Who takes over after Brady?

I hate to break it to you Patriots fans, but Tom Brady can’t play forever. The legendary New England quarterback is in his 16th year in the league, and while he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down, at age 39, you have to think he will be looking to hang up those cleats in the next 2-3 years.

Tom_Brady
Brady surpassed Peyton Manning’s record of 200 career wins this season. (Wikimedia Commons)

With Brady being the undisputed (or as close as you can ever get to undisputed in sports) best quarterback in the league, his eventual retirement will open the door for someone else to take that crown.

Brady represents the end of a very dominant era, where he and Peyton Manning rewrote the record books practically every year. They squared off in some of the most memorable games of the last decade and consistently drew in viewers whenever the two matched up. Manning is already gone and with Brady set to follow in the near future, who exactly will step up to fill the void.

It is kind of hard to say. The iconic 2004 draft class of quarterbacks featuring Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers likely still have a few more years in them. However, Rivers turned 35 today, Roethlisberger will be 35 in March and Eli Manning turns 36 in January. That group likely won’t be around for a whole lot longer to constitute an era or start an awe-inspiring rivalry. Most of their time in the league will be remembered as part of the legendary Brady-Peyton era.

Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers has an MVP award and a Super Bowl ring to his name since taking over for Brett Favre in Green Bay. (Wikimedia Commons)

You next look to Aaron Rodgers, who joined the league in 2005. Rodgers just turned 33 last week, so he might be able to hang around a little longer than the three I just mentioned. However, he might have already started showing signs of slowing down with his rocky start to 2016. I could see Rodgers having a three-year run as the unquestioned top signal-caller. He might be the best-suited to succeed Brady in the short term. Keep in mind that even though this is his 12th NFL season, Rodgers did not start his first three years in the league, so he might have a bit more left in the tank than we think.

After Rodgers, well I’m kind of stuck. Drew Brees is a Hall of Famer, but approaching 38, I’m not expecting him to take over. Carson Palmer is on his way out as well. As will Alex Smith.

There is an interesting crop of three quarterbacks that offer some intrigue. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton all bring a lot to the table. All three of them are 28 years old or younger, all three are rather mobile and all three have the ability to take over a football game.

The major knocks against Newton are his ball security and his completion percentage. For his career, Newton sits at around 59 percent through almost 6 seasons. While he may be a huge asset with his legs, he is prone to fumbling and trying to do too much with the ball, often leading to mistakes. Another big red flag is that despite tossing 35 touchdowns in 2015, it is the only season he has thrown more than 25 scores. This year, he has just 14 through 12 games. Those numbers don’t exactly scream elite.

Luck was named the heir apparent to the NFL quarterback throne around his junior year of college. He started with two solid campaigns, followed by an outstanding 2014, only to fall into a weird funk for the last year and a half. 2015 was a lost season for Luck as he only played 7 games and likely played all of them hurt. The big knock against him has to be his lackluster completion percentage, which is only fractionally better than Newton’s. He also has a tendency for interceptions, with 63 picks in 66 career games. Part of that is due to the amount of pressure he faces. Luck is the most sacked quarterback in the league despite missing a game already this year. Luck is actually trending up after the last few weeks we’ve seen him play. Even though he has a poor supporting cast, Luck has failed to live up to Manning-sized expectations laid on him back in 2012.

Russell_Wilson_with_Lombardi_Trophy
Wilson has already played in two Super Bowls, winning one. (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is Wilson. He already has a Super Bowl ring. Point all you want to a great run game and defense, but that’s a good chunk of why Brady got his first three rings. Of these three, he seems the most poised to take the throne. Wilson has only 39 interceptions in 72 career games. He is closing in on his second consecutive 4,000-yard season and his career completion percentage is around 65 percent. However, when Wilson is off, he is really off. In Seattle’s three losses this year, he has thrown zero touchdowns, three picks and has a yards per attempt average under 6.5. If I had to pick someone long term when it comes to taking up the quarterback mantel, it would be Wilson. He already has that championship background and I could see him getting more.

