Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Decade of NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Wild Card Games Pt. 2

 Over the next month before my 2nd decade as a football fan begins (2012-2021 here I come), I will be remembering the playoffs from 2002-2011. NFL Playoff Football, to me, is the best package of sports you will find. The NHL Playoffs comes close but it drags at time, plus the one-game format is inherently more special than a 7-game series. I will be ranking all 40 Wild-Card Round games, 40 Divisional Games, 20 Conference Title Games and 10 Super Bowls. This isn’t really an exercise in ranking them, but in looking back. For each, I’ll give a quick paragraph review and some interesting, fact or play that I remember about that game.

Let's get to Part 2 of the Wild Card Games, Tiers IV-VII (The Good Games through the Epics)

Tier IV – The Good Games (no need for fancy titles now)

Review: In a total reversal of what was expected, the Eagles had 100 more yards net of passing (Vick threw for 292 to Rodgers 180) but the Packers and their maligned run game outrushed the Eagles by 57. On the day, Rodgers had one of the quiter good statistical games you will see (18-27 for 180 and 3 tds with no picks and a fumble), but the Eagles could have still easily won if Nick Collins doesn’t make a game-saving tackle on DeSean Jackson, or if Michael Vick doesn’t throw a desperation heave to Riley Cooper of all people with time left, or if David Akers doesn’t miss two relatively normal field goals. In a game where the Packers never trailed and led 14-3, they were really pushed more than in any other game in their run.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This was one of the rare games where the losing team had more yards and fewer turnovers. As is normal, Special Teams is generally the reason, and here it was with Akers. The Eagles are one out of just two to achieve such infamy at home, as the other is a little team I like to call to 2005 Colts.

Review: In what will unthinkably be marked down as Peyton Manning’s last played game as a Colt, the Colts became just the 2nd team in NFL history to lose a playoff game where they scored to take the lead with less than a minute remaining. Somehow, despite airmailing throws all night, Mark Sanchez was able to pull it off, aided with a nice KO return by Antonio Cromartie, and of course that spectacular Jim Caldwell timeout for no reason. It should not be forgotten that LT had a really nice playoff game for once, and Adam Vinatieri was Adam Vinatieri, hitting what should have been the game winning kick from 50 yards.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Manning’s last throw as a Colt (again, can’t believe that that is the case) was an incomplete to Blair White, where Manning threw just low (if it was a better receiver, it probably gets caught). Had Manning completed it, the Colts could have run out the clock before the field goal.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: Oh yeah, who was the guy on the kick coverage team that didn’t stay in his lane and cut down Cromartie earlier you ask? Why, it was bust extraordinaire Jerry Hughes.

14.) 2004 NFC Wild Card – (N5) Rams 27 @ (N4) Seahawks 20

Review: In what was a really fun game, a drop by Bobby Engram in the end zone kept this out of overtime (and probably a ranking in the top-10). Hasselbeck and Bulger both threw for over 300 yards (Bulger on only 18-32 passing). The game was memorable as it was the last moment of glory for the St. Louis Rams Greatest Show on Turf era. Torry Holt and Kevin Curtis each had 100 yard days, as did Darrell Jackson (who of course, had a pass bounce off of his hands for a pick) while Itula Mili came up two yards short. As usual Shaun Alexander did nothing, but in the end, two average at best teams combined for a darn exciting game.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This is the only playoff game in NFL History where both teams were outscored for the season. The Seahawks were just a -2, but the Rams were a -73. Yes, that is how bad the NFC was in those days, that an 8-8 team outscored by -73 points was not only in the playoffs, but wasn’t even the 6th seed. The Rams also became the first 8-8 team to win a playoff game.

Review: In what was an interesting game played by a Jeff Garcia led Eagles team and a Giants team that tried very hard to not make the playoffs, David Akers hit a last second field goal to win the game. A game that is oddly forgotten over time given how close it was and the fact that it was between two big market teams, it featured Plaxico Burress catching two TDs, Brian Westbrook running for 141 yards on just 20 carries, and somehow just one combined turnover, which is odd given the fact that Eli Manning and rain were prominently involved (man, that was a very Simmons-esque joke). Overall, it was a nice way to cap what was the first weekend of an epic postseason.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The game marked a lot of lasts: It was Tiki Barber’s last game. It was also Donovan McNabb’s last home playoff game, and Andy Reid’s last home playoff win. This was also the most recent wild-card game decided by exactly 3 points.

12.) 2008 NFC Wild Card – (N5) Falcons 24 @ (N4) Cardinals 30

Review: This game was overshadowed by what happened right after that day, but Kurt Warner’s first playoff game in Arizona did not disappoint. Somehow, despite outgaining the Falcons by 100 and committing two fewer turnovers, the game was in doubt late, which made it all the more exciting. Larry Fitzgerald started his epic postseason with a leaping TD grab, while Anquan Boldin injured himself during a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Antrel Rolle also returned a fumble for a TD. The game also featured a safety and the Cardinals being ballsy enough to throw for a game-clinching 1st down up just 6 on 3rd and 9. Basically, everything you want from a solid, if unspectacular game.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The game would be known for the Falcons allegedly having just one snap count for the entire game. This was used, I guess, to help comfort rookie Matt Ryan, but it led to the Cardinalsgetting epic pressure, which directly resulted in the fumble that was returned for the TD and the safety.

11.) 2003 AFC Wild Card – (A5) Titans 20 @ (A4) Ravens 17

Review: In the only chapter of an underrated playoff trilogy that the Titans won, the two teams battled it out gladiator style in a defensive game in the Cathedral of defense. The Titans held 2,000 yard rusher Jamal Lewis to 35 yards on 14 carries (somehow, Billick felt it pertinent to let Anthony Wright throw 39 times instead of running Lewis more), while Ed Reed and Will Demps picked off Steve McNair, who like McNair does, was playing with a broken thumb. Ancient kicker Gary Anderson won the game with a 46 yard field goal with a minute left, which was a great capper to a hard-hitting night.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Since I couldn’t think of anything better and because it started with this game, Ed Reed has played three home playoff games (with this being the first) and has at least one interception in all three of them.

Tier V – The Very Good Games

10.) 2004 AFC Wild Card – (A5) Jets 20 @ (A4) Chargers 17 (OT)

Review: In a rainstorm (who says, San Diego is always sunny?), Drew Brees, who threw for 319 yards on 31-42 passing, led a comeback from 17-7 down in the 2nd half to send the game to OT after a clutch TD catch by Gates. Pennington, who despite his lack of arm had thrown a perfect rainbow TD to Santana Moss for 47 yards, was allowed to keep his OT drive going, while Marty told Brees to shut it down. Nate Kaeding, as Nate Kaeding is known to do, missed to 40+ yarder, and Doug Brien hit his 28 yarder. Overall, it was a slog of a game that was, in a word, wild. Of course, Herman Edwards didn’t learn the one lesson he needed to take away from this game.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game only went to OT because ex-Raider Eric Barton roughed Drew Brees on what was a 4th down incompletion on the drive that ended with the TD to make it 17-17. The Jets should have taken over the ball and won 17-10, but you can take the Barton out of Oakland, you can’t take the Oakland out of the Barton.

Review: The Colts joined themselves from 2005, and five others on the list of teams that outgained their opponent and committed fewer turnovers yet lost. And all because Gijon Robinson forgot the snap count and Mike Scifres became BatMan for one night. Scifres pinned the Colts inside the 10 four times, including with the Colts up 17-14 looking to ice it, at the one yard line. After running for eight, the Colts, on 3rd and 2, called a pass looking to ice it, but Gijon Robinson forgot the snap count letting a free rusher to sack Manning. The game was also memorable for a play where while Antonio Cromartie and one other Charger d-back were looking at the sideline waiting for instructions, Manning snapped the ball and fired a 72 yard TD to Reggie Wayne he ran by the idle Cromartie. If I wasn’t a Colts fan, I would have enjoyed this game so much more, as it was a good game between two good teams that were really, really even (despite one having a 12-4 record and the other 8-8).

