Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NFL Postseason Matchups (Thru Week 12)

If season ended today:
NFC:
#1 Green Bay (Bye)
#2 San Francisco (Bye)
#3 New Orleans vs. #6 Atlanta
#4 Dallas vs. #5 Chicago

AFC:
#1 Houston (Bye)
#2 New England (Bye)
#3 Baltimore vs. #6 Cincinnati
#4 Oakland vs. #5 Pittsburgh

If the NFL Playoffs Started Today (Week 12)

One of the many interesting things about projecting the playoffs is that the teams and match ups change each week. There aren't seismic changes at this point of the season, but the landscape changes just a bit. Another interesting factor will be whether teams that clinch (i.e. the Packers very soon) will rest their players. The Packers won't clinch homefield advantage for a few weeks because the 49ers are just two games behind, but an Aaron Rodgers injury would destroy Green Bay's season.

Speaking of clinching, the 49ers have now clinched at least a share of the NFC West and will have to lose to division opponents to fall below 13-3. This is a gigantic achievement for Jim Harbaugh. I don't know how well the 49ers match up against the Packers. If everything went well, San Francisco would control the ball and keep the score low. A few Packer turnovers would help the 49er cause, but there are a lot of ifs and buts that would need to add up to a 49er win. San Francisco would need to beat either Dallas or Chicago in the divisional round.

The big news in the NFC is that the Falcons have moved past the Lions for the sixth seed. I watched Atlanta's victory over the Vikings and was not very impressed. Minnesota is not a good team and was playing without its best player (Adrian Peterson), but the Falcons hit a terrible second half lull. It looked like a pretty even game. Atlanta has the more favorable schedule, but if they happen to lose I think either Detroit or the Giants will slip past them. In the projected first round, Atlanta would head to New Orleans for the second time in three weeks. The Saints beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in overtime three weeks ago, when coach Mike Smith made the controversial call to go for it on fourth-and-one from his own 29-yard-line. I agreed with the call, even if it does cost the team a home playoff game. In the other Wild Card game, the Bears would travel to Dallas. Chicago won in Arlington last year, but will need to solidify the quarterback slot. Caleb Hanie was inconsistent in his first game, but he has a month to learn on the job. Jay Cutler could also be back, but he will have been on the shelf for six weeks. Dallas has won four straight against non-playoff teams and has needed last second field goals to beat Washington and Miami in the last two weeks.

In the AFC, the top two seeds are in flux. As it currently stands, the quarterback-less Texans are the top seed. Like San Francisco, they are the beneficiary of a weak division and have won five straight. Their game against Atlanta this weekend is intriguing. How quickly can T.J. Yates, a 24-year-old graduate from UNC, get up to speed. The Patriots appear to be the AFC's best team and own the second seed over the Ravens based on a better win percentage in conference games.

The AFC Wild Card games would be the Bengals and Ravens meeting for the third time as well as an old school Raider-Steeler battle. The Ravens beat Cincinnati in Week 11 in a fairly competitive game. The teams also meet again on New Years Day in Week 17. That game may be meaningful, even though the next four weeks for Baltimore include this run: Browns-Colts-Chargers-Browns again. The Ravens should be 12-3 at that point and may be able to rest their starters. The Bengals take on the Steelers next week followed by an important trip to Houston. They then have a two-week NFC West reprieve against the Rams and Cardinals in Weeks 15 and 16.

The Steelers did not look great on Sunday night against the Chiefs. Granted, Arrowhead Stadium is a difficult place to play and Pittsburgh did come through with a hard fought win. In addition to their game against Cincinnati this week, they head to San Francisco in week 15. They also face the Browns twice and the Rams in Week 16 on Christmas Eve. Oakland is going to have to hold off the Tim Tebows in the AFC West. Denver heads to Minnesota this week followed by home games against the Bears and Patriots. Meanwhile, the Raiders travel to Miami and Green Bay in the next two weeks. It is going to be a great race in the AFC West.

