December 19, 2013

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Predicting 2013 NFL Award Winners

By: Matt Bowen

With the playoffs three short weeks away let’s have some fun and predict the 2013 NFL award winners. While the season is still in the balance for plenty of teams, let’s be bold and take an educated guess. The final two weeks may sway some votes, but we have a good idea of how things will pan out. One thing is for certain, the NFL definitely didn’t disappoint this season—the final two weeks along with the playoffs will be as exciting as ever.

Keep these players in mind when the awards are doled out at the end of the season.

Coach of the Year

This is a tight race, but there’s clearly one winner.

There were eight head coaching changes heading into this season, and it can be easily argued that every new coach met or exceeded their expectations. Last year the following eight teams won a combined 41 games—headed into Week 16 this year these teams have a combined 56 wins.

The Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers all got new head coaches in 2013.

Hats off to all the men in charge, but the award goes to Andy Reid in Kansas City. The Chiefs were a dark horse Super Bowl team in 2012 before the won only two games and earned the No. 1 pick in the draft. This year Reid has tapped into their talent and the Chiefs currently have 11 wins. They may not win their division but a playoff appearance in a given. The Chiefs are explosive and a blast to watch.

Defensive Player of the Year

Defensive studs are often put on the back burner because they don’t score touchdowns. Not here, the men in the trenches get the acknowledgement they deserve.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint who is precisely the best defensive player, it’s not hard to find an answer. Many men are worthy of the award, but the Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis takes the prize. His 16.5 sacks currently lead the league, and the Colts are once again going to make the playoffs.

What’s most remarkable about Mathis is his age—at 32 Mathis is an “old man” amongst the league’s new hybrid athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Still, Mathis is the best at his craft and a great leader on a rather young Colts defense. Cheers to you, Mr. Mathis.

Breakout Player of the Year

This award goes to the guy who doesn’t have a chance at 2013 NFL MVP, but his breakout season may earn him the grand award in the near future.

The argument can be made for both of these players but in the end only one can win. Both of these guys are receivers who have made tremendous strides toward stardom this season. The deciding factor ultimately comes down to team wins.

Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns currently leads the league is receiving yards with 1,467 and also has nine touchdowns. He has quickly become one of the most dangerous men in the game. If the Browns ever find a quarterback and running game Gordon may make a run a 2,000 yards in a single season. Right now, his team only has four wins. He’s 22 years old and has all the talent in the world. He’s had a troubled past, but should he leave his problems behind him the sky is the limit.

In the end, the 2013 Breakout Player of the Year goes to Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears. The Bears currently lead the NFC North and control their own fate in terms of a playoff berth.

Jeffery is currently seventh in the league in receiving yards with 1,265. He has seven touchdowns and 80 catches. He’s the perfect complement to teammate Brandon Marshall and has hands like magnets.  Jeffery is only 23 years old and appears to be a Windy City staple for the next decade. Because of Jeffery the Bears are multi-dimensional and have a chance at a deep Super Bowl run. All he does is make highlight reels.

Rookie of the Year

Let’s be honest—today’s NFL is not made for rookies. There’s a steep learning curve that takes many highly touted prospects and puts them in their place—the bench. Last year may have been an exception due to the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson but reality has struck once again in 2013.

To be a standout rookie in the NFL you have to be something special. Right now, only three guys come to mind the rookie debate pops up. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon deserves mention—the Bucs were terrible before he earned the starting job. Being a rookie quarterback isn’t easy, especially when you don’t start the season as the No. 1. The Bucs started 0-8 but have since won 4-of-6. For that they have hope for the future. Give the NC State alum a full offseason as the main man, and positive results will come.

Zac Stacy of the St. Louis Rams has been a bright spot in an up-and-down season for the franchise. The team was searching for a running back to win the job for weeks and found one in Stacy. The rookie from Vanderbilt has 854 yards on 202 carries and six touchdowns. He’s a real bruiser and looks like he’s made a name for himself in the NFL. Considering he only had one carry before October, Stacy has been a welcomed surprise. Because of him, the Rams will be a sleeper in 2014. He’s a real workhorse.