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Just to reinforce the ridiculous field position the Colts were saddled with, the Colts had three drives that didn’t end in a turnover or a failed 4th down go for more yards than either of San Diego’s two field goal drives.

8.) 2007 AFC Wild Card – (A5) Jaguars 31 @ (A4) Steelers 29

Review: In the regular season, the Jags beat the Steelers 29-22 in a game they outgained them in 421-217. Here, they win a game 31-29 in a game they were outgained 340-239. David Garrard was mostly awful, going 9-21 with 140 yards and 1 td and 2 picks, but Roethlisberger started off worse, throwing a pick-6 to Rashean Mathis and two more interceptions. He regained form, and turned a 28-10 deficit into a 29-28 lead in less than 12 minutes. The game ended with a series of interesting plays. Up 29-28, with a 3rd and 6 with 2:50 left, the Steelers called a QB sweep run for Roethlisberger that didn’t come close to working. Then, up 4th and 2 for the Jagsat the Steelers 42, Garrard ran a beautifully called QB draw for 32 yards(there was a much disputed blatant uncalled hold by the Jags on the play), and Josh Scobee ended it. All in all, it was a sloppy but wild game between two teams that were quite good.

Interesting/Memorable Play: After scoring to make it 28-23, the Steelers understandably went for 2. However, on the ensuing play the Steelers were called for offensive-holding, which made the 2-point conversion have to be attempted from the 12 yard line. Tomlin still decided to go for two. Mind you, there was 10:30 left in the game at this point.

Review: Was there anything more inevitable than the Seahawks winning a playoff game when they were a 7-9 team that had been outscored by 92 points? Please, let me know if there was. The Seahawks didn’t win by any fluke, either. Matt Hasselbeck played one final last tremendous game for the Seahawks, with 4 tds on 22-35 passing, and while Brees threw for another 400+ yards, the Seahawks managed to make enough stops. The odd part of the game is it started out like it should in that the Seahawks seemed overmatched. The Saints got a field goal, picked off Hasselbeck and answered with a TD. They were up 17-7 at one point. Of course, the Seahawks proceed to score 27 of the next 30 points to go up 34-20. All in all, there were 14 scores in this bizarre, unlikely shootout, none more memorable than Marshawn Lynch’s BeastMode run, where he stiff-armed the shit out of Super Bowl XLIV hero Tracy Porter, and ran his way into NFL lore.

Interesting/Memorable Play: On said Marshawn Lynch TD, what was almost as good as the stiff-arm, was the fact that lineman Sean Locklear and Tyler Polumbus, and Matt Hasselbeck were running and blocking for Lynch at basically the same speed. They crossed the end zone with him. Truly just an incredible play.

6.) 2002 AFC Wild Card – (A6) Browns 33 @ (A3) Steelers 36

Review: The first half of maybe the best single day in Wild Card Round history, the Browns, in their only playoff game in their new era, and the Steelers, in that weird Tommy Maddox pass-heavy year, staged an classic. On the Browns 2nd play, Kelly Holcomb hit Kevin Johnson for 80 yards. That was a sign that this would be the exact opposite of every Steelers playoff game ever played in Heinz Field. There was no defense. The Browns raced to a 24-7 lead in large part because of Holcomb (who threw for 429 yards on 26 completions!) and an unholy performance from Dennis Northcutt. The Steelers under Maddox who himself threw for 367 yards (on 30-48 passing) started flinging it to get back in the game. Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward both had 100+ yards, and little by little the Steelers got back in it. The game ended with a dramatic one-yard TD plunge by Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala of all people, capping the first of two ridiculous comebacks on the same day.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: There were a lot of odd stat-lines in this game, but none more so than Browns running back William Green, who had just 30 yards on 25 carries. Who lets their running back run that much if he isn’t getting anything? Butch Davis, that's who.

Tier VI – The Great Games

Review: What is rightfully the more famous of the two comebacks, the game featured a whole lot before the infamous botched snap by Trey Junkin and missed pass-interference. Kerry Collins and Jeff Garcia each had over 300 yards (Collins had 4 tds to Garcia’s 3, both threw a pick), but it was Kerry early and Jeff late. The Giants took a 38-14 lead mostly on the arm of Collins and three receiving TDs by Amani Toomer (Jeremy Shockey had the other one, after which he reportedly threw something into the crowd). Then the 49ers, in the last playoff game of the West Coast era (although they had missed the playoffs in 1999-2000), started using the Candlestick Magic. Terrell Owens caught his 2nd long touchdown. Jeff Garcia ran for another. Tai Streets caught the game winner. Of course that set up the infamous ending, but forget that. It overshadows what a fabulous display of resilience by the 49ers and offense by both.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Despite their brilliance in these games, Kerry Collins and Jeff Garcia would both be gone from their teams by 2004: Collins in Oakland, replaced by Manning/Warner, while Garcia flocked to Detroit to join Mooch, leaving Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay to guide the 49ers to a 2-14 year.

Review: “We want the ball and we’re gonna score.” Another great game that has become dominated by one singular play, or in this case, sentence. Matt Hasselbeck’s guarantee heard around the world was just the coda to what already was a good football game between two good, pretty equal teams. There were a lot of storylines heading into the game, what with this being the return of Mike Holmgren to Lambeau Field, and with Matt Hasselbeck being one of the Favre backups to find success elsewhere. The game itself was well-played, with both QBs throwing for over 300 yards, and that walk-off pick-six by Al Harris being the only turnover in the game. The Packers fans were so happy when Alex Bannister(?) ran the wrong route in OT. Sad, they were so innocent then. The Lambeau Faithful had no idea that Favre would throw two OT interceptions in the next four years.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The last five scores in regulation were all TDs (the game went from 13-6 Green Bay to 27-27) and all five were 1-yard runs by either Alexander or Ahman Green. Despite both having pedestrian days (neither ran for 3.0+ yards per carry) they combined for 5 TDs, while the two QBs got just one between them. That’s some quality vulturing.

Review: Because of recency bias, I came close to putting it at number two. Thankfully, I realized that was dumb, and put it at its proper place at. You could not script a better ending to the Tebow Era in Denver. For once, Tim Tebow earned his fairytale ending. Tebow just repeatedly abused a short-sighted game-plan by Dick LeBeau to single-cover everyone and put 8 in the box. It led to little running, but allowed Tim Tebow to throw for 316 yards on just 10(!) completions. Demaryius Thomas did most of the damage with a 4 reception 204 yard day. Roethlisberger started out slow, but reportedly got a shot at halftime and came out firing in the 2nd half. The Steelers were two first downs from winning the game in regulation before an airmailed snap (the 2nd of the game) ended that drive. It was, in a way, destiny. In the first playoff game with the new rules, the Broncos made that little fact irrelevant, scoring an 80-yard TD on the first play. It led to a harrowing divisional round game the next week (man, Steelers – Patriots would have been about 100x better), but one of the iconic memories, ironically for a team led by a QB that was jettisoned that offseason.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The Broncos winning marked the fifth time in nine games time that in a playoff matchup between two teams with a total win differential of four or more,, that the team with the fewer wins won (10-6 Giants over 16-0 Patriots in 2007, 8-8 Chargers over 12-4 Colts in 2008, 9-7 Jets over 13-3 Chargers in 2009, 7-9 Seahawks over 11-5 Saints in 2010 – the four times the team with more wins won was the 12-4 Steelers beating the 8-8 Chargers in 2008, the 14-2 Colts beating the 9-7 Ravens and Jets in 2009 and the 11-5 Bears beating the 7-9 Seahawks). The 9-7 Giants would do it in each of their next three games as well, beating the 15-1 Packers and 13-3 49ers & Patriots, while of course the Patriots at 13-3 would beat Denver as well.

