Saturday, October 29, 2011

Week 8 Opening Coin Toss: AFC Mediocrity

For the Jets to make the playoffs, Mark Sanchez
has to bring home the bread... and the hot dog.

Stally: Talk to me about your New York Jets, Austen.  They should've lost to Dallas and San Diego at home, which would leave them at 2-5.  Instead, they came back to win both and are 4-3 and right in the playoff mix.  What's gone wrong and knocked this team from the elite?  What do they need to fix down the stretch to make the playoffs and build on their postseason success from the last two seasons? And, most importantly, point blank: will they make the playoffs?

Austen: First off, "should've" is a meaningless term in the NFL. A win is a win, no matter how ugly, and the Jets tend to win a lot of ugly games. In Mark Sanchez's first season in the NFL, the team played so bad down the stretch that Rex Ryan came out and said they had no chance to make it to the playoffs. A lot of other teams fell apart and matchups against the Colts and Bengals, who had both already solidified their positions in the playoffs, pulled starters and gave the Jets easy wins.

However, that did not stop this team from knocking off the Bengals and then the Chargers before falling to the Colts in a close game in the AFC Championship game. Then, last season, they also almost fell apart numerous times, but won a ton of last second ugly games against the Browns, Lions, and Texans, and once again made it to the AFC Championship game.

This team never looks like a dominant football team at any point in time, but they find ways to win and that is what makes them a contender as long as they have a statistical chance of making the playoffs. I think they will make it to the playoffs, but it is not likely that they will beat out the Patriots for the division like I had projected before the season. This is still a team that can compete for the Super Bowl if they make it to the playoffs, but they have to get better in a lot of areas before I can confidently say that they will even make it to the playoffs.

The most notable deficiency in this team is their run game on offense. It has been a slow death for their run game, but it looks to be fading into extinction. Rex Ryan's teams have always been able to hang on their hat on having a strong defense and a good run game. However, the Jets are 28th in rushing offense and the offensive line has been terrible. Mark Sanchez has not played particularly well, but he has had almost no help.

Shonn Greene and LT have combined for two rushing touchdowns this year (Sanchez has two rushing touchdowns on the season himself) and the offensive line has been the worst it has been in years. This offensive line cannot hold up against defenses that know the Jets are passing on every play because they are gaining three yards a carry on the ground every week. Teams are able to blitz the Jets constantly with almost no fear of Sanchez completing a deep pass downfield.

The Jets have to find a way to get back to running the ball consistently in order for defenses to respect the Jets offense as a real threat to put up points. Against the Chargers, they ran the ball better than they have all year so there is hope for them to get back on track.

On the other side of the ball, the Jets have been completely inept at stopping opposing teams from running wild all over them. The Jets are 26th in rushing defense and that is the worst they have been in a really long time. This is the worst a Rex Ryan defense has ever played and they need to fix it so that they can get back to putting teams in long third down situations and blitzing the heck out of them. Again, the Jets shut down the Chargers run game and that allowed them to make Phillip Rivers look very uncomfortable all game.

If the Jets can fix their run game and run defense, they will be a very difficult team to stop and they will be back in Super Bowl contention. However, that is a big if and both of these holes could be the reason they fail to make the playoffs at all this season.

Stally: So, you're basically saying that the Jets are currently relying on Mark Sanchez's passing game to carry them to the playoffs?  Yuck, that's a scary notion!  I'm of the theory that defenses can improve over time, but offenses don't usually improve drastically over the course of the season.  I agree the Ryan can get the defense in order, but I don't see the rushing game improving much.

I think you're down playing the Dallas and San Diego comeback wins a little.  You're definitely right that a win's a win, but I'm a big picture guy.  Look at my 2007 16-0 Patriots!  That team struggled to win a lot of games late in the year and it caught up to them at the wrong time in a 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the Giants.  The point being that, like in cards, luck works itself out over time in sports.  The Jets have gotten lucky in a few wins, and when that luck fails them, they'll struggle to win games.

Will they make the playoffs?  Yes, I don't think we'll see a Wild Card come out of the AFC South or West, which leaves the spots to the East and North.  The Jets are better than the Bills and Bengals, who are both 4-2, which means that we should see the usual Pats/Jets, Steelers/Ravens combo make their playoff appearances.

Austen: There are only so many times you can say that the Jets are getting lucky wins. They play hard for four quarters, which a lot of teams cannot say. They also have one of the best special teams in the NFL, thanks to the amazing Mike Westhoff. That goes a long way for the Jets, giving them good field position and coming away with big time blocked punts and field goals in crucial situations. People tend to forget about special teams, but the Jets definitely do not.

On to my question, who do you think will win the AFC West? The Chargers have been the clear favorite all year long, but Phillip Rivers has looked awful so far this season and despite a 4-2 record, this does not look like a playoff team. The Raiders have been surprisingly good this season, but after their quarterbacks combined for six interceptions against a struggling Chiefs' defense, it would be hard to claim them as a favorite to win the division.

The Chiefs are a shocking 3-3 and could very easily knock off the Chargers this week to take the division lead.  Could they be the team that once again sneaks into the playoffs with another division title? As for the Broncos, I don't care how much Tim Tebow improves, they are not making the playoffs this season, and since we have talked about Tebow so much the last few weeks, let's just pretend they are not even in this division for the sake of this question.

