the ball into Herron’s and Tipton’s hands, as the team has averaged more than 100 yards rushing in each of its playoff victories. So what should we expect Sunday night? The Ravens’ Justin Forsett gashed New England for 129 yards on the ground on 24 carries (5.4 ypc) last week, while Indianapolis held Denver to just 88 yards rushing. Has the edge in the running game swung the Colts’ direction or will the Patriots try to reassert themselves on the ground once again?
Instead of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady XVII, we get Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady IV. While the magnitude of the latter pales in comparison to the former, the stakes for the latest head-to-head meeting between arguably the game’s top young quarterback and one of the best to ever play the position couldn’t be higher. Just like his predecessor, the obstacle that stands between Luck taking the next step in his stardom is none other than the combination of Bill Belichick and Brady. As impressive as the Colts’ postseason run has been thus far, the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium, which is still Belichick and Brady’s domain. Luck gives it his all, but in the end the Patriots have too much on both sides of the ball. New England exorcises some recent playoff demons by finishing the job it had set out to do the past two seasons.
Prediction: New England 30, Indianapolis 20
The NFL’s best road team will face the best home team when the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers get together Sunday afternoon in the NFC Divisional Round on FOX. NFC East champion Dallas was the only team in the league to 8-0 on the road during the regular season, while NFC North champion Green Bay was the only team to go undefeated at home. Jason Garrett’s Cowboys needed a second-half comeback last week at home against Detroit in the Wild Card game to set up this matchup between the No. 2 and 3 seeds.
This will be the first postseason meeting at Lambeau Field between these two storied franchises since the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.” One of the most memorable games in pro football history, Bart Starr rallied his Packers to a 21-17 victory over the Cowboys in a game that was played in minus-13 degrees weather (minus-46 wind chill). Green Bay then went on to defeat AFL champion Oakland 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
It won’t be near that cold Sunday afternoon, as Dallas looks to extend its postseason winning streak over Green Bay to five. The last time these teams played each other in the playoffs was the NFC Championship Game in Dallas back on Jan. 14, 1996. The Cowboys won 38-27 and then beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX to claim their fifth world championship. That’s also the last time Dallas played in the Super Bowl.
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 11 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -5.5
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
It’s no secret that one of the keys to the Cowboys’ success this season has been the running game. Dallas finished second in the NFL in the regular season in rushing offense, thanks in large part to the efforts of DeMarco Murray. The No. 1 rusher by nearly 500 yards, Murray tapered off some in the second half, but still racked up 1,845 yards on the ground and a league-best (tied with Marshawn Lynch) 13 rushing touchdowns. Murray also led the league in carries (392) by a wide margin, as the Cowboys were content to wear down opposing defenses by running the football. This run-heavy approach paid off in another way, as Dallas led the league in time of possession (32:51). Controlling the clock not only helps the offense in that it’s usually an indicator that a team is able to move the ball, it also assists a defense by limiting the number of possessions they are on the field. This is especially important for the Cowboys considering their defense is ranked the worst (19th) in total yards allowed among the remaining playoff teams, and even lower (26th) against the pass. Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, but it remains to seen how it will impact an offense that averaged a league-high 39.8 points per game while going 8-0 at home. Rodgers has been near perfect (25 TDs, 0 INTs, 133.2 passer rating) at Lambeau, so hobbled or not, Dallas’ defense will have its work cut out for it Sunday afternoon. One way to make this task a little easier would be for the Cowboys’ offense to chew up as much clock as possible. After all, the best defense when it comes to slowing down Rodgers and company is to keep them off of the field.
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Allow Rodgers to R-E-L-A-X
Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, so it will be interesting to see how it impacts him Sunday afternoon. Everyone knows that the Packers will only go as far in the playoffs as Rodgers can carry them, but that doesn’t mean he has to do all of the work. If anything, Rodgers’ mobility figures to be limited somewhat, so Dallas will certainly look for ways to get to him in the pocket, even if that means blitzing more than it usually does. To counter this approach, Green Bay’s offensive game plan could focus on short throws and intermediate routes, which would get the ball into the hands of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams as quickly as possible to see if they can’t do some damage in the YAC (yards after catch) department. Another way to take some of the burden off of Rodgers is to let Eddie Lacy and James Starks have their share of touches. Since the Week 9 bye, the ground game has averaged 142 yards per contest. The Cowboys have been more susceptible to the pass (26th in NFL) than the run (8th) this season, but that doesn’t mean the Packers shouldn’t try and give Dallas a taste of its own medicine. If anything, Lacy and Starks figure to be much fresher and healthier than Rodgers, so perhaps it’s time for them to do the heavy lifting. After all, the Packers will definitely need their MVP candidate quarterback at his best next weekend should they get by the Cowboys.
Is this “Ice Bowl II”? Well, it won’t be nearly as cold at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon as it was more than 47 years ago, but this postseason matchup between Dallas and Green Bay is historic for another reason. It’s the first time in NFL playoff history that a team that went 8-0 at home hosts one that was 8-0 on the road. The Packers have been unstoppable at home, averaging nearly 40 points per game, while the Cowboys put up 34.4 points per game on the road. Something has to give and Packer Nation certainly hopes it’s not Aaron Rodgers’ calf muscle. The leading MVP contender may not be at 100 percent, but I still think Green Bay will be able to score enough points on a suspect Dallas defense to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game.