By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Now that we’ve reached the final month of the season, let’s do a little fortune telling. The real scuttlebutt regarding postseason awards is underway so it’s time to throw in a couple more cents. The following predictions are for recreational purposes only.
MVP: Tom Brady, Patriots – Nine wins in 11 games despite a major personnel change on offense and the overall scheme thus changing dramatically over the course of the team’s Week 5 bye. Add to that 66 percent completions, 2,703 yards, 23 TDs against just four picks, one of which came on a Hail Mary and none of which have occurred since Week 6, and it’s pretty obvious. As great as Brady was in his other MVP year of 2007, he’s even better this year, especially considering how little assistance he’s gotten from his defense..
Offensive Player of the Year: Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers is on pace to pass for 4,890 yards, just over 200 short of Dan Marino’s all-time record for a season. He’s been magnificent this year, shrugging off an injury to his favorite target Antonio Gates and the ugly contract dispute that kept his other favorite guy, Vincent Jackson, out until this past week by throwing for huge yards and a ton of scores to immortals like Legadu Naanee and Seyi Ajirotutu. Last week against the Colts was his first game of the year without a TD pass; the two weeks prior, he had eight. The reason Rivers won’t win MVP is because the Chargers sucked for the season’s first two months as they always do, and are only now getting in gear. It will be hard to keep away from this award, though.
Defensive Player of the Year: Clay Matthews, Packers – After rolling up 8.5 sacks in his first five games, this second year demon linebacker has slowed down a bit, notching just three in his last five. But the impact he made early on and the subsequent fact that he’s the main focus of every opposing offensive coordinator’s game plan when they get ready for the Pack makes him the choice here, just ahead of Chicago’s Julius Peppers.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mike Williams, Bucs – The Bucs are such an amazing story, being 7-4 and in the thick of the playoff hunt despite winning just three games last year and having the youngest roster and coach in the league, someone needs to be recognized. Why not Williams, the rookie receiver out of Syracuse who’s probably been Tampa’s most consistent performer other than QB Josh Freeman. Williams has 45 catches for 701 yards and six TDs, has caught at least four passes in eight of 11 games and has put up 85-plus yards four times. The Bucs still have to play Atlanta and New Orleans again this year and may just miss the postseason thanks to being in the same division as those two powers. But they still make for great copy and Williams is a big reason why.
Defensive Rookie of the Year (tie): Devin McCourty, Patriots; Ndamukong Suh, Lions – McCourty gets major props here for being the only real playmaker on the lousy Pats D and showing signs of being the kind of shutdown corner that can potentially take away an entire side of the field already. Suh, the mammoth defensive tackle out of Nebraska, has eight sacks, scored a TD in a win over Washington on which he literally shooed away Redksins receiver Santana Moss, who was trying to make a tackle, like Moss was a mosquito, and has shown the athletic ability to line up both at end and linebacker in certain situations. Either of these two future stars would make a worthy choice.
Coach of the Year: Todd Haley, Chiefs: See below for more on KC’s great story but as far as Haley is concerned, he’s on the verge of doing something no Chiefs coach has done since Dick Vermeil – make the playoffs. Kansas City had eight wins in its previous three seasons. It has seven this season and will likely win at least three more. Haley has a ton of experienced folks helping out in a major way (again, see below) but someone has to captain the ship and he’s done it in outstanding fashion. Honorable mention to the Bucs Raheem Morris and the Pats Bill Belichick.
Bad Coach of the Year: Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals – It’s not Whisenhunt’s fault the kurt Warner retired. It is his fault that he, a) didn’t have a viable substitute for Warner, and b) allowed the entire rest of the team to completely and totally collapse in Warner’s absence. The Cardinals defense, which was very good two years ago when they got to the Super Bowl and pretty good last year when they won the NFC West and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs, has most of the same guys this year but are atrocious (they made the 49ers offense look like it was 1989 on Monday night). Warner didn’t play defense last I checked. This team is hideous and it’s a miracle they’ve won three games. They look like a college team. That’s on the coach.
Least Valuable Player: Randy Moss, Pats/Vikings/Titans – Three teams, 11 games, 26 catches, 352 yards. If anyone has any suggestions as to a single player whose had less of a positive impact anywhere than Moss has (or hasn’t) had this season, let us know.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. New England: It does kind of feel like the glory years of 2001-2004 around here these days. But it’s hard to truly channel that great era knowing that those teams had defense ranging from good to exceptional. Someone, anyone not named McCourty or Wilfork has got to step up and lead that group and he has to do it soon. Obviously, Monday night’s game is for all the regular season marbles making that seem like a good time to start.