And he might just have a West Coast rival to deal with as well. There are a number of intriguing young quaterbacks in the league right now in Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott. Long term, we might see a really fun rivalry between Prescott and Wentz, both being in the NFC East. However, there is one young quarterback that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Derek Carr
Carr was the fourth quarterback in the 2014 draft, but looks to be the best one selected that year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Derek Carr is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. At only 25 years old, Carr has been lighting up NFL defenses all year long. He launched 32 touchdown passes a year ago, in just his second NFL season and threw for just shy of 4,000 yards. This year though, Carr is set to break that 4,000-yard mark and throw for close to 32 touchdowns again. What is more impressive though is the increased completion percentage and absence of turnovers. The young Raiders quarterback has only thrown five interceptions this year and raised his completion percentage four plus points to a healthy 65.5 percent. This is just one year for Carr, but based on the jump he has made in each of his first two seasons, I am beginning to think that this kid is for real.

I would be remiss not to mention Matt Ryan in this conversation. Ryan is in the midst of a career year at age 31. He is on pace to set career highs in completion percentage, passing touchdowns and yards per attempt as well as set a personal best for fewest interceptions thrown. If Carr is considered an MVP candidate, Ryan certainly has to be in the mix. He currently sits second in passing yards and passer rating, third in touchdowns, fourth in completion percentage and leads the league in yards per attempt. Given that he has a host of offensive weapons and a young offensive line, Ryan is set to play at a high level for the next several years. The tough thing is figuring out if 2016 is an anomaly based on his normal level of play or a sign of things to come. Also, if Brady hangs on for three more years, Ryan will already be 34 himself and running out of time to capture the league’s attention.

The world without Brady is kind of hazy and there is no telling if we will ever see the type of rivalry we saw between he and Manning. The league seems to be running out of elite quarterbacks, but we will have to wait and see who steps up to the plate in the next few years.

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NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

Welcome to the final four. The conference championships. There is nothing quite like it. The Super Bowl is always a great spectacle, but often these games are even more exciting to watch. Today we will get to witness all three MVP candidates on display, the best rivalry in football over the last 15 years and some of the most dynamic defensive playmakers the game has to offer. And all of it comes with a trip to Santa Clara on the line.

New England vs. Denver

Peyton_Manning
Manning has a career record of 12-13 in the playoffs. 

When you think of NFL MVP, it is hard not to think of Peyton Manning. The Broncos signal caller has won the award more times than anyone else in history, with five such distinctions. However, he is the only quarterback in Sunday’s games that isn’t in contention for this year’s award.

 

Tom Brady on the other hand is right in the thick of anpther MVP-caliber campaign. Even with some of his top weapons missing time this year, Brady managed to steer New England to a first round bye and has them playing some spectacular football yet again.

This game is being billed as yet another class Manning-Brady matchup but in reality, this is more a battle between Brady and the Denver defense. The last time Denver and New England met it was Week 12 at Mile High. The Denver defense did not do much to contain Brady that day, as he threw for 280 yards and three scores. However, the Broncos knocked Brady around a lot, hitting him on nine occasions, three of them being sacks. The Patriots also had no running game to speak of, as LeGarrette Blount led the way in rushing for New England with a measly 27 yards on the ground. Brady also struggled to find the mark in that game, completing only 54.7 percent of his passes.

Tom_Brady
Brady is 11-5 in his career against Manning, but is only 2-6 in career playing in Denver.

Today is guaranteed to be different though as New England has a different cast of characters in place. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are back healthy, after not competing in their previous contest with Denver. However, Blount and now middle linebacker Jerrod Mayo will not be suiting up for this one, as both are on season-ending injured reserve.

 

The most interesting wrinkle though is that Manning will be starting this game. In that Week 12 showdown, Brock Osweiler started and defeated the Pats. He had a lot of help from his running game, as Denver amassed 179 yards on the ground at a clip of 5.6 yards per carry, but Osweiler took a beating. If the Pats generate the same amount of pressure on Manning, I think he will either be forced into some mistakes or be knocked out of the contest.

In the end, I don’t think The Sheriff has enough left in the tank to outduel The Golden Boy one last time. I think it will be an extremely close game that goes down to the wire as both defenses win the day. I think even with a depleted arsenal, Brady will work enough magic to eke out a win and earn his first career playoff victory in Denver, 24-21. Sad day as this will also probably mark the end of an era.

Arizona vs. Carolina

Even with the 17th edition of Manning-Brady in store for us, I think this is the game of the weekend to watch. This game is equal parts high-flying offense, dynamic defense and attitude.

Cam_Newton
Newton suffered his last home loss on November 16, 2014. He is 12-0 in Charlotte since.

