Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Bowl 50: Out with the Old, In with the New

SPOILER ALERT, Stally and I are both taking the Panthers. The season of Cam Newton rolls on, as he just won both the league MVP and the Offensive Player of the Year award.

This is the second year in a row that we get to see the two top teams in the AFC and NFC battle it out in the Super Bowl. This year, we get a historically great defense matched up against the highest scoring offense in the league, highlighted by a revolutionary offense schemed up by Panthers' offensive coordinator Mike Shula. This is strength vs. strength.

Peyton Manning gets his last shot at that elusive second Super Bowl victory. Cam Newton gets to put his MVP skills on display to over 100 million people, instead of being hidden in the small market of Charlotte. Who will win out? Here is how the SOBs see it playing out:

Austen: 

Why the Panthers will win:

While watching the Panthers play, it is hard to find any weakness with this team. They can beat you about 1,000 different ways with the most complex run game in the NFL. They love taking shots down the field with their fast receivers. And Greg Olsen is a game wrecker over the middle of the field and is the best tight end in the league not named Gronkowski. 

There is a lot of focus on the Panthers top-rated offense, but their defense is no slouch either. They have the best and most athletic linebacker corps in the NFL. Defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are a force to be reckoned with in the middle of that defensive line. Oh, and there's this guy Josh Norman who is playing the best football of any cornerback in the league. Not sure if you have heard about him... (Stally: Odell Beckham, Jr. has...)

This is the most complete team the NFL has seen in years. I cannot fathom a way in which the Panthers lose this game. But just for the fun of it:

How the Broncos can pull off the upset:

The only way the Broncos win this game is if Von Miller is the best player on the field today. The combination of DeMarcus Ware and Miller is the Broncos only hope of slowing down the Panthers' offense. If they can keep the run plays from breaking to the outside for chunk yards and make Cam Newton play from inside the pocket, they have a chance. 

Peyton Manning might be a shell of his former self, but he is still capable of making 2-4 game changing plays for this team. If they ask him to do much more than that, they are going to lose. Manning had a great start to the AFC Championship game, but did basically nothing for the rest of the game. He only has about 1-2 quarters worth of slinging the ball around, so they have to make the most of those throws, especially once they get into the red zone. If the Broncos come out kicking field goals, they are going to lose this game. 

The Broncos can only win this game in a tight defensive struggle, and you do not win those types of games without a strong showing from your run game. We all know what we are going to get from Ronnie Hillman (plenty of unspectacular running plays mixed in with one or two splash plays), but CJ Anderson was supposed to be their breakout star at running back this season. While things did not work out that way, a big performance in the Super Bowl could go a long way for this NFL future. If the Broncos are to maintain a lead for any portion of this game, Anderson is going to have to be their battering ram in between the tackles to wear out the Panthers' defense and keep Cam Newton off the field. 

A lot needs to go right for these Broncos, but they definitely have what it takes to knock off the Panthers this week. 

Score Prediction:
Carolina 23, Broncos 13

Stally:

I'll keep it a little shorter because I agree with most of what Austen said.

Why the Panthers will win, because ...

They have the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in Cam Newton, the Coach of the Year (two of the last three years) in Ron Rivera, and a defense highlighted by the likes of Luke Kuechly.

I was a doubter earlier in the season, but the Panthers fully won me over.  They've crushed two teams in the playoffs that I thought were Super Bowl contenders (Seattle and Arizona).  I'd be shocked if Denver was able to punch enough holes in them on either side of the ball to pull off the upset.

But,

The Broncos will pull off the upset, if ...

The defense plays better than it did against New England.  I strongly believe Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in the history of the league.  I don't want to sound like a Patriots apologist with my analysis because Denver's defense played out of its mind against New England, but the Broncos had a favorable matchup to put Brady on the ground.  New England had no one that could run the ball and no one that could block, and Denver dialed up a blitz snap-after-snap that put pressure on Brady ... and that was barely enough to win.