Look no further than Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers for NFL Rookie of the Year. The rookie out of Alabama looks like this generation’s Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks. Lacy has 248 carries for 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns. Right now the Green Bay Packers control their own destiny and when quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns from injury they’ll become the most feared offense in the NFC. Lacy makes them dangerous, the kid is a juggernaut.

MVP

So, who’s the NFL’s most valuable player this season? Let’s keep this short and sweet for there will be much debate to come.

Nick Foles deserves a mention for his work turning around the once underachieving Philadelphia Eagles.

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are always in the conversation as they should be. Manning will end up breaking the all-time touchdown record in a season of 50 set by Mr. Brady, he currently has 47 but is he the hands down MVP? No.

Outside the quarterback position, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is the most dangerous player in the game. He’s can’t be guarded—his physical stature is not really fair to his opponents—but even he missed the top spot.

Heck, even Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker deserves a vote—all that guy does is split the uprights.

This year’s NFL MVP is Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

Correct, Wilson only has 3,077 passing yards, which ranks him No. 17 in the league. But it’s not his arm that is most valuable, it’s his mentality. He’s thrown 24 touchdowns, eight interceptions, completed 64.7 percent of his throws and has run for 508 yards on 89 rushes.

He doesn’t make many mistakes and only runs when it’s the right choice. His team is currently 12-2 and lethal at home. Right now the Seahawks seem a lock for the Super Bowl.

He’s special.

So special that the Texas Rangers drafted him in the recent Rule 5 MLB draft—he hasn’t played baseball in some time yet everybody wants a piece of Russell Wilson. He can seemingly do no wrong.

He’s got a million dollar smile and is priceless on the field. Wilson for MVP—no doubt.

November 27, 2013

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2013 NFL Q4 Must-See Games

By: Matt Bowen

The 2013 NFL season is nearing a close but there are plenty of questions yet to be answered. This year more than ever it seems that every game is a coin flip. Right now there are literally 26 teams still in playoff contention. This is great—every game from here on out will be a nail-biter. Here’s a list of the most crucial games during the final quarter of the season. Remember, each week will contain three categories; the heavyweight bout, the divisional battle and the hidden gem.

Week 13

The Heavyweight Bout: New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks

Games don’t get bigger than this one. A potential NFC Championship Game in the making, both teams have a statement to make. Nothing like ending a holiday weekend with a cherry on top, Monday Night Football is not to be missed—Drew Brees and Russell Wilson will have their teams primed for a battle. Find time for this one.

The Divisional Battle: Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

NFL fans can thank the Detroit Lions for this Thanksgiving tradition. The Lions provided football on Thursday before football was on Thursday. Hooray! Hey, there’s nothing like spending family time together watching the Lions and Green Bay Packers pummel one another. Here’s some added fuel to the fire—first place in the division is on the line. The Lions currently hold the top spot but the Packers want it badly. Another added bonus, we get to watch Calvin Johnson—who doesn’t like to watch greatness?

The Hidden Gem: Arizona Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Eagles

These teams are both surprises this year and playing their best ball of the season right now. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer just may be the hottest in the league. He’s thrown for 733 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions the last two games. The Cardinals have also won four straight games.

The Philadelphia Eagles, led by the NFL’s leading rusher through Week 12 LeSean McCoy are also sizzling. Winners of three straight and coming off their bye week, there’s no time to lose momentum now.

Neither team will give an inch. Expect plenty of offense. Give this one a go.

Week 14

The Heavyweight Bout: Seattle Seahawks vs. San Francisco 49ers

Few words need to describe this matchup between bitter divisional rivals. Remember when the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the San Francisco 49ers at home in Week 2, 29-3?

The Niners do too, expect them to exact revenge.

The Divisional Battle: Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints

Winners of seven straight, the Carolina Panthers are the hottest team in the league right now. The NFL is far from easy and the Panthers will travel to the Big Easy in Week 14. This is to prove that they’re the best team in their division.

