Friday, November 4, 2011

Week 9 Coin Toss: CJ's F and the AFC's Average

Chris Johnson has always looked questionable,
but now his play is questionable. (AP)
Stally: Let's try to make some sense of the AFC East.

So far, the Ravens have mangled the Steelers, grounded the Jets, but lost to Jacksonville and almost Arizona.  Pittsburgh soundly drubbed the Patriots, but lost to the Texans and the Ravens.  The Texans have lost three games.  The Patriots have been good for the most part but didn't really belong on the same field as the Steelers this past weekend.  The AFC West has three teams tied for the division at 4-3, and the Jets and the Titans have shown clear weaknesses, even though they might contend for the playoffs all season.  That's easy, that leaves us with a debate between the 5-2 Bills and 5-2 Bengals...Wait.  What!?

It's way to early and too much of a cluster to start trying to figure out who's going to the playoffs, but please, Austen, can you at least tell me who is the best team in the AFC?  Are they the second best team in the NFL (behind Green Bay) or do we need to go to the NFC for that?  And, when it's all said and done, who's taking home the Lamar Hunt Trophy and heading to the Super Bowl out of this conference?

Austen: If I knew who the best team in the AFC is/who will make it to the Super Bowl, I would be running to Vegas to throw down some bets. However, I am just a man and I can only take a swing at it.

The AFC is a total mess right now because almost every team seems to be in playoff contention. The Bills, Pats, Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Texans, Titans, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders all have a solid shot at not just making the playoffs, but winning their division. That's more competition than the AFC has seen in a long time. Let's go through the AFC division by division so that we can take a closer look at these teams.

The AFC East has once again established itself as one of the toughest divisions in the NFL with the reemergence of the Bills. The Bills surprisingly sit atop the division because of a much improved defense and the consistent play of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fred Jackson has established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL and it is amazing to me that the Bills have left this guy buried on the depth chart for years, since he has always played well in his limited time as a starter. However, I think the loss of nose tackle Kyle Williams will play a big factor in this team missing the playoffs.

That means the AFC East will come down to, you guessed it, the Jets and the Patriots. These teams are perfect foils of each other because the Jets offense is completely inept and the Patriots defense is one of the worst in the league. If the Jets make it to the playoffs, I think they will get further than the Patriots, but I think the Patriots will again win the division. The Patriots season depends on how much their defense can improve throughout the rest of the season, but I do not think it will improve enough for them to make a run at the Super Bowl. Meanwhile the Jets could do anything between not making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl. This team plays at a different level every week.

The AFC North is probably the most stacked division in all of football. I just saw a stat that shocked me. The top five defenses by yards allowed are Ravens, Bengals, Browns, Chargers, and Steelers in that order. I cannot remember the last time four out of the top five defenses are all in the same division. While the Browns are most likely out of the playoff race, the other three teams all have only two losses apiece.

While the Steelers looked dominant last week downing the Patriots, the Bengals have actually looked the most impressive out of all these teams from a week-to-week basis. Marvin Lewis is one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the NFL, especially since the Bengals have been functioning without a general manager for years now, which makes them the only team in the NFL without one. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are the most impressive rookie quarterback-wide receiver duo the NFL has probably ever seen and they will keep the Bengals competitive for a long time. However, they have a brutal schedule for the rest of the year, with two games left against both the Steelers and Ravens, and those games will determine who makes it into the playoffs out of this division.

I see the Steelers winning the division with a first-round bye, but do not be surprised if the Bengals knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. The Ravens offense has been so bad that it is hard to imagine them pulling themselves together to win 10-12 games, which might be what it takes to secure a wild card spot in the AFC this year.

The AFC South is much weakened with the loss of Peyton Manning and this year will be a two horse race between the Texans and the Titans. If Mario Williams and Andre Johnson were both 100% for the Texans, they might be the best team in the AFC this year. They have an amazing amount of talent on both sides of the ball and their defense is better than it has ever been since the formation of this team. Once Andre Johnson gets back on the field, the Texans offense will reestablish itself as possibly the best offense in the entire NFL. Andre Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL, Arian Foster is the best running back in the AFC, and Owen Daniels is one of the most dangerous receiving tight ends in the league. This makes them almost impossible to defend and their depth at all their skill positions allows them to throw a lot of different formations at defenses.

The Titans on the other hand have played much better than most people have expected, but the loss of Kenny Britt and the struggles of Chris Johnson really limits this team's ability to make a push into the playoffs. Their defense is getting better, but it is not good enough to carry the team. I see them winning around eight games and being left out of the playoffs.