Cam Newton is a different beast.  He can take off running, and he also has a much more solid running back than Brady had (in the form of Jonathan Stewart [great first name]).  It will be much tougher for Denver to knock Newton out of his rhythm, because he's such a big, strong, and mobile player.  If the secondary can lock down the receivers, it could allow the linebackers to stack the box and focus more on containing Stewart and pressuring Newton.

I might not sound convincing, but I had the same doubts Denver could beat New England and highlighted the same path to victory, a strong defense.  It could happen, but it would be a surprising upset.

Score Prediction:
Carolina 38, Denver 16

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Conference Championships: All About the QBs

Sunday's meeting could be the final playoff
installment of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.
There are four teams left in the running for this year's Super Bowl and all have a unique storyline surrounding their quarterback.

The AFC Championship will feature what could more than likely be the final playoff installment of Bill Belichick/Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.  In fact, the main storyline in Denver could revolve around this possibly being Peyton Manning's final season, meaning a win could give him one last chance to win a second-career Super Bowl.  The storyline for New England is a little different.  With a win, the team would set a record for Super Bowl appearances (nine) and Super Bowl appearances by either a coach or a quarterback (seven for both Belichick and Brady).  Additionally, should New England win this year's Super Bowl, Brady's five Super Bowl rings would stand alone as football's ultimate champion.

The NFC Championship storyline takes a much different shape.  It features the (relatively) young Cam Newton leading a Carolina team that surprised the league with a 15-1 record.  On the other side of the field is Carson Palmer, a great quarterback in his own right, but one that at the age of 36 has never made a Super Bowl appearance.  For Newton, this could be the start of something special.  For Palmer, it would be more of a John Elway-esque opportunity to earn a title late in his career.

Here are our picks for the games.

Austen's Eight-Point Pick
New England over @Denver

Austen: I had to grab this game before Stally nabbed it. The Patriots are the more balanced team than the Broncos, who have one of the least efficient offenses in the entire NFL this season while Peyton Manning is under center. The Patriots defense is second in the NFL in sacks and is going to give Peyton fits all day. Jamie Collins is suiting up for this matchup and is the Pats most versatile and dangerous defensive player. He is going to make numerous big plays in this game to help the damn Patriots to yet another Super Bowl. 

The Broncos only hope is that Chris Harris is a lot healthier than he appears and is able to shut down Julian Edelman. I think Edelman and Gronk make enough big plays for this offense to keep them ahead the entire game in a surprisingly low-scoring affair. 

Stally: I don't want to seem like an over-confident fan, but if the Patriots lose this game, I'd be vastly disappointed.  Not just because my favorite team missed an opportunity to make a record ninth Super Bowl appearance, but because New England is better than Denver and should win this game.

The Broncos shouldn't have beat the Patriots earlier in the season, and needed an illegitimate offensive pass interference penalty on Rob Gronkowski to stall a Pats drive, turn momentum, and climb back in the game.  And, they shouldn't have won last week against an undermanned Steelers team.  If Fitzgerald Toussaint had just run downhill for a first down in the fourth quarter, instead of cutting into a defender and fumbling, this game would be Pittsburgh at New England.

Denver's defense is very good, and that will give it a chance to win.  But, Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in the history of the league, so it would be very surprising to see him make many costly mistakes.  If the Broncos do win, it will because they put together a better game plan, not because they have the better team, and the odds of Bill Belichick getting outcoached in such a big game seems quite unlikely.

SCORE: New England 27, Denver 17

Stally's Eight-Point Pick
@Carolina over Arizona

Stally: I've been stuck in Charlotte for almost a week, so I joked with Austen that I was going to take my "hometown team."  The Panthers have the X-factor in Cam Newton.  Just when you think the defense has done everything right, Newton busts out a 20-yard run on 3rd-and-long and moves the chains.

Arizona's opportunity comes from its balance.  It has the most complete team in the league when you factor in, run and pass offense and defense, but it doesn't boast the dominant flashiness of Carolina.  Seattle fell down 31-0 and couldn't make enough of a run to recover to beat the Panthers last week.  While no team should be expected to over come that deficit, the Cardinals can learn from it.  They need to contain the Panthers (and their fans) early and allow themselves to play to their strengths and win the game in the fourth quarter.