2. New York Jets: Hey, have you heard Rex Ryan this week? I know, that’s a silly question since it’s impossible to ever turn on the TV or a computer without seeing or hearing something that he’s said to call attention to himself. The most recent is that he wants to “kick (Bill) Belichick’s ass.” Not literally, one would hope, but still, what’s the point of saying something so ridiculous? People keep saying this week that Ryan’s way of doing things works just as well as Belichick’s, it’s just vastly different. Really? It works just as well? How many championships has Rex Ryan won? The guy is 18-9 in the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs. As a wise, former Pats (and Giants and Jets and Cowboys) coach once said, “let’s not send him to Canton just yet.”
3. Atlanta: More impressed with the Falcons this week in light of their enormous win over the Packers. They managed three scoring drives of at least 11 plays in that 20-17 victory against a top-flight defense, and my buddy Matt Ryan completed 24 of his 28 passes, including the first 14 he attempted in the second half. Still, it’s going to take a big win on the road to truly convince me they’re for real. Sunday in Tampa is their next shot.
4. New Orleans: The Saints probably should have lost to Dallas on Thanksgiving but the fact that they got a huge play out of their defense (Malcolm Jenkins’ 25-yard chase down of Roy Williams and subsequent robbery of the ball, which by the way may have been the greatest defensive play I’ve seen all year), then went the length of the field to win the game in the closing minutes spoke volumes about where they’re at. Probably safe to say that there isn’t a single team in the NFC that wants to see the defending champs right about now.
5. (tie) Chicago/Baltimore: Break up the Bears. Chicago’s fourth straight win, a not as close as the score might indicate, 31-26 stomping of the Eagles, was not only convincing and playoff-esque, it was by far the best game Jay Cutler has ever played. 14-of-21, 247 yards, four TDs, no picks, no fumbles, no pouting. Could the league’s favorite frat boy finally be figuring it out? As for the Ravens, they keep finding ways to win despite not playing their best, as last week’s 17-10 decision over the Bucs attests. If they beat the Steelers at home on Sunday night, they win the AFC North.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Carolina: How bad is it to be a Panther fan? After watching the horrible Jake Delhomme do for another team what he’d been doing to you for years in last week’s game against Cleveland, which is to say, throw a couple of awful picks and allow the opponent to hang around in a game it probably had no business being in, your kicker, the estimable veteran John Kasay, snap hooks a 42-yard field goal at the final gun that would have netted you your second win of the season. Oh, the humanity.
2. Arizona: If anyone had the misfortune of watching last Monday’s suckfest between the Cardinals and the 49ers, you saw a team that barely looked like it belonged in the UFL let alone the NFL (hint: it wasn’t San Francisco). In addition to making just eight first downs all night, getting carved up by a running back (Brian Westbrook) who hadn’t played all year, making a quarterback (Troy Smith) making his fourth start in four years look like Joe Montana or Steve Young then having to sit back and watch their own QB have an epic, postgame meltdown in front of the media in the aftermath, the Cards racked up a whopping 13 yards rushing. Or, their fewest total since 1953, spanning 845 games. Nauseating.
3. Cincinnati: After the massive display of sucktitude put up by the Bengals on Thanksgiving night against the Jets, I didn’t think it would be possible to see anything worse, at the very least in the same weekend. These guys should call up any buddies the have who play for Arizona and thank them personally.
4. Denver: Never mind that Josh McDaniels has completely blown his first chance at coaching in the NFL pretty much every which way, with all of the recent dredging up of Spygate the latest in a long line of enormous fuck ups on his part (and, if you believe what you read, probably also cost him a chance at coming back here after he gets fired thanks to what he allegedly said about the Pats). Let’s pay attention to the Broncos defense, which is historically awful. They’ve allowed 184 points in their last five games, 95 to the Raiders and Rams (??!!) combined. That, dear readers, isn’t very good.
5. Detroit: The Lions deserve credit for coming out so tough against the Pats and playing really well for a half despite starting their backup QB and tailback. It shouldn’t be too surprising that they got themselves in trouble in the second half and were thus completely swarmed under. If they ever get healthy and stay that way, it will be interesting to see if they can be any good. Some of a foundation seems to be there.
– Sam Bradford, Rams: Another Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate propelled his team to its first road win in over two years last week at Denver. Bradford was 22-of-37 for 308 yards and three TDs with no picks, the first 300-yard game and three score game of his career. He’s averaging 249 yards over his last four games with eight TDs over that stretch and has 11 TDs vs. just one INT with while completing 64 percent of his passes and posting a 94.1 passer rating over his last six. Not too shabby for a rookie and probably the biggest reason the Rams are staring down an unlikely playoff berth.