Finally onto the worst division in the AFC, the AFC West. What is it about the West divisions that make them oh so bad? The Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders are all tied at 4-3. Truthfully, any of these three teams could take the division title because they are all so inconsistent from week to week you never know what you are going to get. The Chargers looked to easily take this division starting off the season 4-1. However, they have lost their last two games in an extraordinary fashion, blowing a huge lead against the Jets and then fumbling away the game to the Chiefs. Phillip Rivers has also really struggled so far this season. The Chargers always play better in the second half of the season, but I cannot bet on them to win this division after the way they have played the last few weeks.

The Chiefs have won an impressive four games in a row after going 0-3. Matt Cassel is getting back on track and Jon Baldwin is looking like he could make a big impact on this offense. Their defense is playing surprisingly well since losing Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry. However, I think this team is just too mediocre to win enough games to take the division. They are back on people's radars and they are not going to sneak up on teams anymore.

That leaves the Raiders, who are trying to quickly break in new quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer is the perfect quarterback to throw deep bombs to all of the Raiders' speed receivers. Al Davis would be so proud. If he can find chemistry with his receivers, the Raiders might have their first division title since they went to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season. However, this offense revolves around Darren McFadden's health. If he can get back on the field this week and stay 100% for the rest of the season, I think the Raiders will leave the Chiefs and Chargers in the dust.

Overall, the AFC is very confusing, but I think the top teams are the Steelers, Patriots, Texans, and Jets, in no particular order. Who will make it to the Super Bowl is anyone's guess, but I think whoever it is will probably lose to the NFC once again anyway.

Stally: Ok, you just wrote a novel.  The problem is that while you made some good points, you rambled on making some poor ones.  The first being that the Bengals look impressive.  It seems to me you've jumped ship from the Tampa Bay Bucs to the Cincinnati Bengals in terms of bad teams playing above their potential thanks to an easy schedule.  I'm reminded of the Bill Simmons/Cousin Sal skit last year about Josh Freeman: "He beat all the great teams!  He beat Cleveland, he beat Cincinnati, he beat St. Louis, he beat Carolina..."

Cincinnati hasn't played anyone worth anything, aside from Buffalo, and the credibility of that win gets wiped out due to a loss to the Broncos.  Other than that, they've beat Cleveland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Seattle.

The areas you were right is that the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green combo has come along a lot faster than expected and that their schedule gets much harder.  I think they'll end up going right around 8-8 and be a team, like you think about the Bills, that we'll look back at the end of the year and wonder why we ever they thought they were a top team.

I also find you a puzzling homer for suggesting the Jets are without a doubt one of the top-four teams in the AFC.  They got lambasted by the Ravens a few weeks.  Flat out run over and the fact you listed the Jets and not the Ravens is just wrong.  Sure, the Ravens offense is terrible, but have you looked at the Jets?  I mean, the Jets offense gave up more points to the Ravens defense then they themselves accounted for!  That's awful.

I do agree that the Steelers are probably the best team right now.  It's very rare New England doesn't look like they belong on the same field with anyone, but they didn't look good at all on Sunday.  That said, they laid a similar smelly egg against the Browns around the same time last year and didn't lose again in the regular season!  I noticed an improved defense after that and a more dominant Tom Brady.

I think we'll need to wait on anointing the Steelers as the AFC's best team until after the Ravens game this weekend, as that could really shake up our outlook.  However, I still think you can't sleep on the Patriots.  This looks like the kind of Super Bowl teams they used to put out there.  You never thought they were the best team and had plenty of flaws that slowly got fixed during the season until it all worked come playoff time.  Now, this defense is far worse than any of those teams, but I'm not ready to close the door yet.

I also agree that everyone's sleeping on the Texans.  They could be dangerous.  To answer the initial question, the best team in the AFC is Pittsburgh, but like in year's past, it'll be New England that knocks them out to claim the conference and go to the Super Bowl.

Austen: Remember in 2009 when the Bengals were coming off a 4 win season, just like this year, and no one paid attention to them until they realized they were undefeated in the division? Well I see a lot of the same things happening with this team as it did in 2009. The Bengals always put up a fight in their division games and that makes them dangerous in a very tough devision. Their defense is one of the best in the league, which is shocking a lot of people, and they are getting back to their roots as a run first team, which is opening up their opportunities to throw down the field. Do not count them out.