The New Orleans Saints don’t plan on relinquishing their A1 status anytime soon.

Cam Newton is living up to the hype—his counterpart Drew Brees is the standard. Jaw-dropping action will occur.

The Hidden Gem: Indianapolis Colts vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Out of all the true Super Bowl contenders in the league, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals may have the most questions surrounding them.

One week they look like outright champs, the next it looks like they don’t belong.

Quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton have to find a way. The winner of this one will gain the confidence it takes to go all the way. They’ll also do some convincing.

This is a true make-or-break game for both sides.

Week 15

The Heavyweight Bout: Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys

Two iconic franchises, two franchise quarterbacks, playoffs lives on the line—this game has all the elements to be a classic.

Aaron Rodgers will have returned from injury and Tony Romo will be psyched to make a run for the coveted Lombardi trophy. These two guys may just combine for 800 passing yards.

Fun, fun, fun—please pay attention to this one.

The Divisional Battle: San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos

Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning on Thursday Night Football is a great start to Week 15. The San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos have something to fight for as the Chargers are only 5-6 heading into Thanksgiving, but have a real punchers chance. Rivers has never performed so well and the Chargers are electric on offense.

Manning and the Broncos need little introduction, they’re the real deal.

The Hidden Gem: New York Jets vs. Carolina Panthers

Believe it or not, the New York Jets are currently in the playoff hunt. Yes, even at 4-7 they have a shot. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith has had his ups and downs, but the future is promising for him and the Jets.

The weak spot the Jets have this season is playing on the road. If they’re to make the postseason, they’ll have to head into Carolina and win. The Panthers defense, led by Luke Kuechley is one of the best in the league; don’t think they’ll let a rookie show them up.

Considering what’s at stake, this will be a good one.

Week 16

The Heavyweight Bout: Chicago Bears vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The Chicago Bears are currently in a dogfight for the NFC North with the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. The Eagles are in the same situation in the NFC East with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Both teams are currently 6-5 and not in the playoffs. Considering their divisions will be on the line, neither team can afford to lose. This game has smash-mouth football written all over it. Last team with the ball wins.

The Divisional Battle: New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers

See Week 14—the loser of that game will want redemption. The winner will want to claim NFC South supremacy.

Scary thing is they may meet again in the playoffs. Awesome.

The Hidden Gem: New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens

Hey, the champs haven’t thrown in the towel quite yet. The Baltimore Ravens still have a pulse and are picking up steam down the stretch. Don’t cross-off Joe Flacco and Ray Rice because after all, they’re stars.

If they are to truly be playoff contenders, they’ll have to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. For them, it’s business as usual. They have yet to be their best and are still 8-3. That fact is downright frightening.

The Ravens must let it be known that they will defend what is rightfully theirs. A win in Week 16 will do just that.

If you think Week 17 was forgotten, think again. Sit tight, for it’ll have its own article. 16 divisional games—Wow!

Then, we’ll talk about playoffs.

December 19, 2012

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Why the NFC East is the Best Division in All of Sports

By: Matt Bowen

Excitement and suspense fills our NFL imagination’s as the 2012 season once again comes down to the wire. With so much at stake during the final two weeks across the league, the tightest playoff race belongs to the tumultuous NFC East.

Last season, the NFC East winner was decided in a Week 17 matchup between the Cowboys and Giants.

Every sports fan, whether they like it or not, knows the NFL is No. 1 when it comes to media coverage and generated revenue. At the top of the food chain is the NFC East, a division that holds four of the most popular teams in all of sports. It may seem odd that the Dallas Cowboys belong to a division with three east coast teams, but the Cowboys are larger than life—a smaller media market simply wouldn’t suffice for Dallas. Joining the biggest thing in Texas are the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.

Like last season, this year will be decided in Week 17. The Cowboys and Giants met in 2011’s final week for a winner-take-all showdown which crowned the victor the divisional champion and granted them a ticket to the playoffs. History tells the rest of the story as the Giants took the game and eventually the Super Bowl.