I don't think that will happen though.  Look for the the Panthers to come out with the fire early and manage to ride that to a nail biting win.

SCORE: Carolina 23, Arizona 20

Austen: As much as it hurts to pick against our fellow Trojan, Carson Palmer, I have to agree with Stally here. Do not let the gaudy numbers fool you, Palmer had a horrible day last week against the Packers. Carolina is worlds better than the Packers on the defensive side of the ball, so Palmer is going to have to really pick up his game and find that magic he had in the middle of the regular season. 

This is the game to watch today because no matter what Stally says, these are the two best teams left in the playoffs. Both teams have explosive offenses and both have top-five defenses. This is the matchup we have waiting to see all season long. The Panthers have been the best team in the league all year, so I cannot bet against them at home. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Divisional Round: The League's Elite Eight

A win at Seattle earlier in the year had Cam Newton and
the Panthers pointing toward their Super Bowl chances.
In recapping the Wild Card Round, the Packers surprised both of us.  After stinking their way through the second half of the season and losing the NFC North, they bounced back in a big way and wiped out the helpless Redskins.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks struggled mightily on offense in the Minnesota cold, barely winning on a horribly missed field goal.  Cincinnati scorned Austen's support by taking two 15-yard penalties to set up Pittsburgh's game-winning field goal and make Stally look smart.  The week started with little surprise as the Chiefs showed the terrible Texans to the exit door to a tune of 30-0.

This week will be similarly difficult to pick, as the NFL is now down to its best eight teams with no clear front runner to win the Super Bowl.  Here are our picks:

Stally's Eight-Point Pick
@Arizona over Green Bay

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Wild Card Round: Who Shows Up?

Are these two (Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins) the best two
quarterbacks playing this weekend? Statistically, yes they are.
Well we finished off one wacky NFL season and it is time to get into everyone's favorite time of year, the playoffs. Strength vs. strength. The best against the best. This is the football everyone wants to watch. There is a lot of parity in this week's playoff matches, which always makes it fun to watch.

Only Teddy Bridgewater and Brian Hoyer have a lower passer rating than Aaron Rodgers out of all the quarterbacks playing this week (yes, even AJ McCarron has a higher passer rating than Rodgers in the few games he has played). This is going to be a wild week. There is a reason it is called Wild Card Weekend.

I am sure there are plenty of fans that are wishing their team made it past the regular season (including myself), but there is little argument this year that these are the best teams in the league. There are few years that you can say that, but these teams have been the best all year long and all have a legit shot at taking home the Lombardi Trophy. This might be the strongest cast of Wild Card teams in my lifetime, as I could see any of these four teams making a run at a title.

Enjoy these games because football will be gone before you know it. But first, check out how Stally and I predict how these games will shake out.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Week 17: Regular Season Finale

Austin Davis is no savior for the Browns.
With the Carolina Panthers at 14-1 and the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans at 3-12, it wouldn't be fair to say that parity exists completely in the NFL.  But the league is certainly stratified to a point that many teams are equal to one another.  That's no more apparent than the Week 17 playoff and seeding scenarios.

In most years, the top few teams or division winners could take the final week off.  In 2015 (or, um, 2016), oddly enough, only the 8-7 Washington Redskins are locked into a playoff spot as the fourth seed in the NFC.  Every other playoff contender could shape their future with a win and/or favorable outcomes among their closest competitors.

Here's look at who the we're picking (or disagreeing) on in this week, including an outline from Stally on what the teams will be playing for (where applicable):

Austen's Eight-Point Pick
Pittsburgh over @Cleveland

Austen: Despite the fact that I like his first name, Austin Davis is not going to beat out Big Ben and one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL. They are coming off of a crushing loss to a division rival last week, and it will not happen again this week. 

Stally: Pittsburgh must be embarrassed to know that their season might be over because it provided Baltimore with two of its five wins on the season.  The Steelers need to win and have the Jets lose (at Buffalo) in a game happening concurrently.  The Steelers will win this one, so it'll all come down to if Bills Coach Rex Ryan can stick it to his old team.