Review: Four times there have been Saturday Wild Card round playoff games in Qwest Field. All four were good, and two were very good. This was the only one in primetime, and man was it special. The game is remembered mostly, obviously, by Tony Romo’s bobbled snap, but the rest of the game was crazy. Against a secondary featuring insurance-salesman Pete Hunter playing nickel next to two rookies, Tony Romo threw for just 189 yards on 17-29 passing. Hasselbeck wasn’t much better going 18-36 for 240. What made the game legendary, though, was that ending. Starting with Miles Austin, a good three years before anyone would hear from him in any receiving capacity, answering a Seahawk TD with a kickoff return touchdown to make it 17-13 Boys. Then, down 20-13, the Seahawks were stoned on 4th and Goal. Later after a fumble/safety/TD controversy, the Seahawks, courtesy of Jerramy Stevens (yeah, that loudmouth) catching his 2nd touchdown, took a 21-20 lead. On the final drive, Lofa Tatupu stoned Witten one inch short of a first down where the Cowboys could have iced the game before kicking the field goal. As it was they never got the field goal off, but Romo still came close to running the bobbled hold in for a TD if not for a desperation tackle by Jordan Biabineaux. Wild Card Games are special because they are just that: wild. They aren’t the best teams, but they have damn dramatic, if not particularly well-played, endings.

Interesting/Memorable Play: So, the Terry Glenn fumble out of his own end zone that was originally thought to be recovered for a Seahawks TD was challenged by the Cowboys. The funny part about the challenge is that it was the rare case where in either outcome the Seahawks were going to score points, be it a safety or a touchdown.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This was Bill Parcells last game as a head coach in the NFL, and it was 10 years after he and Mike Holmgren coached against each other in Super Bowl XXXI. NBC showed a side by side view of Holmgren and Parcells during that game and during the current one, and both seemed to have aged 20 years and put on 30 pounds.

Tier VII - The Epic

Review: Could it be anything else? The highest scoring game in NFL history featured one QB going 28-42 for 423 yards and 4 tds (with a pick) and being pretty conclusively the 2nd best QB in that game. Warner, in his last great hurrah, put up something close to what Manning did to the Broncos in 2003 (he also had a perfect passer rating). 29-33 for 379 yards and 5 tds, and of course, without Anquan Boldin. Steve Breaston and Early Doucet picked up the pace. Larry Fitzgerald did as he does in the playoffs (6-82 and 2 scores). The best part of the game was the Packers not backing down after falling behind 31-10 and having nothing go for them (2 turnovers and a missed field goal). The Packers made just one stop in the whole game, but went on a 28-7 run to tie it at 38-38 with the help of what would become the most forgotten surprise onside-kick in playoff history. Jermichael Finley has made a living of being an overhyped player with his play as he had 6 catches for 159 yards. Greg Jennings, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston all made one-handed catches, each as good as the other. No one backed down (other than the two defenses, obviously). Rodgers was 95% as good as he was the next year in Atlanta in this game, but lost because Warner was 105% as good as Rodgers was in that game in Atlanta. The game might be this good even if Neil Rackers didn’t Vandershank the game-winning field goal and it had ended 48-45, but overtime made it even better, with defense winning the game, as a Mike Adams blitz got to Rodgers who fumbled and then kicked the ball right into the hands of Karlos Dansby. An ironically special way to end the greatest shootout most of us have ever seen.

Interesting/Memorable Play 1: The blitz that Mike Adams sacked and stripped Rodgers on was the same blitz called earlier in the game where Adams almost sacked Rodgers. Adams mistimed his leap then and Rodgers escaped. This time, he wasn’t as lucky.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: There is a great NFL Films clip where the camera is perched right behind Mike McCarthy during the Rodgers fumble Touchdown, where as the play is happening, and McCarthy processes what is happening, he just falls to his knees in agony. A great human moment.

Interesting/Memorable Play 3: I can’t forget to mention the controversial non-call as Mike Adams latched onto Rodgers facemask. The issue is I can’t be too hard on Scott Green. He’s supposed to be watching the ball. Either way, the correct call would have been the facemask occurred after the fumble, and the Cardinals would have kept the ball anyway. That said, like the real ending better.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Decade of NFL: The Beginning

I realized something recently. This upcoming 2012 season marks my 10th year of being an ardent NFL fan, someone who watches every week, understands the game to some level, and spends time thinking about the game way too much. By around 2007-08, this love of the game reached its apex (a level that it hasn't really dropped from) as I started venturing out onto the internet to find better, smarter and more focused ways to analyze the game. There, I found Football Outsiders, and 18to88 and a host of other sites with fans just like me, who think like me, talk like me and are similarly obsessed with a game in a way that is unhealthy. It has been 10 years.

A lot has changed in the NFL over the ten years that encompass my true fanhood. 10 years ago, heading into the 2002 season, the Patriots were a lovable underdog team that fought and lucked its way into a Super Bowl. The Rams were the glory team of the NFL. The best two QBs (again, heading into the season, not during it) were Kurt Warner of the Rams and Brett Favre of the Packers. That truly seems like a lifetime ago. Only two coaches coaching then still coach for that same team (Bill Belichick and Andy Reid) and only two others even coach for other teams (Shanahan and John Fox - who was about to enter his first season in Carolina). Only one QB remains on the team he was on back then (Tom Brady). If you consider Donovan McNabb to be retired (as I do), only Brady and Peyton remain at all. That is scary. 10 years in an eternity in the NFL, and I just finished living my first one.

2002 was a weird time. It was the last year of the transition phase of the NFL, as the league went from the 49ers-Cowboys-Packers era from 1992-1997 (or really the NFC Dominance era from 1984-1996) to the Patriots-Colts-Steelers era from 2003 to now (those three teams have still combined for the last nine AFC titles – although they’ve also combined to be the last three Super Bowl losers now). It is something similar to the years between the Sampras-Agassi era and the Fed-Nadal-Djokovic era known as 2001-2004, when Fed dominated late, but a host of randoms (Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa, Goran Ivanisevic, Yvgeny Kafelnikov) and good but not great players (Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick) won slams. 1999-2002 was this era in the NFL. 2002 was the last year when Brady wasn’t mythologized (he, gasp, missed the playoffs by losing a game at home to the Jets in Week 16) and Manning was still a playoff-o-fer, zero-time MVP. It really was as if 2002 was the last year the league was wild. And it was a fun year.