Enter Cam Newton into his first ever NFC Championship game. He is the front-runner for the MVP award this season with his ability to deceive and out-think defenses. Newton is a supreme athlete and always has been. However, this season saw SuperCam evolve into a much better quarterback. He set a career-high in touchdown passes with 35 and even slightly cut down on his turnovers. He also set new marks for Total QBR and passer rating. All of that culminated in his dominant performance against Seattle last week.

 

He has still kept his athleticism as an often-used weapon. Newton racked up 636 yards on the ground and scored 10 times when he kept it himself. Couple that with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert; suddenly, this Carolina ground game is very difficult to stop.

The Panthers will need to control the clock as much as possible in this game as well, mainly to keep Carson Palmer off the field. Palmer struggled a little against Green Bay last week, but that should not discount the MVP-like season he had.

Editor’s note: It was really difficult to think of other ways to describe Palmer and Newton as they both have a lot in common. Both are first number one overall picks and both won Heisman trophies in college. 

Carson_Palmer
This will only be Palmer’s fourth career playoff game.

Palmer was downright lethal this year, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes while throwing for a career high in yards. The 36-year old was beyond effective when throwing the ball this season as well, posting a league-high 8.7 yards per attempt average. Palmer tossed the same number of touchdowns as Newton this year too. He also piloted an Arizona offense that led the NFL in yards per game and was second in scoring only to Carolina. In short, we could be in line for a shootout.

 

And we probably would be, if it wasn’t for the defenses lining up across from these quarterbacks. Carolina has four Pro Bowlers on their defense and Arizona has three of their own. These two defenses ranked fifth and sixth in yards per game allowed and sixth and seventh in scoring.

One of the great matchups of the weekend will be Larry Fitzgerald against Josh Norman. Fitzgerald is coming of a worldly performance out in the desert while Norman developed into one of the league’s premier shutdown corners. Past Norman though, this is a Carolina secondary that could be vulnerable to the spread offense Arizona will run. Seattle exploited the Panthers’ lack of depth in the divisional round. I think the Cardinals will do the same, getting the ball to John Brown and Michael Floyd early and often.

Between that and the overall speed of this Cardinal defense, I think Arizona will be heading to Santa Clara. Cardinals upset the Panthers at home, 27-21.

The legend or the new guy?

Editor’s Note: I started to work on this before the Broncos made their announcement. Still does not change how I feel about the situation. 

Peyton Manning or Brock Oswieler? This seems like a very simple question. It does not have a clear answer though. Over the past two months, the Denver Broncos accidentally created one of the biggest quarterback controversies we have seen in the quite some time in the NFL.

Peyton_Manning
Manning had the worst statistical season of his 17-year career in 2015.

Flashback to November 15, when Manning lead the Broncos against the rival Chiefs at home. Manning broke Brett Farve’s record for most career passing yards early in the game, but as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that he no longer looked like a future Hall of Famer. He looked a lot like Tim Tebow, if Tebow couldn’t run. Manning completed just 5 of his 20 passes and threw four of them to the wrong team. Peyton’s 17 interceptions are the second most by any quarterback this season, even though he only played 10 games. In the second half, Manning found himself on the bench and Denver gave Brock Osweiler his chance.

Brock Osweiler
Osweiler earned his first career start this season against Chicago.

The Broncos drafted Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 draft; the same one that produced Luck, RG3, Wilson and Cousins. Osweiler had waited a long three and a half years to get his shot at the starting gig. He made the most of it. He didn’t have the greatest second half against Kansas City, but the 25-year old showed poise as he helped Denver win four of their next six games. It seemed like Osweiler had the Broncos headed in the right direction. No one was looking to have Manning step back into the picture. It seemed like it was Osweiler’s team going forward.

Then Osweiler fell apart against San Diego. He had three turnovers in the first half. That led to Gary Kubiak pulling Osweiler in favor of Manning. The 39-year old played decently well in his first game action since November, but not enough to put the conversation to bed.

Now, Denver faces a very difficult situation. Do you play the young quarterback who carried you to the playoffs or do you return to the legendary five time MVP? It is not an easy question to answer.

Osweiler seemed to play well over his six starts before his benching. Manning struggled all season. However, Manning had a serious foot injury that he spent the last six weeks recovering from. Rumor is that he is completely healthy now.