– Peyton Hillis, Browns: This guy’s dream season kept on rolling last week against the Panthers when he scored three more TDs, giving him 11 on the season. The last two Browns to rush for 11 scores in one year? Leroy Kelly and some dude named Jim Brown. He added 131 yards on 26 rushes (5.0 YPA) in Cleveland’s 24-23 win and now 905 yards on 199 rushes through 11 games.
– The Chargers defense: San Diego is doing it’s usual late season thing thanks in no small part to its great QB, Philip Rivers. But the defense looks outstanding in its own right, especially last week in another win over the Colts. The Chargers had five turnovers and ran back two picks for scores in their 36-14 rout of Indy.
– Peyton Manning, Colts: Sure, there have been some injuries, but Manning doesn’t look himself this season, especially lately. he has seven INTs in his last two games and nine in his last four, three of them losses. If the playoffs started today, the Colts would be out. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King even took Manning out of his weekly Top 5 MVP countdown, surely weeping while doing so. What’s this world coming to, anyway???
– The Titans – Yuck. Tennessee has now lost four straight to wind up in the AFC South basement. No offensive TDs in nine quarters. Nine first downs and just 162 total yards last week against the Texans and their high school defense behind rookie, sixth-round QB Rusty Smith. Jeff Fisher received a hearty defense in this space last week but if he calls many more games like the one against Houston, in which Smith attempted 31 passes while Chris Johnson, only the best back in the NFL, had just seven rushes, he may be the one who has to go.
– Everyone associated with the Steelers who won’t just shut the fuck up: Really, it’s beyond silly at this point. James Harrison continuing to bitch and whine after every illegal hit he makes and the subsequent fine, that the league is out to get him, he’s not doing anything illegal (note to James – yes, you are) and that he’s going to keep playing the same way (another note to James: great idea, now get ready to write some more checks). Coach Mike Tomlin undermining his own credibility and embarrassing himself by actually saying that all of Harrison’s fines might affect his ability to send his kids to college (by the way, Harrison signed a $50 million contract this past off-season). Hines Ward getting into the act with complaints about the league’s greater priorities during which he contradicted himself at least four times in about 10 sentences. It’s really, really boring at this point. Maybe if the Steelers started playing better instead of getting blown out at home by a major rival and needing a minor miracle to beat Buffalo, they’d not feel the need to continue their constant, unending whining.
They may wind up in direct competition with the Pats for a playoff berth somewhere down the road, but even so, it’s hard not to at least sort of root for the Kansas City Chiefs as they continue their out-of-nowhere run toward the postseason from the top of the AFC West. The Pats Midwest affiliate is 7-4 following last weekend’s thrashing of Seattle and have four very winnable games of the five remaining on their schedule and with next week’s battle with the Chargers in San Diego, which may well decide the division, looming.
It’s hard to imagine any of the so-called experts having the Chiefs anywhere near the playoffs this late in the year when all the pre-season picks came out, but thanks to an extremely well-balanced offense and a young, maturing defense, they’ve done just that and former Pats players and staff have their fingerprints all over it. Matt Cassel, who cashed in after a very good year in place of Tom Brady in 2008, looked like he was stealing money last year and even earlier this season. But he’s coming into his own under the tutelage of the guy who had the most input in making Brady great, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Cassel, who threw 16 TDs but had 16 INTs last year, has 18 TDs against just one pick over his last seven games, with a 22/4 ratio for the season. Young running back Jamaal Charles is already over 1,000 yards with 1,021, and has done it on just 161 attempts, which is only 6.3 YPA. And Charles is spelled by veteran bruiser Thomas Jones, who has a tidy 712 yards on 176 carries. No wonder they’re first in rushing offense. They’re also fourth in scoring offense (25.9 PPG) and sixth in total yards (375.2 YPG). Why can’t the Pats get guys like that? And we didn’t even mention receiver Dwayne Bowe, who had a monstrous 13 catches for 170 yards and three scores against the Seahawks. 13 of his 14 TDs have come in the past seven games and he’s on pace to finish the year with 20.
Romeo Crennel runs the defense, which is only allowing 21 PPG, good for 14th in the league. He’s got Mike Vrabel leading the troops and one of his old bosses, Scott Pioli, supplying him with players. Hard to argue with those kinds of pedigrees, eh?. And even though coach Haley never worked in Foxboro, again, he’s probably as good a bet for Coach of the Year as anyone. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the Chiefs will meet up with the Pats some time in January. That scenario would provide the ultimate measuring stick for this exciting, surprising team.