2002 was a year where the 11-5 Raiders, my team, won the AFC, but more ridiculously, earned home field advantage with that record. No team in the AFC won more than eleven games. Since 2002, no AFC team has even earned a bye with less than 12. Hell, in 2004 and 2006, all four division winners won 12 games, and in 2008, the Patriots didn’t qualify at 11-5. That Raider team immediately fell apart mainly due to age, but it was the zenith of Al Davis’s last creation, as they were the best form of the 1999-2002 Raiders run, with their impeccable passing offense led by MVP Rich Gannon (and he earned it). 2002, however, was also a year where ridiculous things happened all around the league. Here is a quick rundown of the 2002 season:

  • The Jets won the AFC East despite a 2-5 start to the season, while the Titans won the AFC South and earned a 1st round bye despite a 1-4 start to the season.
  • The Browns, at 9-7, made the playoffs behind the exploits of backup Kelly Holcomb, and the great receiving of Dennis Northcutt.
  • The Eagles went 12-4 and got the #1 seed in the NFC, and went 4-0 late in the season starting Koy Detmer, who got hurt, and then AJ Feeley. I’m sure Miami regrets the fact that Koy Detmer got hurt.
  • The Saints, in the most Jim Haslett-Aaron Brooks type year ever, went 8-8 but somehow with those two scored 432 points.
  • Mike Sherman and Warren Sapp got into a verbal fight after their MNF game in October, with Sapp yelling the memorable line “You so tough? You so tough? Put a Jersey On! Put a Jersey On!” to a finger-wagging Mike Sherman.
  • Michael Vick sprung to life in 2002, and his legend was cemented with his incredible overtime game-winning 40-yard TD run against the Minnesota Vikings
  • 2002 marked the first year of the Dick Vermeil offensive renaissance in Kansas City, as the Chiefs scored 467 points, which they followed with seasons of 484 and 483.
  • 2002 also was the first season for the Houston Texans, and the current divisions/playoffs and scheduling format.
  • The Buccaneers featured what might have been the best pass defense ever. Most advanced statistical analysis on the matter concludes this. They have the best pass defense by DVOA, and when the pro-football-reference did a study of QB Super Bowl performances adjusted for opponent, Rich Gannon’s actually came out average – that was the strength of that defense.

Overall, 2002 was the perfect initiation for a fan. My team was really good (the Raiders were my main team back then). The league was really wild. There were no perfect teams, no truly unstoppable offenses. Just a lot of fun, flawed teams competing in the last year of true sanity. It all changed in 2003, when Tom Brady won a 2nd ring despite not being that great of a QB (he did play excellent in Super Bowl XXXVIII, admittedly). Then, to justify that this guy had won two rings and the fact that the MVP of the league and clearly more talented, better player in Peyton Manning had won zero, the rigns=greatness movement started. In a way, it was also the beginning of the overarching story of the next eight years, the Colts-Patriots rivalry and the Manning-Brady debate, but in a way, it marginalized every position not named QB.

I have no idea how the 2003 and 2004 seasons buoyed my interest in the NFL. Those were easily the two darkest seasons for me as a fan (not only because the Patriots were at their very best, although that definitely was a factor), but also just average seasons all around. They had great teams (especially 2004) but few great stories like the 2002 seasons. There were no miracle teams in 2003 and 2004 (the Panthers came the closest, but they started 2003 5-1, so we all could see it). 2004 was probably the nadir of the imbalance between the QB and defense rich AFC and the pathetic NFC, as the AFC Playoff field consisted of a 15-1 team, a 14-2 team, two 12-4 teams and two 10-6 teams, while the NFC field was a 13-3 team, an 11-5 team, a 10-6 team, a 9-7 team and two 8-8 Wild Card teams. At least 2003 had a mostly magnificent postseason (four great divisional games, a great Super Bowl, one truly memorable Wild Card game), but the 2004 postseason was awful. Only four of the 11 playoff games were less than 10-point affairs.

There was a light at the end of that dark tunnel, though, and it was 2005. Although that postseason was nothing special, it was the first year that a team chased perfection. Other than the explosion of offensive numbers and the Patriots-Colts-Steelers dominance, nothing explains the 2002-2011 period other than this idea. The chase of perfection. The Colts were the first team to do it in 2005, and they were easily the best team in the NFL that season. The won each of their first 13 games by at least a touchdown and did it with clinical efficiency. As a Colts fan, it was incredible to watch Manning play so well, but also so reserved. He didn’t force balls. He didn’t throw 45 times a game. It was minimalism at its best. Of course, San Diego upset them in Week 15, Tony Dungy’s son tragically committed suicide, and the Steelers upset the Colts in what would start the other great trend of the period, #1 seeds losing and lower-seeded teams making and winning Super Bowls.

2006 had the Colts chase perfection with a 9-0 start, and then the flawed Colts, statistically their worst team from 2003-2009, win the Super Bowl as a #3 seed despite a historically bad run defense. 2007 had the Patriots chase and achieve perfection, and then the Giants magical run to the Super Bowl becoming in the process the worst team to ever win one. 2008 had the Titans(!) chase perfection with a 10-0 start, and then a mad playoffs where three of the four bye teams lost their opener, and an NFC Championship between a #6 and a #4 seed, and the 9-7 Cardinals that had lost games 56-31, 48-21 and 47-17 during the season, come within 30 seconds of winning the Super Bowl. 2009 had the Saints and Colts chase perfection, one starting 13-0 and getting beaten, the latter starting 14-0 and giving up their fight in a calculated move. 2010 was the one year where no team really chased perfection, but had the 10-6 #6 seed Packers romp their way to the Super Bowl without ever trailing in the 2nd in any of their playoff games. And 2011 had those same Packers start 13-0 before shockingly losing to the eventually 7-9 Chiefs, and then the Giants again, this time at 9-7 and having been outscored during the season, winning the Super Bowl.

Those two elements made the last half-decade or so incredible. There were some great teams (the 2005 Colts, 2006 Chargers, 2007 Pats, Colts, Cowboys, 2009 Colts, Saints, 2010 Pats, 2011 Packers) but rarely did that team actually win it all (out of that list, only the 2009 Saints). The NFL was achieving a new kind of parity, which is what the league wanted. In 2002, there already was parity, what with no AFC team going better than 11-5, and no team overall going better than 12-4, but those playoffs were routine in that both conference title games featured 1v2 matchups. By 2011, there were four 13-3 or better teams, but none of them won the title. It is a different NFL, but as a fan maybe more enjoyable.

Overall, the last ten years of football have been special. They have featured six Super Bowls that rank in the good to epic category (38, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46), two more that had their memorable moments (41, 42) and just one dud (37). They have featured so many great playoff games. In the end, that is what I will remember most about this era, the games. The stories, and stats and all are nice, but the actual game is what makes the sport so great, and the period from 2002-2011, my first football decade, was the perfect example. I remember each of the 110 playoff games played during that time. Some I didn’t see live, some I’ve not only seen live but watched 10 more times. The games are what truly define and make this era of football, and this mini-project is about that.

*yes, that was an extremely long, rambling, sometimes wayward introduction*

Over the next month before my 2nd decade as a football fan begins (2012-2021 here I come), I will be remembering the playoffs from 2002-2011. NFL Playoff Football, to me, is the best package of sports you will find. The NHL Playoffs comes close but it drags at time, plus the one-game format is inherently more special than a 7-game series. I will be ranking all 40 Wild-Card Round games, 40 Divisional Games, 20 Conference Title Games and 10 Super Bowls. This isn’t really an exercise in ranking them, but in looking back. For each, I’ll give a quick paragraph review and some interesting, fact or play that I remember about that game. Let the playoff-rewind for my initial decade of football watching begin.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

NFL Top 200 for 2012: #25-1

25.) Jason Pierre-Paul (DE - NYG)

Sometimes you just have to take the guy with all the raw physical talent and little collegiate track record. Often, that player will end up closer to the JaMarcus Russell side of the spectrum, but when teams endlessly do take those types of players, it is in the hope they become the type of player Jason Pierre-Paul has. Pierre-Paul had 32 defeats last season, with 16.5 sacks, 25 hurries and all the rest. He has some of the best instincts I've ever seen in getting his hands up to deflect passes. The scariest part is that he is just 24 and has a lot left to learn, and a lot left in the tank. Somehow, someway, the Giants just found another great pass rusher.

24.) Jimmy Graham (TE - NO)

Jimmy Graham is surprisingly already 26, but that is about the only knock I can find (and in reality, that is no knock - he is squarely in his prime) in comparing him to Gronkowski. They are both as uncoverable as I've seen any Tight End since the prime of Antonio Gates. Graham probably won't have 150 targets (and 99 catches) again mainly because I expect some semblance of normalcy in the offenses around the league, but unless he gets hurt, he will probably have another monster season.

