My prediction concerning worst to first was spot-on. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually fell to earning the first draft pick. The Raiders, LPIPOPRH (Washington), Browns and the Rams all held their bottom position, though in fairness to Jeff Fisher and his St. Louis squad, they beat impressive teams they were absolutely supposed to lose to. Of those teams, the Raiders seem to have the strongest foundations for building into the future, with Derek Carr and Kahlil Mack. Based solely on what we saw in 2014, the Rams could well be the most currently improved of all these teams this year, and could climb into playoff contention next year, save that they play in the toughest division in the NFL. The Bills and the Texans were the obviously most improved teams, both of them posting 9-7 winning records and were actually in playoff contention as late as week 16 (17 for the Texans). The worst team from last year I am most excited to watch into the future, however, are the Minnesota Vikings. Teddy Bridgewater has shown exceptional skills moving forward. Add his poise to a strong running game (Adrian Peterson, backed by Asiata, maybe) and include an offensive line, and the Vikings could be playoff contenders for years to come.
My divisional picks were frankly much better than usual. I called 4 divisions top to bottom, the AFC West, East, and North, as well as the NFC West. I missed on the AFC South only because I expected the Titans to be able to defeat the Jaguars. My picks for the NFC East and NFC South were a complete mess, based on the 3 biggest surprises of the NFL regular season. 3) That the NFC South would have *no* teams over .500. What happened to that Saints defense? 2) The 'slowing' of Chip Kelly's Eagles and 1) The Dallas Cowboys defense. Without Sean Lee and DeMarcus Ware, I expected them to be the worst unit in the NFC. I stand corrected. As for my game picks this is the final tally:
Last Weeks games: 12 -4, 75%, Overall: 174 - 82, 68%
I proudly state that's still better than all but 4 of ESPN's resident experts, but sadly still 2 picks behind the power of the readership hive mind. Well, there is always next year ...
Arizona Cardinals (5) at Carolina Panthers (4)
I refuse to rant, again, about losing teams hosting playoff games, in part because the Panthers we've seen for the past several weeks have shown that they can compete in January. Cam Newton has shown his super-quality with excellent decisions and a willingness to make the plays he has to make. The beat-down they put on Atlanta, in Atlanta, week 17 was nothing short of impressive. The defense is back to what we saw at the end of last season. Still, Bruce Arians is a top level contender for coach of the year, in part because he got the Cardinals to the playoffs with a third string quarterback, and Lindley is a woeful one at that. With a 47% completion rate, it's difficult to think that Larry Fitzgerald will have a championship caliber day, given Ryan Lindley under center. The strength of the Cardinals in this playoff run is their defense, and with that, many if not most are calling for a low scoring game. I'm not convinced of that at all, because Cam Newton creates his own X-factors, both good and bad. Arizona has an outstanding turnover ratio, and Cam can lose the ball. Or not.
Arizona - 13, Carolina - 27
Detroit Lions (6) at Dallas Cowboys (3)
So, Suh whined to the union and the union got him reinstated for the game on Sunday. It likely won't matter with Fairley questionable. The best offensive line in football will make holes for DeMarco Murray, even against the best defensive front in football. Simply put, Dallas has faced the very best and most ferocious this season and gutted through the challenge for wins. The Lions will not intimidate them this weekend. Though Megatron remains the best receiver in the game, and Golden Tate has given Stafford an elite alterante go-to, the Lions offense still has looked poor for several weeks now. Stafford has faced pressure, and his throws lack more accuracy than usual. If (when) the Cowboys take control of the line of scrimmage and the clock, then Stafford doesn't appear capable right now of winninga shootout against Murray, Bryant and Romo.
Detroit - 16, Dallas -31
Baltimore Ravens (6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3)
This is the classic matchup of the new century, two blue collar teams who rely on aggressive defense and quick strike offense. And, frankly, these teams just don't like each other. In the NFL there are certain teams that seem to escalate their play to championship level once they reach the playoffs. Both the Steelers and the Ravens have proven themselves among those, both having won Super Bowls by taking the hard road. With LeVeaon Bell, the Steelers should have the home field strength to move on, but they won't have LeVeon Bell. Since Baltimore has a very weak secondary, expect the Ravens to tee off on Big Ben before he can create a rythym with Brown or any receiver. That of course, could back fire as Roeslethberger is one of the slipperiest QBs out there. The true wild card in this game is Joe Flacco. He has proven time and again that he can target the long ball with the best, and having Steve Smith III has only emboldened him in that. Scoring quickly will not likely win this game, however, if the key is to keep the second best passing offense in football on the sidelines. That means the Ravens will have to pound the ground with Forsett, and the Steelers are better at stopping the run than the pass.
Baltimore 21, Pittsburgh - 27
Cincinnati Bengals (5) at Indianapolis Colts (4)
This is actually the hardest of the games to pick. Andrew Luck defies all prediction, pulling gains out of nowhere with scrambling and odd-looking throws to Hilton and Wayne. When the offense is on, it's terrific, but it hasn't been 'on' since losing the running attack 6 weeks back when Bradshaw went down. The Colts offense has been adequate, and I don't see that adequate gets things done against the Bengals defense. Cinci, on the other hand, does have a running game with Jeremy Hill. He's run for almost 400 yards in the last three weeks, including over 100 against the Broncos excellent run defense. Of course, we're all thinking the same thing, The Bengals, Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton can't win the big game in the playoffs. That's mostly come from Dalton's mistakes, and Hill mitigates those. AJ Green may not be avaliable which is good for Cinci, as most of Andy's errors seem to be forccing Green the ball. Relying on a heavy dose of the run game keeps Luck in check, and gives the Benagls a legitamate shot at moving on.
Cincinnati - 24, Indianapolis - 19