A Strange Year (continued)

Earlier this month I wrote a post about the NFL. I said it was probable that three rookie quarterbacks would make the playoffs, they did. All three teams will play next sunday. Indy will play Baltimore and Washington will play Seattle. Before I break these games down I would like to discuss why these teams went from the worst teams in their respective divisions to playing in the playoffs this January.

First and foremost we have to look at the big picture of division. The division you play in has a huge impact on how you will be perceived by the odds makers. This is why SEC teams get seeded higher then PAC 10 teams. They play a tougher schedule. As an example, my one major knock on the Patriots over the years is that they play in a horrible division, with the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets. Outside of the two years that the Jets made it to the AFC championship games these teams have been horrible. So the fact that the Patriots have a number one or two seed every year should be expected. They get to beat up on shitty teams for half of their schedule. Of the three teams I will be discussing here I will start with the Washington Redskins because I believe they play in the toughest division of the three.

The Redskins, led by rookie RGIII, had their season come down to the last game. They had to play a divisional game against the Cowboys who had been hot over the last seven weeks. What many predicted to be a close game ended up being a blow the out. Now winning by seven points is not usually considered blowing out but to anyone that watched the game it felt like one. Leading 28 to 3 at the half I am sure the Redskins felt pretty confident. Eventually the Cowboys pulled within a touchdown but it never really felt like it was the Cowboys game to win. All in all this pretty much describes the way the Redskins season went. With a flat out debauchery in Philly and an underwhelming performance by the Giants  the Skins found a way. Even when it looked like Shanahan was throwing in the towel halfway through the season I still had a sense that with the way the league has been unfolding over the past few seasons that they had a shot at a wild card. Winning the division was a suprise.  All in all the NFC east has historically been a dark horse provider of good teams and this year has not failed to uphold that mantra. With great performances by Griffin and Morris, leading to the leagues best rushing attack, the core of the team is set for years to come. On the other hand the defense is suspect and I believe they have over achieved for the talent level they have.

The Seattle Seahawks have taken a strange rout to get to where they are today. The drafting of Russell Wilson will probably go down as one of the best choices they have ever made. They had to battle teams like 49er’s all season. The NFC west is a defensive division. The only reason the Cardinals weren’t a laughing stock again is because they had a good defense. The Rams have been a mess since they lost Kurt Warner and I believe Sam Bradford will never take them anywhere. I think the 49er’s are still a year or two away from being Super Bowl Champs. All in all the division itself has been a strange one. It is nice to see that the West coast offensive system is alive and well in Seattle. A strong running game paired with a very Steve Young-esk quarterback in Wilson is beautiful to watch. With an awesome home field record and youthful exuberance the Seahawks are my dark horse pick to win it all this year.

Last but not least we have the Indianapolis Colts. This team is without a doubt the most interesting story of the year. To go from losing one of the all time greats and finishing at the bottom of the league last year to getting a future all time great and grabbing a wildcard birth this year it has been a whirlwind to say the least. Add in the ChuckStrong story and you have a flat out sports mini series. They had to play behind the Houston Texans all year which is a surprise within itself but got to beat up on the horrible Jaguars and Titans all year as well. Luck has been nothing short of spectacular on a team with a lot of young talent and savvy veterans. For years to come his rookie season will be the measuring stick for all other rookies that come into the league.

The second reason these three rookies have come into there own so fast is because of the coaching. Say what you will about Mike Shanahan, Pete Carroll, and Chuck Pagano, but at the very least these guys have balls, great big brass ones. To walk into three franchises that were in disarray, to start rookie quarterbacks, and throw in beating cancer and you have three awesome head coaches. I will start with Shanahan because he is the most renowned of the group.

With tons of experience and two Super Bowl rings on his fingers the long benign Redskins were hoping for a quick turn around and have paid him top dollar. After a rough go with Rex Grossman and Donovan McNabb, Shanahan got his golden goose in Robert Griffin the third. Watching him play is one thing, he plays how Mike Vick should have played all these years in the league. He is deft passer and a tenacious runner. On top of that he is a great decision maker proved by the fact he only threw five interceptions all year. Listing to the guy talk is something else. He is eloquent and intelligent and thinks like a winner. You can hear the confidence and poise in every interview. Shanahan is an offensive genius and he has been given the ultimate toy. The fact that they are running the pistol offense in the pros is something that no other team can do outside of maybe Seattle. This makes preparing for them a difficult task. Add the fact that Shanahan crafts his game plan as the game unfolds makes them nearly unstoppable. These two guys have a long successful career ahead of them.