23.) Tamba Hali (DE - KC)

In 2010, the Chiefs had 38 sacks, and Tamba Hali had 14.5 of them. In 2009, the Chiefs had 22 sacks, and Tamba Hali in 8.5 of them. In 2011, the Chiefs had 29 sacks, and Tamba Hali had 12 of them. Other than that flukey 38-sack year, the Chiefs have had issues getting to the QB throughout Tamba Hali’s career, and all he has done is continue to be dominant. If you didn’t want the Packers going undefeated in 2011, then thank Tamba Hali for a dominant game in their Week 15 upset of Green Bay. Tamba Hali might be one of the most underrated pure pass rushers in the NFL, and I think is finally starting to get the credit he deserves. If he was on a Pittsburgh, Philly or San Diego (blitz heavy teams) he might have already gotten it and more by now. Instead, he keeps plugging away for a team that needs every scintilla of his pass-rushing skill, and Tamba Hali has given it.

22.) Arian Foster (RB - HOU)

It took some time for Arian Foster to get into gear, but by the end of the season, he was back to his old self. Foster kept up his good numbers receiving. With the return of Matt Schaub and a more explosive passing game, look for Foster to face a lot less 8-in-the-box than he did at times in 2011 during the Yates Experience. I guess there is some injury risk, but he’s faced far less carries than most RBs at 26, and with Ben Tate in the fold, the Texans will probably not work him too hard. Arian Foster is a special player, and yes he has a special system around him, but when you saw him basically carry that offense at times last year, it opens your eyes.

21.) Ed Reed (FS - BAL)

After one of his best seasons in 2010 (4th in success rate for safeties, led the league in picks even though he played just 10 games), Reed had his first down year. It could be decline, or it could be scheme, or it could be an aberration. Given that he was back in the playoffs to being extremely active (had a great day against Houston and made some nice plays, including against Aaron Hernandez on a crucial 3rd down stop late, against New England) it is probably the last of the three. Like each of the past two offseasons, Reed hinted at retirement, then hinted at possibly holding-out, but is back, ready and committed. The league won’t be the same without Ed Reed once he retires. It will be years, if not decades, before we see someone play safety this well this consistently.

20.) Eli Manning (QB - NYG)

I don’t think Eli will ever have to answer about being “Elite” again. Eli Manning was given no run game and a bad-oline, and put together a great season. If Eli had any semblance of a consistent defense in the 2011 regular season, that Giants team probably goes 12-4. He was incredible last season given what he had to work with (remember, no one knew what Victor Cruz would turn into) and did it all in many high-pressured games, playing great in numerous 4th quarter comebacks. He is not better than his brother over his career, and unless something spectacular happens, he won’t ever be, but right now, I would take Eli. He earned this Super Bowl. He wasn’t the best part of the 2007 Giants, but he definitely was in 2011.

19.) Asante Samuel (CB - ATL)

Asante Samuel is a better player now than when he left New England. I realize why Philly got rid of him, because he didn’t fit what they wanted to do, but man did Atlanta get a steal. Samuel was the #1 corner by Football Outsiders in 2010 in both success rate and ypa allowed. He was nearly as good in 2008. His 2009 season was, in hindsight, a complete aberration. For the 2011 season, Samuel ranked first in ypa allowed again, and 4th in success rate. He is, by any calculation, the best or second best corner in the NFL, and has been for some time. Why he routinely gets criticized is beyond me. The idea that has aversion to tackling should outweigh the evidence of his coverage greatness is absurd.

18.) Carl Nicks (LG - TB)

Carl Nicks had another excellent season in New Orleans and got rewarded with a ton of money in Free Agency for the Buccaneers. This will be a real test of just how good Carl Nicks is. He’s easily been the best run-blocking guard in the league for the last couple years (The Saints have been incredible running behind him the past three seasons), but now Nicks has to block for an offense that is run less effectively and a QB without the pocket presence of Drew Brees. Do I think he can? Sure, mainly because I don’t believe Nicks was a product of the Saints, but will he be that good around lesser players? Probably not.

17.) Adrian Peterson (RB - MIN)

All indications are that Peterson will be ready for Week 1, and thank God because he’s the only hope the Vikings have on offense unless Harvin stays healthy for once. Peterson’s been surprisingly consistent even after his offensive line went into from great in 2007-2008 to below average the past two years. If Matt Kalil is as advertised, he might get better blocking. Peterson is still not a good receiving threat, but not using him there does limit his carries (which the Vikings have done a good job of over the years). He is still the best, most powerful, most gifted running back in the NFL, and I for one hope he is fully healthy. The NFL is better with Adrian Peterson powering his way for 1,200 yards again.

16.) Terrell Suggs (OLB - BAL)

I usually demerit players who will miss all of 2012, but since Suggs appears to have a good chance of coming back at some point, I’ll give him his rightful distinction as one of the best edge rushers in the NFL. He is the key behind the Ravens being able to play 3-4 or 4-3, as he has become as a good of a hand-in-the-ground 4-3 DE as he as a 3-4 OLB. As for 2011, Tererell Suggs probably did not deserve DPOTY recognition (Ware or Allen were better choices) but he still had his best year to date. A ridiculous 38.5 hurries accompanied his 14 sacks. Suggs was also great against the run (top 12 in stop rate and yds allowed). Overall, Suggs, who just turned 30, should still have a successful three or four years even after what could be a wash in 2012.

15.) Jake Long (LT - MIA)

Ho, Hum, another solid wasted year for Jake Long. Another year with just one blown sack, and another year being a monster in the run-game. If he somehow reaches free agency next summer it will be interesting to see what happens. My guess is if he does, his contract will make Carl Nicks’s look severely underpaid. If the Dolphins team ever approaches his level, Long is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Either way, he’s at one of the few positions where team success (or lack thereof) is not really a large factor in the Hall voting. Long should get in, because he deserves it. Is he what Ogden, Jones or Pace were at their prime? No. Is he what Gary Zimmerman was? Sure.

14.) Andre Johnson (WR - HOU)

For the first time since 2006, Andre Johnson failed to have 95 yards a game. He had his first major injury since the David Carr era. Chances are Andre will play more than 7 games in 2011, and if so, expect him to become the force he was from 2007-2010. Schaub will have to throw to him even more given the lack of trusted weapons on the Texans offense outside from Johnson. If the Texans want to go deep in the playoffs (repeating in the division is almost assured unless there are tons of injuries), they need the Andre from those years. I think they will get that Andre, even if by age he's on the second half of his peak.

13.) Rob Gronkowski (TE - NE)

Yes, he is having the best start to a career of any tight end ever. He's a beast in general, but is in an offense that utilizes every ounce of talent in him. Again, like Graham, chances are he won't have that great of a season again but his rookie year was already special. In almost any way you cut it, Rob Gronkowski just had the best season of a TE ever (although until his injury midway through 2010, Antonio Gates was having a better season per game). He's completely uncoverable by anyone short of Derrick Brooks in his prime (or Brian Dawkins). The NFL hasn't found a way to really slow him down, but Bernard Pollard may have at least shown that the best way may be the saddest, get the guy hurt. In fact, I have one more cause for concern: that his summer of rampant drinking, partying, shirtlessness and fraternization will come back to haunt him. Sadly for me and all other Patriots haters, that is nothing but grasping at straws.