Stally: Let me start out by talking about Tim Tebow.  He doesn't make the Broncos more of a playoff contender and...oh, wait.  What's that?  We already talk about this each week?  Oh, ok, our readers get the point.

I think the Chargers will win the division.  They tend to play bad football early in the season and they're definitely doing that now.  The loss to the Jets was miserable, as they should have won that game.  However, I'm worried for the same reason I'm not big on the Jets.  San Diego isn't playing good football and you can say they do that every year and turn it around, but that doesn't mean we should bank on it happening this year.  That said, they're the best team, so I'm going to assume they figure it out and make the postsesaon.

I think the Raiders run is over and we saw that last week with the six picks.  Perhaps the bye will give them a chance to integrate Carson Palmer and get the offense back together, but they have two games left against the Chargers and one against the Chiefs and I think both those teams are better.

Which leads me to the Chiefs, early in the year we thought this team was one of the worst in the league.  They lost defensive star Eric Berry in Week 1 and offensive start Jamaal Charles in Week 2 and were routed in both games.  Yet, they've gone 3-1 since, with the loss being a three-point road game against the division-leading Chargers.  They host San Diego on Monday night this week, and, if they win that, they'll jump into a three-way tie atop the division.

I don't think the Chiefs have the longevity to be the division winner over San Diego, but I'm not ready to count them out.  They won it at 10-6 last year and seem to be back on track for a similar finish.

Austen: I would bet on the Raiders over the Chiefs any day, unless Darren McFadden's injury is more significant than has been reported so far. McFadden is finally having the type of impact that the Raiders expected when they drafted him in the first round. Say what you want, Carson Palmer is an upgrade over Jason Campbell. Once he has time to learn this offense, he could be back atop his game and make this a very dangerous offense with all of the speed receivers the Raiders have. 

That being said, I still think the Chargers will win the division, but I think it will be a close race between the Raiders and Chargers, with the Chiefs falling back to third in the division at or under .500. This will definitely be an interesting race and it might not be decided until the last game of the year, much like it was last season.

Kelli Walters' Guest Question: What do you think of Cam Newton?  I've never liked him nor his attitude but he's playing well.  Is it it time for me to change my opinion?

Austen: I really hated this guy coming into the draft. I thought he was insanely arrogant and would not put the work in to become a top flight quarterback. He looked horrible on a big stage against Oregon in the National Title game, missing open receivers all over the place and making costly errors that kept Oregon in the game despite how well Auburn's defense played against the Ducks. I conceded that he was amazingly gifted and that he was a lot smarter than people gave him credit, but I thought his ego was going to be his downfall.

While I was particularly critical of Newton, no one expected him to have the type of success he is having so far this season. He has rejuvenated Steve Smith, who has once again become a top receiver in the NFL after seemingly fallen past his prime. While the run game still surprisingly struggles despite a passing game that is top five in the NFL, Newton is making plays with his legs and his arm that no one else in the NFL can do. His arm is as strong as any quarterback in the league and his ability outside the pocket is more dangerous than any other in the NFL, and yes that includes Michael Vick.

That is saying a lot, but Newton is almost as fast as Vick and he is about 40 pounds heavier. While defensive backs can tackle Vick because they are about the same size, almost no defensive backs in the NFL have a chance at tackling Newton because of his size and power. And since Newton is bigger than most linebackers and faster than all of them, he creates a mismatch that is almost impossible to defense against. There is a reason he has more rushing touchdowns than everyone not named Adrian Peterson.

While Newton still turns the ball over a good amount of the time and his passes are still a bit erratic, you have to expect that considering how young and inexperienced he is (he only started one season at Auburn). It also does not help that he does not have a decent receiver outside of Steve Smith. Newton is improving week to week and he has the chance to be scary good. He has the chance to be a once in a generation type player, but he has to keep working his butt off.

That all being said, I am not ready to change my mind about his characteristics quiet yet. He has showed a lot of poise in the media. He could have bragged about putting up tons of 400-yard performances, but he remained unsatisfied with his performances unless he won the game for his team. However, I want to see if anyone can figure out a way to defend him and how he reacts when he plays poorly and his team loses. You cannot judge a quarterback until after he has played at least four seasons in the NFL and I will wait awhile before I change my mind about him. However, I have to admit that he is a lot better football player than I thought he would ever be.

Stally: I'll make a similar concession.  I'm still hoping he fails and waiting out the corruption of the NCAA when it's revealed he got paid hundreds of thousands to play at Auburn.  However, he's clearly better than we thought he'd be.  We likened him to JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young and he's a much more successful draft decision than those early round, athletic busts.

He's great on the ground and he's thrown for a lot of yards, but his QB-rating is just 19th.  His completion percentage is the same rank and he's thrown more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight).  The concerns about his overall pocket presence still exist.

I'm definitely willing to concede that he's a work in progress that's proven he belongs and was worth the risk for Carolina.  I'm also calling off the dogs on them being any part of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, as it's clear they'll spend at least a few years hoping that Newton makes the steps he could.

My biggest concern, like Austen said, is still that I felt he cheated his way through college and I question his overall personality.  He seems all charisma and charm, but like a guy trying to sweet-talk a girl at the bar, I just don't trust his overall character.  But, again, I'm slowly warming up to the fact that he's a legitimate NFL quarterback and I need to regard him as such.

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