This week's top ten players:

1. Aaron Rodgers (1)
2. Drew Brees (2)
3. Tom Brady (3)
4. Ray Rice (4)
5. Arian Foster (6)
6. Frank Gore (7)
7. Ben Roethlisberger (5) - I'm worried about the Steeler offense after what I saw on Sunday.
8. Tony Romo (9)
9. Rob Gronkowski (9)
10. DeMarco Murray (unranked)

Fell out
Rashard Mendenhall (8)

Also considered
Michael Turner
Jimmy Graham
Marques Colston
Michael Bush
Jordy Nelson
Greg Jennings
Darren McFadden
Carson Palmer

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

If the NFL Playoffs Started Today (Week 11)

Let me be the first to welcome the Dallas Cowboys to the playoff field. By virtue of their win over the Redskins, and the Giant loss to the Eagles, Dallas has taken over first place in the surprising mediocre NFC East. I thought the Cowboys were the best team in the division last week, so it makes sense to me that they are now on top. They had to eek out their win over Washington, so I am not terribly confident about they chances. One could double that lack of confidence based on their recent playoff history. We welcome them nevertheless.

As the NFC East champion, the Cowboys would face the slowly sinking Lions in the first round of the NFC playoffs. Detroit reverted to their early season ways in falling behind Carolina before making a furious comeback on Sunday. This is not the pattern that can be repeated for playoff success, although the Lions did use it successfully in Week 4 against Dallas. Jahvid Best needs to return to add some balance to the Detroit offense. As you probably know, the Lions host the Packers on Thanksgiving, which should offer an interesting preview of what Detroit can do against a playoff team. They have been beaten by the last three teams that they faced that were in the playoff race (49ers, Falcons, and Bears). Dallas’ recent run of success has been helped by a healthy Tony Romo and an even healthier running game. DeMarco Murray was averaging more than six yards per carry before the Redskins stacked the line against him. The Cowboy offensive line has gelled nicely. Murray and Romo could be decent Fantasy Postseason picks.

While the other Round 1 match up in the NFC - the Saints hosting the Bears - hasn’t changed, the complexion of the game is completely new. As a Bear fan, I am saddened by the loss of Jay Cutler for the regular season. However, I actually think the Bears will be ok without him. He has proven himself to be a gutty quarterback, but his best asset – his rocket arm – is not used often in the Bear offense because the line is so shaky. After an adjustment period, my guess is that Caleb Hanie will be ok and the Bears still make the playoffs. I still don’t like their match up against the Saints because I think the weaknesses in the line – be they in front of Cutler or Haney – would be magnified again in the Superdome. The Bears would have a better chance against the Falcons, if Atlanta can pass New Orleans. That Week 16 game in New Orleans between the Falcons and Saints could be a key. The Saints still have four home games, including the next two weeks against the Giants and Lions. The Packers and 49ers continue to control the bye seeds in the NFC.

The top two seeds in the AFC fell out of their perches, despite neither one losing this week. The Steelers and Texans were on the late bye, while the Patriots and Ravens moved up via wins over Kansas City and Cincinnati, respectively. The Patriots now control their AFC fate and do not play another team that is currently in the playoffs. Baltimore faces San Francisco on Thanksgiving evening in their last true test prior to the postseason. I wish I received NFL Network just for that game.

Both first round games in the AFC are intriguing based on current standings. The Texans would host the Bengals and the Raiders would host the Steelers. One of my first NFL memories is the Raiders and Steelers facing off in the mid-1970’s. Oakland’s hold on the top spot in the AFC is tenuous as the Tebow-led Broncos have won three in a row, including a game at the Black Hole. The Raiders may be the beneficiary of Caleb Hanie as they get the first crack at the Cutler-less Bears on Sunday. They hit the road for a suddenly difficult game in Miami and then to Green Bay. Now that Pittsburgh has been swept by Baltimore, they are somewhat unlikely to win the AFC North (and how about all four wild card teams coming from northern divisions). They would still be heavily favored in a game against Oakland and have won five of their last six.

Houston is in a similar situation as the Bears. They have a much better running game than Chicago, but their defense is not as stout. They do not have to worry too much about their playoff lives because they hold a two-game and a head-to-head advantage over the Titans. The Texans would face their potential playoff match in Week 14 at Paul Brown Stadium. An Andy Dalton-Matt Leinart playoff pairing would be something to see. As proven in the last two weeks, the Bengals are not as good as the Steelers or Ravens, but they are likely better than the wild card teams that they hold a one-game edge on (Broncos, Titans, Jets, and Bills). The Bengals will have to take care of business against the Browns, and later the Rams and Cardinals because they face the Steelers and Ravens again and will be hard pressed to get to ten wins. My guess is the Jets pose the biggest threat to the sixth seed in the East. They face six non-playoff teams down the stretch.