12.) Nick Mangold (C - NYJ) 

Nick Mangold got hurt for the first time in forever, and people could see evidence of just how good he is by just how bad the Jets looked without Mangold. The Ravens repeatedly attacked up the guy when Mangold was out in that game. Because of the injury and a slight dip, Mangold drops a little, but he is still the best center in the NFL (Maurkice Pouncey fan club be damned), but is about at a point where his play won’t get any better. He really deserves to block for a better QB than Mark Sanchez.

11.) Justin Smith (DE - SF)

Justin Smith has been the 2nd best defensive tackle in the NFL over the past four years (to Ngata). He was actually quite good in Cincinnati previously, but Smith has taken it up a notch since coming to the 49ers. Other than Ngata and Seymour in the past, I have never seen a 3-4 DE so active, so penetrating and so utterly dominant and Justin Smith was at times last season, and especially in the playoffs. Carl Nicks barely held him at bay, and the David Diehl, Kevin Booth, Chris Snee trio had no chance in Smith’s masterpiece performance in the title game. From that interior position he had a ridiculous 28 hurries. At 33 he’s probably nearing the end of the line, but hopefully he will get the recognition he deserves as a man who’s prime was considerably longer than he is given credit for.

10.) Haloti Ngata (DT - BAL)

Other than picking up 5.5 more sacks, Ngata had a down year, but when you have dominant years from 2008-2010, I’m willing to give you a pass. Haloti Ngata was doubled more, and still remains one of the most active 3-4 DEs in the NFL. Richard Seymour wasn’t great every year statistically (even with advanced stats) either. There was talk of a possible injury late in the season that effected things, but even if that is not the case, it is hard to see Ngata not returning to his unbelievable play again in 2012. Another down year in 2012 and I will reevaluate, but for now, he is still 28 and squarely in his prime. The beast will rise again.

9.) Patrick Willis (ILB - SF)

Patrick Willis didn’t blitz as much is 2011. He just became the league’s premier 3-4 ILB in pass coverage instead. What can’t Willis do? He wasn’t as active against the run (the excellence of Bowman took a lot of tackles that Willis might have gotten away from him), but when he did get to a runner, he had only two tackles that were broken all season long. Patrick Willis was a monster since the day he started, and has not slowed down in the least. One day, Patrick Willis will be in Canton. The only question is will any of his 49ers defensive teammates be joining him.

8.) Larry Fitzgerald (WR - ARZ) 

I feel bad for Fitz that the Cardinals couldn’t fit in Peyton Manning. What he has done the past two seasons with Max Hall, John Skelton, Derek Anderson and Kevin Kolb is staggering. His catch rate has really dropped, but his overall drops are the same so it is probably more a product of going from the accurate Warner to those boys listed above. Fitzgerald  had a career high 17.6 yards per catch in 2011, which was a product of using Fitzgerald on more deep routes, showing that he definitely still has that great, underrated speed to get deep. The only way Larry Fitzgerald is not going to Canton (other than injuries) is if his QBs fail him, but judging by 170 catches for 2,550 yards and 14 tds over the past two season, that might not even be close to an issue.

7.) Darrelle Revis (CB - NYJ)

When your “bad” season still places you 11th in success rate and 8th in ypa allowed (after leading both midway through the season) then you know you are truly special. Darrelle Revis was again great in 2011, and despite that little hiccup in the 2nd half partly caused by a injury, remains the best pure cornerback in the NFL. He added 21 passes defended to his ledger. Revis was also a sure tackler, with just two broken tackles all year long. For the first time seemingly since he entered the league, Darrelle Revis did not hold out, which bodes well for the Jets. What bodes better is the fact that when he was healthy, Revis was statistically and anecdotally the best corner back in the NFL.

6.) Tom Brady (QB - NE)

Another great year for Brady, proving again that he is a far, far better player in his 2007-2011, ringless portion of his career than his 2001-2004 ringed portion of his career. One of these years, his play will start to decline, as he’s reaching 35, but he and Belichick have really mastered that system, and with Gronk and Hernandez in toe (for at least one more season together, and Gronk for 5) you wouldn’t think it is about to start in 2012. Brady’s pocket-presence to me has dipped, and he is forcing more throws under pressure than he used to, but he might be the most deadly QB in a clean pocket.

5.) Jared Allen (DE - MIN)

The 22 sacks are nice. The 21.5 additional hurries are also beautiful. The great play against the run makes him even more complete. Jared Allen, after a 2010 where he seemed a step slow and didn’t convert enough hurries into sacks did that and more in 2011, came 0.5 sacks short of Michael Strahan’s sack record, and did it in a year where his team was 3-13 and he was the only true pass rusher on his team (Brian Robison had a nice season, but nothing special). At 30, Allen has leapfrogged Freeney and Peppers into the “best DE of his era” title, and is just behind the only defensive player ranked ahead of him in the “best pass rusher of his era” race.

4.) Calvin Johnson (WR - DET)

There was a reason that Megatron was compared to a bigger, stronger Randy Moss coming out of college, and he finally showed it in its finest form with a monster 2011 season. In fairness, Megatron has had great seasons in the past as well (just look at 2008, where he put up huge numbers for an 0-16 team), but with Matthew Stafford finally healthy, Megatron exploded. He cut his drops, caught more balls thrown his way, and used his body perfectly in the red zone. Ironically, he isn't really a great deep-threat, or at least as he is utilized in that offense (just 35% of throws to him were further than 20 yards) but that is more a function of the amount Stafford throws to him. In totality, at just 27, Calvin Johnson is embarking on a special career, and in tandem with his even younger QB that laser-locks his eyes to Johnson, it is only going to become more and more special.

3.) Drew Brees (QB - NO)

Brees ridiculous video-game season was a sight to watch. He seemed to effortlessly pass for 400 yards. Even in games where Brees wasn’t looking very good, invariably I would say to myself come the 4th quarter, “How the Hell has Brees thrown for 350 yards already?”. It will be interesting to see how history judges Brees’s career. He’s obviously not Manning or Brady and is unlikely to join either. With the rings and a great team around him, Ben may do enough to be considered as good, and there is that boy in Green Bay. Brees might be marginalized from this era in every way other than his records, so enjoy him now. One of the most exciting parts of this upcoming season truly is seeing what he does without Sean Payton, and how important Brees was to his own success.

2.) DeMarcus Ware (OLB - DAL)

Over 8 years in Philadelphia, the legend known as Reggie White had 124 sacks in 121 games. DeMarcus Ware isn’t at that pace (99.5 sacks in 112 games), but he has 80 sacks over the past 80 games. A sack a game is about impossible to do, and Ware has been doing it for five years now. He’s led the league in sacks twice (20 in 2008, 15.5 in 2010) and had years of 11.5, 14, 11, and 19.5 without leading the league. He’s never missed a game. He had 23 hurries to go along with those sacks, played very good against the run, had only one broken tackle. He’s about as perfect a 3-4 OLB can be. The Cowboys have been bleeding talent on defense for some time, but Ware remains a Canton-bound constant, the best defensive player in football… again.