Also, as for the Jets and Patriots, they both always play their best football at the end of the season and the Jets become a different team in the playoffs every year. That's why both of their recent struggles should not effect their standings much since they should both make the playoffs and they will be tough matchups for any team in the playoffs.

I briefly brought up my concern over the struggles of Chris Johnson during my comments, and I think this has to be one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season. Before this season, CJ had been one of the most explosive backs the NFL has ever seen. In his 2009 campaign, in which he became only the sixth player to ever rush for over 2,000 yards, he had three touchdowns over 80 yards. No running back had recorded three touchdowns over 80 yards in their entire career, and CJ did it in one season! That is just a little taste at how amazing this guy has been.

What we have seen out of CJ this year has been so disappointing it is hard to believe it is even the same guy. He is averaging around 40 yards a game and a miserable 2.8 yards a carry. He has only four runs that have gone over 10 yards all season, after having almost 40 last season. What has happened to CJ? Has he just given up after getting his $50 million contact? Is his play completely his fault or has his offensive line failed on him? Was a lot of his success based on having Vince Young at quarterback? Did he spend all of the off season eating Big Macs? What in God's name has happened to one of the most exciting players in the NFL? Please tell me.

One year bust and then CJ will be back, or is his career over?

Stally: Chris Johnson is a lazy, gold digger.  Plain and simple.

Suggestions that his career is over or that he's aged and tired are ludicrous.  He just turned 26 a month ago, is in just his fourth year and has never suffered from any sort of nagging injuries.  The general rule is that a running back deteriorates when he hits age 30.  Johnson will be 29 through the 2014 season.  I had no reason to expect he'd drop off anytime before 2015 and neither did the Titans, that's why they signed him to a, pun-intended, titanic contract.

Unfortunately, like the Titanic itself, he seems to be taking on water quickly.  Perhaps that's water of the body mass variety that's causing him to slow down.  I'll be honest, I haven't seen many Titans games.  Unlike the Jaguars and the Broncos, they never seem to be on primetime!  But, he looks more creepily haggard and homeless than ever (nappy hair, missing teeth, etc.) and also seems to have a little more, as you said, Big Mac bulk.  His stats agree and suggest that he's not nearly as explosive as he once was.  I feel like he got bummed out with the whole contract negotiations and let himself slip physically during the offseason.  For someone that gets paid what he does, that's embarrassing!

Let's not blame it on the offensive line, either.  Matt Hasselbeck seems to be holding up just fine back there and he's not nearly as mobile as Johnson.  And, for the record, Hasselbeck is a far better quarterback than Vince Young, and I'm laughing at the thought that any of Johnson's success was based on Young.  Perhaps you do have a point in that Young was so bad that the only game plan was to hand off, but that doesn't account for a drop in yards per carry!

Is he a one-year bust?  That depends on C.J. himself.  It's obvious he has all the talent in the world, but it depends what he does with that talent.  Jerry Rice and LaDainian Tomlinson weren't some of the best players to ever play their respective position because of their talent.  They were the best because they worked the hardest to maximize their immense talent.  Look at Tomlinson even now at age 32!  Sure, his body's broken down some and he's a shell of who he used to be, but even last year he still showed he was capable of production and almost carried for 1,000 yards in a split backfield.

If Johnson wants to be remembered in the same sentence as L.T. for being one of the best running backs of this generation, he can be.  But, that determination will have nothing to do with how well he's getting paid; it will have nothing to do with who's taking the snaps; it will have nothing to do with who's blocking, calling the plays or lining up as a dime back for the defense!  Chris Johnson's legacy will be determined by his work ethic, and right now, it's downright atrocious.

(Yes, I am a bitter fantasy owner, in case you couldn't put one and one together, and if you could, then you've got Chris Johnson's approximate yards per carry.)

Austen: Once I heard Matt Hasselbeck compare CJ to Shaun Alexander, I did all I could to trade him off my fantasy football team (I got Dwayne Bowe for him, which could be a steal). The difference between the two running backs is that Alexander was almost 30 years old when he got his contract and had carried his team to their first ever Super Bowl. CJ should be in the prime of his career, and I have to agree with you that his play simply has to do with his work ethic. 

The Titans have always had a strong coaching staff and they should be able to work his butt into shape once they get him in camp during the offseason, but there is not much hope for him turning it around this season. Do not be surprised if the Titans shop CJ around this offseason, and there might just be a team willing to take a risk on his immense talent. No matter what, everyone in the NFL hopes he turns his career around because he really is one of the most exciting players to watch in the entire league. 

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