Here are my top ten players for the playoffs. Last week’s ranking in parentheses:
1. Aaron Rodgers (1)
2. Drew Brees (3) – I like the Saints to beat the Bears more now.
3. Tom Brady (2)
4. Ray Rice (6) – he is the Raven offense
5. Ben Roethlisberger (5)
6. Arian Foster (4) – a game against the Bengals front seven worries me
7. Frank Gore (7)
8. Rashard Mendenhall (8)
9. Tony Romo (unranked)
10. Rob Gronkowski (unranked)

Fell out
Matt Forte (9)
Calvin Johnson (10)

Also considered
DeMarco Murray
Jordy Nelson
Jimmy Graham
Darren McFadden

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

If the NFL Playoffs Started Today (Week 10)

Let me know if this sounds familiar: you are grinding out another fantasy football season. Your team is in the middle of the pack and you are going to need a miracle (such as Matt Leinart playing like he was back at USC) to win your league. You can start looking forward to next season, you can concentrate on your fantasy basketball team (or maybe not), or you can do what I am doing: looking forward to the playoffs. It helps if your team of choice is in the battle for the playoffs. If you are a Dolphin or Colt fan (sorry Miami and Indianapolis), your season will end in seven weeks. It’s time to look at the fantasy postseason playoffs. It’s never too early to start. As such, each Tuesday I’ll check in with the current playoff standings, the potential match ups, and a quick list of top players for your draft.

As things stand after ten weeks (and most teams playing nine games), we have Green Bay and San Francisco looking at byes in the NFC, and Houston and Pittsburgh with the best records in the AFC. Unless the aforementioned Leinart is better than his first six years in the NFL, the Texans seem likely to fall without Matt Schaub. Houston has a bye next week, but only one other team on the schedule (Cincinnati) that is currently in the playoffs. The Falcons and Titans may also give Houston some competition, but Jacksonville, Carolina, and Indianapolis are also on the slate. Maybe they can hold up. I watched the 49ers over the weekend against the Giants and don’t really think they’ll do much damage in the playoffs. San Francisco should still get a bye because of their horrible division rivals, but they are working with a below average quarterback. They will be tested by Baltimore on Thanksgiving and the Steelers in Week 15. Can the Packers go undefeated? They have road games against the Lions and Giants, but both of those teams are deeply flawed and probably can’t take advantage of the Green Bay defense. A Christmas date with the Bears could be a problem. I’d love it if my team were to play the Grinch.

The current wildcard match ups in AFC are the Patriots as the AFC East champion against the Bengals and the Raiders and Ravens. If Chad Ochocinco was still in the NFL, he’d be the focus of the first game. What? He still is playing? With only 11 receptions in nine games, you’ll forgive me for thinking Ochocinco was simply a reality TV person. It would be an interesting game. The Bengals have already won four games on the road and may be able to move the ball on the Patriot defense. New England lost in their first playoff game against the Jets last season, but Tom Brady would still be an early draft pick in Fantasy Postseason leagues. The Ravens would be heavy favorites despite playing at Oakland (and losing to the Seahawks this past week). Oakland would likely have Darren McFadden back and I could see them upsetting the Ravens. I think McFadden would be a nice sleeper pick, although Ray Rice, Arian Foster, and Rashard Mendenhall would all be chosen ahead of him.

In the NFC, the Saints would host the Bears for the second time this season and the Giants and Lions would face off. In Week 2, the Saint defense made mincemeat of the poor Bear offensive line. Jay Cutler was sacked six times and looked very frustrated. The Bear line has improved since then, but the Saints are tough to beat at home. I am not impressed by the Giants. They have a signature win over the Patriots, but the rest of their wins have been over the dregs of the league (and they lost to the Seahawks and Redskins at home). I wouldn’t be shocked if the Cowboys win the division. The bloom is also off the rose for the Lions who have lost three of their last four. Maybe Jim Harbaugh took their soul with his heavy-handed backslap. The Lions get the Packers twice as well as a game at the Superdome, so they could also fall out of the playoffs. Maybe the Falcons could still take their spot. If matched up against the Giants, I still think the Lions would win.

Here is my prospective top ten draft picks:

1. Aaron Rodgers

2. Tom Brady

3. Drew Brees

4. Arian Foster

5. Ben Roethlisberger

6. Ray Rice

7. Frank Gore

8. Rashard Mendenhall

9. Matt Forte

10. Calvin Johnson