1.) Aaron Rodgers (QB - GB)

Many have credited Aaron Rodgers for taking advantage of a tough situation in replacing Brett Favre. In reality, he got the perfect situation. He used up his formative, generally pick-heavy, growing accuracy, sub-90 passer rating years, sitting on the bench and learning an offense that takes time to learn. He inherited an extremely talented roster that just went 13-3 and barely lost in the NFC Championship, full with young skill players. I don’t know how you can ask for anything better. Unlike Manning who came to a 3-13 team, or Brady to a 5-11 one, Rodgers got a gift-wrapped team ready for a string of success. That said, he’s the straw that stirs the drink entirely now. What we just witness from him was a special season. By advanced stats, it rates behind Manning’s seasons in 2004 and 2006 (that ’06 season was quietly incredible for Manning) and Brady’s 2007, but the statistics he put up last year are mind-boggling. 45 TDs to 6 INTs? I’m sad he just barely eclipsed Manning’s 121.1 QB Rating from 2004, but he earned it. Aaron Rodgers, despite having his first true playoff disappointment with a sullen performance against the Giants, is the best player in the NFL. Unless some things dramatically and quickly change, it will stay that way for a while.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

NFL Top 200 for 2012: #50-26

For the third straight year, I will be counting down my personal Top 200 Players in the NFL. This ranking is completely subjective, built off of a completely subjective list of criteria, mixing recent performance (what they did in 2011 matters most, but 2009-2010 is still relevant), health, age, status and other random things that are unquantifiable. Unlike last year, I am not going through the exercise of listing all of the people that fell off of the list from 2011. First, that takes time, and second, I would rather not look back at all the hysterically wrong rankings I made a year ago. One note: this is not some trade value type column, or most valuable. For instance, Richard Sherman is ranked above Tony Romo. Would Dallas make that trade? Of course not. Is Sherman better at what he is asked to do than Romo? In my opinion he is. Anyway, let's get to #50-26

*BTW, big shout-out to Football Outsiders (FO), my favorite independent football site on the web. I used a lot of their numbers in my justifications. Mostly, DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) Success Rate (how many plays a defender achieves success on), stop rate (the rate a defender makes stops), Defeats (any big play made by a defender) ypa allowed (yards per pass allowed by a defender), and more. Their stuff is great, and without them, I would never know how good Alteraun Verner is, for example. I wouldn't know a whole lot of other stuff as well*

50.) Peyton Manning (QB - IND)

There is no real way to judge what Peyton Manning will be. Here’s my (biased - but attempting to be as unbiased as possible) take: Manning could have a 2009 type season. Let’s go back to 2009. We can look back and say that Manning had weapons (Wayne, Garcon, Collie, Clark), but heading into that season, after Anthony Gonzalez went down, Manning had two unproven wideouts. He turned those two into efficient players. Manning can do the same in Denver. Demaryius Thomas could be a star, but the real beneficiaries should be Eric Decker and Andre Caldwell (who played well with Carson Palmer as his QB). Manning should also have the best o-line he’s had since 2004-2006 in Indy. Age is really the only question here. If he’s healthy and ready, he should fly up this list.

49.) Cullen Jenkins (DT - PHI)

Cullen Jenkins left a team that just won the Super Bowl in large part because they had the NFL's #2 defense. That defense went from really good to literally Swiss Cheese (Wisconsin-style) without him. Jenkins went to Philly and the Eagles became the owners of the league's most dynamic d-line. They might not have the depth the Giants have up-front, but the Eagles 'Big 3' was awesome, and in all starts with Cullen. Jenkins was a beast against the run, with a 93% stop rate, and overall ranked 5th in fewest yards allowed for a d-lineman. He's squarely in his prime and should continue to be everything the Philly fans love (and the Packers need) in 2012.

48.) Ray Lewis (ILB - BAL)

Ray Lewis missed four games and the Ravens didn't really miss a beat defensively. That said, I doubt the Raven would want to test that cause/effect relationship again. His numbers were still strong, as he placed in the top-30 against the run for linebackers and in the top-10 in success rate against the pass. Lewis is 37 and really seems to be impervious to aging, as he's been trapped in this good but not great leader of a defense that can still make all the plays asked of him. In a defense with tons of playmakers around him, that is still tremendously valuable.

47.) Tyson Clabo (LG - ATL)

Tyson Clabo did not drop his play without the great Harvey Dahl beside him. Instead, he got better. With Sam Baker having an off year, and Todd McClure nearing the end of his run, Clabo is really important to the Falcons success this season and for the next. There is a reason why the Falcons ranked 9th when running behind his RG position, and by FO, averaged a ranking of 23 running to the other areas. There is talk he could move to LG, but wherever he goes, expect a lot of Michael Turner to follow.

46.) Carlos Rogers (CB - SF)

Carlos Rogers season looked great, and it grades out similarly well in FO's charting stats, with a top-10 success rate, with 18 passes defended and 6 interceptions. He was always a good corner with good ball skills, except those skills didn't involve the actual act of catching it. He finally got that part of his game in 2011 and those were the results. It was odd that the 49ers gave him a 4-year deal when he is already 31, but he plays corner in a way similar to Ike Taylor, and should age pretty well. It helps that the defense in front of him is mostly younger and scary good. Rogers should get plenty more opportunities to display his complete set of ball skills, feasting off the scraps that pass rush provides.

45.) Matt Forte (RB - CHI)

Matt Forte finally got his new contract. Good for him. He’s been insanely valuable for the Bears (apart from a flukey bad 2009), and proved it again in 2011. Had he played all 16 games (something he’s always done other than last season), he would have put up 270 rushes for 1,330 yards with a ypc around 4.9. With more importance placed on run-blocking under Mike Tice than there was under Mike Martz, Forte could excel even more. It will be interesting to see what type of year Forte could put up if the rest of that Bears’ offense gets close to his level.

44.) Wes Welker (WR - NE)

Wes Welker had a career-in-New-England-high 12.9 yards per reception last season. A lot of that had to do with his ridiculous beginning of the season. That said, Welker definitely had a bounce back season from a sub-par (for him) 2010 that featured 13 drops. Now he’s 30, and as noted in football outsiders, his production the last three years is eerily similar to TJ Houshmandzadeh’s production right before his career fell off a cliff. Now, I doubt Welker falls that quickly, but there is a reason the Patriots continue to not sign him long-term. He is still highly valuable, but there is definitely some decline that will be expected the next few seasons.

43.) LaMarr Woodley (OLB - PIT)

Woodley had an injury-plagued campaign in 2011 that saw his production in every area but sacks drop (he still had 9 sacks in 10 games), with just 13 hurries and having his worst season against the run in years. That all said, he was dynamite in 2010 (arguably the best player on that defense), and is still in his prime. If he stays healthy in 2012, he could be either in for a monster season building off of that sack per game total, or another year of odd decline. I would bet the former.

42.) James Harrison (OLB - PIT)

It just felt right to put these two next to each other. Harrisin is a young 34 since he didn't really play a lot until he turned 29. That should alleviate some of the injury concerns after he missed five games in 2011. His numbers prorated over a full season were vintage Harrison, as he had 17 hurries to go with the 9 sacks. He was as usual a dominant force against the run, placing 4th in success rate and 19th in fewest yards allowed per rush. Overall, Harrison continues to excel, but that D.O.B. is getting further and further into the past.

41.) Ryan Clady (LT - DEN)

Ryan Clady just got a $50 Million dollar extension, and he should be Peyton Manning’s blind-side protector for at least the rest of Manning’s career. That should make Manning quite happy, since ever since Tarik Glenn’s sudden retirement, his blind-side has been protected by average to awful player. The best part: Clady is better than Glenn. Clady did lead the league with 11 holding penalties, but it is a lot easier to commit holding with a QB that scrambles around all the time like Tebow. My guess is that number declines a lot with Manning in toe.

40.) Maurice Jones-Drew (RB - JAX)

Oh, Mo-Jo Drew. It’s so sad that as he’s gotten better his team has gotten worse. He was just a pup when the Jaguars seemed to be the next great team after their magical 2007 season. Alas, that was the peak of the Jags, but nowhere near the peak for Maurice Jones-Drew. Almost single-handidly making the Jaguars offense anything greater than pathetic, Jones-Drew led the league in rushing, still remained a good dual-threat and continued to be one of the most powerful yet elusive backs in the NFL. In this new era where RB career stats will be depreciated with the two-back systems and passing increases, Maurice Jones Drew might be after Adrian Peterson the most accomplished RB of this little era. 40 years from now, his career might look a whole lot better.