Comparing their stats side by side makes it seem like Osweiler is the better option. On the season Peyton has 225 yards per game, 9 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in ten games played, with a completion percentage of just 59.8. Brock has 245.8 yards per game, 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in eight games played, with a completion percentage of 61.8. That is pretty easy to see on paper; Osweiler has outplayed Manning this season.

However, you have to take into account that Osweiler has never played in a playoff game before. Manning has played more than a full regular season worth of playoff games during his long career. Having playoff experience is priceless. The atmosphere is different. That is something Peyton is used to and Brock is not.

That being said, Manning’s career playoff record is far from stellar. He is 11-13 lifetime in the postseason. Those 11 wins are invaluable, especially when compared to Osweiler’s zero, but a losing playoff record does not inspire confidence.

Brock_Osweiler
Osweiler is in a contract year and will be an unrestricted free agent following this season.

While he is not in his best form heading into the playoffs, I think the Broncos should go with Osweiler at quarterback. I love Peyton. I love watching him play. I would love for him to get a second ring and retire on top like his current team president John Elway did all those years ago in a Broncos uniform himself. I also don’t see Manning returning to his pre-2015 form. All season he has struggled. For more than a year now, people have placed the cause of his declining play on injuries. Those injuries have been to his thigh and foot, never to his arm. He no longer has the same arm strength he once did. He constantly under throws receivers and often puts the target of the pass in a tough spot when he tries to compensate for the lack of arm strength.

I think Denver is trying too much to have a storybook narrative here. Yes, Peyton was one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever touch a football. That’s a general fact. It is also a fact that his prime is behind him and by delaying his assent to the throne, the Broncos are holding Osweiler back from entering his prime. Osweiler has shown he has all of the tools to be a great NFL quarterback and more playing time is the only way he is going to develop. He has already spent three plus years on the bench. There is not a whole lot more he can learn as a backup.

Denver has not had a strong running game for much of this season either and the offensive line has allowed for a ton of pressure to reach the quarterback over the course of the season. Peyton will not hold up under the constant siege. Osweiler, being 14 years younger and much more mobile, is better suited to run the Bronco offense right now.

The Broncos playing Manning should not discount their chances of winning the Super Bowl though. This is still the league’s best defense and Manning can make enough plays for Denver to win, especially when throwing to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. However, I think Osweiler gives them a much better chance to win, and less of the pressure then falls on the defense to be great.

Kubiak will start with Manning. If he struggles though, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before the Denver crowd forces him to change to the heir apparent.

 

Making a case from the bench

This past week saw Steph Curry take on a new role for the Golden State Warriors. A spot on the bench. Curry missed back-to-back games for the Dubs due to a lower leg injury. He is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against the Nuggets.

Stephen_CurryIn the two games that Curry has missed so far, the Warriors have struggled. First came a blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks in which Dallas shot over 50 percent from the field while Golden State only hit 40.7 percent of their shots. The next was a narrow win over the Rockets where the Warriors were sloppy with the ball, turning it over 18 times.

There is no doubt that the Warriors are worse off with Curry on the bench but this raises an interesting question. Does this solidify Curry as the league’s MVP yet again? It seems a bit crazy but it actually makes some sense.

Peyton_ManningThis type of idea originated for the first time for me when it came the 2011 NFL season. Peyton Manning missed the entire season due to an offseason neck surgery. The Colts went from a 10-6 playoff team in 2010 to a 2-14 debacle in 2012. It made many people wonder just how valuable Peyton was to Indianapolis if his absence could make that much of a difference.

Obviously, this is not the same scenario and no one actually voted for Manning as the MVP for that season but it still presented the idea. The reason why it could genuinely work in Curry’s favor is because he has actually played during the season and is not expected to miss an extend run of games.

Stephen_Curry2Curry has already made a pretty good case to be the league’s MVP again. He leads the NBA in points per game by a decent margin and is second in shooting percentage among guards. He has chipped in a healthy 6.4 assists per night and fourth in thefts per game. He has the best box plus/minus rating and the highest number of win shares in the league this season. Not to mention that the Warriors have only lost one game that Curry started.

His absence underlined how important he is to the team. There are some noticeable changes to the Warriors game without Curry. When Curry starts, Golden State scores 114.8 points per game. Without him, the Dubs averaged only 102.5. Their three-point shooting and overall shooting dropped off. It became apparent very quickly that no matter how deep the Warriors seem, they need their leader on the court to be a contender.