This season has been no different as the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants all have an 8-6 record heading into Week 16. The Eagles may be out of the running, but Philly fans are as faithless as they come. At the moment, the Redskins are on top, but there’s plenty of football left to be played.

Heading into this season, the defending Super Bowl champion Giants were the runaway favorite, the Cowboys were in a must-win situation and the Redskins weren’t expected to win the division, but were optimistic thanks to the acquisition of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Now, the Giants are coming off a 34-0 drubbing by the Atlanta Falcons, the Cowboys have won 5-of-6 and the Redskins, led by not one but two rookie quarterbacks(Kirk Cousins being the other) have won five straight and control their own destiny.

Week 16 pits the Redskins against the Eagles, who would like nothing more than to spoil the party. The Cowboys go up against the New Orleans Saints, who are only 6-8, but thanks to quarterback Drew Brees are as dangerous as they come. And finally, the Giants face the Baltimore Ravens, which is a desperate game for both sides.

If both the Redskins and Cowboys win in Week 16, this would set up a virtual win-and-in situation in Week 17.  Nothing screams playoff football like a playoff game in the final week of the regular season. Like last season, every football fan in the world will be glued to their television to see who exactly makes it to the postseason party.

This is why the NFC East is the best division in sports. As much as every sports fan may dislike that this division seems to get all of the attention, they sure do put on a good show. Enjoy the theatrics as sports history unfolds before our very eyes.

July 16, 2012

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Drew Brees Contract Madness Finally Ends

By: Anson Whaley

Sanity was restored when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints reached an agreement on a five-year, $100 million contract this weekend. The entire contract is one of the richest in league history and the $20 million per year is an NFL record. According to ESPN, $60 million of the deal is reported to be guaranteed. If a deal wasn’t reached by Monday afternoon, Brees would have been forced to play for a franchise tender amount of about $16 million this year. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it was expected that Brees wouldn’t show up to camp without a long-term deal.

Drew Brees does a lot for New Orleans both on and off the field.

For the New Orleans Saints, it was a deal they had to make.

Brees is not only the team’s starting quarterback, but he’s one of the best in the NFL. Last year, he shattered Dan Marino’s long-time record of passing yards in a season when he threw for nearly 5,500 yards. Along with his 46 touchdowns, Brees had arguably the best season of all time for a passer. It’s extremely difficult to find star quarterbacks and the Saints simply couldn’t afford to part with perhaps the best one in the entire league.

He’s also not only an immense talent, but he’s a winner. New Orleans has made the playoffs in four of his six seasons and in 2009, Brees did something no one else was ever able to accomplish – lead the Saints to a Super Bowl victory. He saved one of his best performances of the season for that game, passing for 288 yards and a Super Bowl record 32 completions. For his efforts, he was named as the Most Valuable Player.

Maybe just as important, though, is the work Brees has done in the community.

Since he joined the franchise in 2006, Brees has done a considerable amount of charity work in the area and helped New Orleans begin to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina rocked the city the year before. His Brees Dream Foundation has raised millions of dollars to help improve schools and athletic facilities for children. In 2010, Sports Illustrated named him as their Sportsman of the Year for not only leading the Saints to the Super Bowl the previous season, but also for his charity work in the community. Some of his other charitable acts have included appearing in commercials to raise awareness for the oil spill in the gulf, participating in a USO tour, and showing up at numerous community functions throughout his career. For a city with as much devastation as New Orleans has endured, that type of support is invaluable.

Even beyond all of that, there’s another reason the Saints needed to sign him. Facing the loss of head coach Sean Payton this season due to the alleged bounty system the franchise had in place, the team is already going to be at a disadvantage this season. The Saints might be able to get by without Payton on the sidelines, but losing their starting quarterback would be a blow that would likely result in the team missing the playoffs. That not only means a low morale for the team and its fans, but a significant amount of lost revenue for the franchise that makes a considerable amount of extra money by hosting playoff games.