39.) Jahri Evans (LG - NO)

We will now get to really see just how good Jahri Evans is, as he gets a chance to shine without Carl Nicks there next to him. It will be interesting to see if he can have the success now that he is the focus of the o-line instead of one of two. Evans had another great 2011 season, and his pass-blocking remains excellent, but with Carl Nicks’ supreme run-blocking gone, Evans needs to get better in this area. His role is even more important in that offense given Drew Brees’s height, since he needs a clear pocket in front of him to scan over defender. Evans is key to that happening.

38.) Eric Weddle (FS - SD)

He is so close to passing Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed for the title of best in the league. He might actually be there already. 7 more interceptions was nice, but the real story was his 2nd place ranking in success rate and the 5th rank in ypa allowed. He was actually worse against the run compared to normal, but he again made up for it with his best season against the pass yet. The Chargers drafts on defense from 2007-2010 were mostly garbage, but Weddle has bene the rare great find in that period for the "Lord of No Rings" AJ Smith.

37.) Hakeem Nicks (WR - NYG)

As of this writing, Hakeem Nicks is expected to be ready for week 1 after an offseason injury. That is great news for Eli Manning, who is looking to make Nicks into what Burress was. What is amazing about Hakeem is he plays so much bigger than his size (which isn't too scrawny). Those comically-large hands help as well. One of the most impressive things about Nicks wasn't the long touchdowns against Atlanta and Green Bay in last years playoffs, but that Bill Belichick specifically keyed on taking Nicks out of the Super Bowl, and he still had 10 catches for 104 yards. That evidence of special talents (so are the numbers he's put up as well).

36.) Steve Smith (WR - CAR)

The league is just more fun when good ol' Rules and Regulations is in top form. With rookie Cam Newton, Smith exploded in a way that he hasn't since, dare I say, the peak of the Delhomme era. He had a 61% catch rate, which is most impressive when a good near 40% of the balls thrown to him were deep throws. He should just get better with Cam Newton's continued development. Age is of course an issue, but Smith has defied height and having Jake Delhomme as your QB to put up insane numbers at times (except for 2008, always during odd numbered years - '03, '05, '09, '11). I would expect the same in 2012, and if not, just go on Youtube and revel at the least appreciated great receiver of this era.

35.) Vernon Davis (TE - SF)

Vernon Davis had an interesting first three seasons, what with him underwhelming on the field and being chewed out repeatedly by Mike Singletary. In retrospect, we can all agree the odd-ball in that duo was Mike, not Vernon. Over the past three seasons, the man that is still just 28, has been one of the best TEs, especially given how little defenses have to worry about outside of him. His catch percentage was a career-high 71% in 2011, and although this coincided with him running more short routes than before, he really developed good chemistry with Alex Smith in those routes. It will be interesting to see if Davis sees even more short routes with the addition of Manningham and Moss, two guys who are known for going deep.

34.) Justin Tuck (DE - NYG)

Justin Tuck played his way through injuries throughout the middle of 2011, which is why his statistics don't grade out alll that well, but he got healthy late in the year, started to become the terror he had always been, and that coupled with his great production from 2009-2010 keep him with the lofty distinction of being the best DT/DE hybrid in the NFL once again. Tuck is still just 29, which is young for a DE, and if he stays out of the same nagging injuries he had in 2011, could be a force in 2012. That would be the far less surprising outcome than if he had the, for him, mediocre season he had again.

33.) LeSean McCoy (RB - PHI)

I doubt he gets 17 rushing TDs again, but other than that, McCoy will probably still remain one of the best running backs in the NFL. His receiving fell off, but mainly because he just wasn’t targeted as much this year. By DYAR he was the best running back in the NFL in 2011 (again, mostly because of those TDs) and he’s been among the very best over the past two seasons. In this Vick-era of the Eagles offense, Shady McCoy is the real key to that team, he’s the Marshall Fualk-lite in the machine.

32.) Philip Rivers (QB - SD)

To me, Rivers season in 2011 was a lot like Drew Brees's season in 2010. That year, Brees had 4,620 yards and 33/22 TDs to INTs. It was a flukily high number of interceptions coupled with a bunch or receiving yards. The difference was Brees's team went 11-5 since his defense picked up the slack. Rivers didn't. Now, Brees followed that up with one of the best QB seasons ever, and it will be damn hard for Rivers to do that without V-Jax, but Rivers nonetheless should have a much better year just because like Eli Manning proved after his 2010, strangely high interception totals usually aren't a good indicator of the next season.

31.) Troy Polamalu (SS - PIT)

Polamalu had a better year in 2011 than he had in 2010 (where he somehow won defensive player of the year over Haloti Ngata - or even Clay Matthews), but I overanked him so this is a correction. Polamalu continues to be a premier safety against the run, and his pass numbers improved. That said, he definitely has lost a step and is easier to scheme out of games, which was evident in their playoff loss to the Broncos. He's still among the best safeties in the game, but it probably won't be long before a guy like Weddle passes him.

30.) Vince Wilfork (DT - NE)

How is Vince Wilfork just 31? I feel like he’s been in the NFL since the Tuck Rule. He may have had his best season since the heyday of the Patriots defense back in 2004, 2006 this past season. He was constantly double-teamed throughout 2010 and still managed to be a massible disruptive force, with a team-high stop rate of 80%. The rest of the Patriots front is a mix of garbage and journeymen. Vince makes it all come something close to working, and given that BB actually decided to pay him, it is quite clear how important Belichick thinks Wilfork is.

29.) Cameron Wake (OLB - MIA)

The only man to draw more holding calls than Brian Orakpo in 2010-2011 was Cameron Wake. Cameron Wake was an unholy terror in 2011 which overall was a bounce-back from overrated 2010 season. Wake had 39 hurries (2nd in the NFL), and like Matthews would do well to turn more of those hurries into sacks, but until then, being one of the most unblockable, most held edge rushers still makes Wake among the most valuable defensive players in a defense that took a step back in 2011.

28.) Mike Wallace (WR - PIT)

Mike Wallace is a historically good deep threat so far in his career. His yards per reception in his first three seasons are 19.4, 21.0 and 16.6. Yes, he was targeted closer to the line in 2011 than in either of his first two seasons, but that belies an increased catch rate, and the emergence of other deep threats like Antonio Brown. Chances are it will revert something closer to what happened in 2010, where 40% of the passes thrown Wallace's way went at least 20 yards. Wallace also was used in more bubble-screen action plays in 2011 which resulted in more YAC. He definitely is adding to his game, refining it. That is the truly scary part: that he isn't the full-out deep threat because he doesn't have to be to be exceptional.

27.) Joe Thomas (LT - CLE)

Joe Thomas had his first average year of his career. Now, a lot of that may be the very real regression of Colt McCoy, and the overall ineptness of that team on offense, and I do expect him to rebound in 2012 blocking for Weeden and opening holes for Trent Richardson, but Thomas just wasn't the same excellent player he was in 2011 that he had been to that point. Just like the Browns in general, there isn't much to say about Thomas really. Great player that just had merely a quite good season.

26.) Ben Roethlisberger (QB - PIT)

Roethlisberger limping around the field in two late-season losses last season (@SF and @DEN) can color the fact that he had mostly an outstanding season once again. Roethlisberger should be better in 2012 just because he probably will be healthier, and guys like Antonio Brown may take a leap. The best fact is that Roethlisberger might actually have a good pass-blocking o-line for once. As a rookie and sophomore Roethlisberger was among the most efficient QBs in the NFL with a great o-line. He'll still take sacks because that is just who Ben is, but his play could get better, and it already was quite good in 2011 after being awesome in 2010.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.