Yes it is a very small sample size and it is clear that Golden State is a good team even without Curry. I really think that missing those two games strengthened his campaign for a second consecutive MVP award. He showed his true value as the most important piece on the league’s best team.

Should a player be named MVP because of the drop off his team suffers when he doesn’t play? Maybe not in the case of Peyton Manning back in 2011, but I think in the case of Curry in 2016, it helps. The award is not designed for the league’s best player, but it’s most valuable one. His value was underlined in those two games.

Does this mean that Curry has locked up the MVP race? Absolutely not, but I think he just strengthened his resume by spending two nights in late December sitting on the bench.

The NFL All-Disappointment Team

The NFL is an ever-changing playing field. Players adapt. Coaches adapt. The game adapts. Each season is different and it takes a special kind of athlete to keep up with the changes.

We’ve heard so much about the players who are destined for breakout seasons, but we haven’t quite thought about those primed for a major collapse.

The bottom line is these five players who were stars in 2014 will regress during the coming season. They will not put up the same production as they did a year ago.

DeSean_Jackson5. DeSean Jackson, Washington
Well he obviously isn’t able to produce with a hamstring injury, but let’s not pretend that is the reason why DeSean Jackson will regress in 2015.

Jackson finished last season with over 1,100 yards receiving. That was due in large part to his absurd 20.9 yards per catch. That number would be very tough for him to reproduce this season even if Washington had a competent quarterback under center.

If Washington’s first game was any indication, it looks like it will be focusing more on keeping the ball on the ground this year. Jay Gruden’s team ran the ball more than anyone other than the 49ers. That does not bode well for Jackson.

Jimmy_Graham4. Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
Viewed as one of the biggest moves of the offseason, Jimmy Graham was supposed to be a major asset to this Seahawks offense.

Graham has immense talent but he also had plenty of opportunities to catch the ball in New Orleans. In his five years in the  Bayou, Drew Brees finished in the top three in passing attempts every season. Meanwhile, since 2012, when Russell Wilson entered the league, Wilson has attempted 727 fewer passes than Brees.

Marshawn Lynch is the centerpiece of the offense in the Pacific Northwest and Graham’s presence does not change that. I do not think he will replicate the production he had last year in New Orleans. He simply will not have enough opportunities to produce at that level.

Peyton_Manning3. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Peyton doesn’t need to be his vintage self for the Broncos to make the playoffs. This defense has shown through two games that it more than capable of holding its own and winning Denver football games.

Already, Manning has thrown already two pick-sixes on the year and his completion percentage is down to 59. His yards per game average is down by roughly 80 yards as well. His throws are no longer as crisp, which makes you wonder how much longer he can really hold up.

He is still Peyton Manning, and looked it at the end of Thursday’s game, so he will have a decent year. By his own standards though, he will definitely finish below average.

C._J._Anderson2. CJ Anderson, Denver Broncos
Say hello to the 2015 version of Montee Ball. Anderson is following very closely in his predecessor’s footsteps. He had a great run to end 2014, averaging about 96 yards per game during the second half of the year. Everyone figured that it would carry over into this season.

However, through two games this year, Anderson has amassed 56 yards on the ground on a meager 2.3 yards per carry.

Denver, for as long as I can remember, tends to ride the hot hand in their backfield. We’re already seeing Ronnie Hillman vulture carries from Anderson and it’s only been two weeks. Anderson might have a few good weeks here or there but he will not consistently be a bellcow runner that the Broncos can rely on with confidence.

DeMarco Murray1. DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia Eagles
Murray was great last season because of his dependability. He averaged 5.03 yards per touch and thrived on 28.1 touches per game. However, Monday night saw Murray struggle to 1.67 yards per touch on just 12 touches. That is far from dependable.

There is simply no way that Murray replicates his production from a season ago. It would have been hard if he had stayed in Dallas running behind the league’s best offensive line. Now, he doesn’t even have those Pro Bowl blockers clearing the way.

I doubt Murray will eclipse 1,000 yards rushing this season. The Eagles threw the ball 52 times on Monday and kept it on the ground 16. That play calling is not conducive to Murray being a productive running back.

Note: All stats used in this article are from pro-football-reference.com. All images are from commons.wikimedia.org.