Pete Carroll has long been seen as a joke by many people. His temperament is perfectly suited for the college atmosphere. If a Rah-Rah “We can do it” coach ever was it is Pete Carroll. So the upper management did the right thing and gave him a college team. Young, athletic, and hungry these guys are perfectly suited to the system Carroll runs, West Coast Offense. Marshawn Lynch is a beast. He runs like a wrecking ball  with feet like a dancer. I would argue he is the second best running back in the league behind Peterson. The guy hurts you. Wilson is a lot like RGIII, a little undersized but with a huge heart. He can make any throw and has more touchdowns than Luck and Griffin. He can also hurt you with his feet. The offense is centered around their combined ability to run the clock, control the pace, and not make mistakes. Throw in a couple of big plays at the right time and you have a recipe for success. Carroll holds it all together with a system that knows exactly where to go next. He doesn’t craft his game plan like Shanahan, he doesn’t let the quarterback run the show like Pagano, he runs a balanced attack and he does it well. They trust their defense but don’t rely on them. They have faith in their quarterback but don’t ask him to do to much. Any they pound the rock but use it to set up other things and control the tempo. The synergy the runs from top to bottom is what makes the machine run. Oh, and a little Hail Mary pass against the Packers, fouled up by the replacement refs does’t hurt them either. So fate seems to be on their side.

Chuck Pagano beat cancer this year, he has coached a team with a record setting rookie quarterback, and now sits in the playoffs looking like a demigod. There is something to be said here for what role emotions play in sports. I am not saying that had Pagano been healthy that the season wouldn’t of played out this way. What I am saying is that when players, human beings, feel like they are doing something for a higher purpose, bigger than themselves, that it has a significant impact. The Colts got a double dose of this with Pagano  overcoming cancer and the acquisition of Andrew Luck. The two other quarterbacks in this article are tremendous. Both are extremely talented and will have long successful future in this league. But Luck stands above them both. Watching this guy play is not like watching a rookie play. In the past few seasons where we have seen rookies light it up but this kid is playing like a veteran. I am routinely stunned by the plays he makes. Physical plays, logical plays, smart reads, down right lucky plays (no pun intended) this guy has them. It is hard to quantify the impact Chuck Pagano has had collectively on this team but I think it is fair to say the effect on Luck has been paramount. It reminds me of a young son taking over the family business when the dad is sick. With selfless admiration and ample talent Luck has surpassed the loftiest of expectations with a dark cloud looming. This teams has an immeasurable quality that cannot be undervalued. With key veterans that had to endure the pain of last years season, with a coach ready to defy any odds, and a rookie quarterback already printing his name in the history books they look posed to win it all. They also have the toughest road to do so. First they face Baltimore who beats you up, then Denver which story line is to rich to elaborate on, then finally in all likely hood they will play New England in the AFC championship. If they can beat those odds I think we will see Seattle and Indy in the Super Bowl and that is anyones game.

So I haven’t broken down the games yet and I think I will save that until tomorrow because I am already over seventeen hundred words here. But the short answer goes like this.

In the AFC, Baltimore beats Indy, and Houston beats Cincinnati in the wild card round. Then Denver beats Baltimore and New England beats Houston. This leaves us with New England and Denver in the AFC Championship and I think Denver takes that. Peyton beats Brady at Mile High stadium. I like the sound of that. I have always been a huge Peyton fan and I have always hated Brady so I am a little bias here, but I think Denver has a better team and home field will play a role.

In the NFC I have Seattle beating Washington and the Vikings upset the Packers. In the second round I take the Seahawks to beat the Falcons and the Niners will stifle Minnesota. Leaving the 49’s playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship. These teams are virtually carbon copies of each other and although I am a big Harbaugh guy I think that the stage will be to big for Kaepernick and the Seahawks will win a squeaker.

This leaves Denver and Seattle in the Super Bowl and although I really like Seattle I can”t bet against Peyton. To be honest I haven’t done any research or compared mach ups or anything like that. This is strictly a gut thing. I just think Peyton has been the best player on a less than Championships worthy team for a long time and now he has a defense and running game that got close with Tebow at the helm last year. As high as I am on the Seahawks when it comes down to it I think the better team is going to be Denver.

Next post will be Wild Card break downs and I will tell you why I think these games will end up the way they do. Enjoy the games.

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