We often scoff at athletes demanding more money than the millions they already receive. And while it’s true that no one really deserves $100 million to play football, in the context of what other players have gotten over the years, it’s difficult to argue that Brees is overpaid. He’s been a model citizen, helped raise millions of dollars for charity, is an excellent player, and led the team to their first ever Super Bowl win.

Hard to ask for much more than that.

February 6, 2012

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2011: The Year of the Quarterback

By: Anson Whaley

With the 2011 NFL season officially over, it’s time to wallow in our misery take a look back at the year. When you think of the top stories from this season, it’s easy to see that this was the year of the quarterback. Comparing players over eras is always a losing battle, but this season proved one thing – this is the most talent-rich time for quarterbacks in the league since the late 1980s when some guys named Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and John Elway were in their prime.

We may even look back someday and, gasp, think this crop was even better. Right now, the NFL has a slew of elite quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning (if he’s able to come back, that is). Then there are guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Michael Vick, Tony Romo, and Philip Rivers, who I’d slot below them. And there are also young guns that look like the next generation: Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton, and even Tim Tebow, to name a few. The bottom line is that this is one of the best eras in the history of the game for passers.

Matthew Stafford could find himself rising up the quarterback rankings as quickly as he has the Lions improving.

Here are some of the key things I’ll remember from this season about the quarterbacks.

Tebow Time – If there’s one thing I’ll remember from this football season in general, it’s probably the way Tim Tebow was a lightning rod for both praise and criticism. I’m hard pressed to remember a football player that was as young as Tebow that was so polarizing. There are better quarterbacks to be sure, but the turnaround experienced by the Broncos was impossible to ignore. And the fact that he was able to not only get Denver to the playoffs, but help them win a game once they got there will only grow the legend. His success this season should buy him at least a little leeway next year if he starts slowly.

The Year of the Pass – So let me get this straight. Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 passing yards stood for nearly 30 years, but in 2012 it was broken by Drew Brees? And Tom Brady? And almost Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning? The fact that a record that lasted this long was broken by two players and approached by two others should tell you everything you need to know about the NFL these days – it’s a passing league … maybe more than it’s ever been.

Peyton’s Injury – It can be difficult to gauge just how valuable a player is until an injury, but we got a glimpse of that this year. How important is Manning to the Colts? The NFL’s new magazine, aptly named NFL Magazine, went as far as declaring him their 2011 Most Valuable Player … despite the fact that he didn’t take a snap all season. Personally, I think that’s going a bit far since by doing that, the magazine snubbed a lot of deserving players. But point taken.

Alex Smith Takes StridesSmith, like Tebow, isn’t an elite quarterback. But after struggling mightily since he was drafted in 2005, he had a career year and was a few special teams gaffes from playing in the Super Bowl. It wasn’t the 3,000+ yards or the 60% completion rate that was all that impressive since he’s approached those numbers before. The reason Smith turned into a serviceable quarterback this year was because he limited his mistakes, throwing only five interceptions all season. Smith may never reach elite status, but if he’s able to continue playing at this same pace, the 49ers should be competitive for several years to come.

These Guys Can Play – It’s often said that it takes a while for rookie quarterbacks to find their footing. While that’s true most of the time, we saw a few first-year players look like seasoned veterans in 2011. Cam Newton had arguably the best rookie year ever for a quarterback, setting records for passing yards and total touchdowns. Meanwhile, Andy Dalton’s 20 touchdown passes were only one fewer than Newton’s and he also led the Bengals to the playoffs. Need an idea of how special the seasons were for both players? It was the first time in NFL history that two rookie quarterbacks were named to the Pro Bowl.

Eli Casts Off Peyton’s Shadow – Eli Manning had already won a Super Bowl, but most still considered him a lesser quarterback behind his brother, Peyton. That will still hold true in the eyes of many, but by winning a second championship, he’s no longer simply known as ‘Peyton’s little brother.’ Eli not only has two titles but is young enough that another one isn’t out of the question.