Mike Tomlin has a chance to shut up the naysayers with another playoff victory this Sunday.
Bill Belichick-New England Patriots
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is a three-time National Football League Coach of the Year and he is in the running to once again win the award here in 2016. The deck was stacked against the Patriots to begin this NFL season as the result of quarterback Tom Brady being suspended by the league for the first four games.
But in typical Patriots fashion, they responded to adversity as only they could by going 3-1 without Brady. New England hasn’t had the services of tight end Rob Gronkowski that much as he has only appeared eight games this season, while he was placed on injured reserved last month. The Patriots also traded outside linebacker Jamie Collins last month and they haven’t skipped a beat.
With just one game remaining in the regular season, the Patriots are 13-2, and a victory this Sunday over the Miami Dolphins, or a loss by the Oakland Raiders will give New England home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs.
Each of the last five National Football League seasons have seen the Patriots at least reach the AFC Championship Game, and as they’ve already secured a first-round bye, there is a good possibility to see them advance into late January.
In all but two of Belichick’s 17 seasons as the head coach of the Patriots, his team has won at least 10 games in the regular season. And as the Patriots could finish tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the best record in the National Football League, it is a tribute to the culture that Belichick has established in Foxborough.
Adam Gase-Miami Dolphins
For Adam Gase he has walked into a very difficult situation and made the impossible, possible. Prior to this year the Dolphins have only made the playoffs once since 2002, while they hadn’t had a winning season since 2008. But in one year under Gase, the Dolphins are heading to the postseason and in a very improbable fashion.
The Dolphins began the 2016 National Football League season with a record of 1-4 and it appeared to be another lost year in South Florida. But since then the Dolphins are 9-1 as Gase has changed the culture there along with the team’s overall philosophy.
When Gase became the head coach of the Dolphins, he decided to stick with Ryan Tannehill as his starting quarterback. Tannehill was the Dolphins first-round pick in 2012, but he has been up and down during his time with the team. Gase decided to reduce Tannehill’s work load as the Dolphins have rediscovered the running game.
Second year running back Jay Ajayi has become a force for the Dolphins as his 1,213 rushing yards in 2016 are the fourth most in a single-season by a Miami running back. Ajayi’s emergence coincided with the Dolphins resurgence as his 204 rushing yards in Miami’s 30-15 victory in Week 6 over the Pittsburgh Steelers got the ball rolling.
Ajayi has been able to produce behind a Dolphins offensive line that is without the services of a center Mike Pouncey who is a three-time Pro Bowler, but it has been the overall attitude of this unit as well as the commitment to the running game that has turned things around in South Florida.
Overall the Dolphins are ninth in the National Football League in rushing and that will be important in the postseason as they will be without the services of Tannehill who is out with a knee injury. But the Dolphins haven’t skipped a beat with backup quarterback Matt Moore who is 2-0 as a starter.
The Dolphins also possess a ferocious defensive line that features Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cameron Wake who tend to have a weekly meeting a the quarterback.
And once you factor in Miami’s ability to run the football along with a stout defensive line, they should be a force next month in the playoffs.
Jack Del Rio-Oakland Raiders
A franchise turnaround begins with a culture change and this is very evident with the Oakland Raiders. Once upon a time that Raiders were the gold standard of success in the National Football League as they were revered. But since 2003, the Raiders became the laughing stock of the NFL as they have had the worst winning percentage in the league over that stretch without a playoff appearance, or a winning campaign. But things have changed on the watch of head coach Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio in his second season as the head coach of the Raiders, and under him the team has returned to glory. The Raiders record of 12-3 this season is the second best in the AFC, while it is their best mark since they went 12-4 in 2000.
Del Rio has changed the culture in Oakland which wasn’t an easy task and in the process he has woken a sleeping giant in the National Football League. But Del Rio’s biggest task is still ahead of him as the Raiders will enter the postseason without the services of Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr.
Carr suffered a fractured fibula this past Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts which really put a damper on the Raiders postseason chances. Carr was in the running to be the National Football League’s MVP and now the Raiders will go into the postseason relying on backup quarterback Matt McGloin to get the job done. And if Del Rio and the Raiders find a way to advance in the postseason with McGloin under center, it will arguably be one of the best coaching jobs ever done in the history of the league.
Jason Garrett-Dallas Cowboys
After the Dallas Cowboys went 4-12 in 2015, they were expected to be an improved team here in 2016, but nobody expected what they have become. Through 15 games in 2016, the Cowboys are 13-2 which is tied with the New England Patriots for the best mark in the National Football League and they’ve already sewn up home-field advantage in the NFC.
But things looked bleak for the Cowboys in August when starting quarterback Tony Romo was sidelined with a back injury. And that meant that the Cowboys would go with an unproven rookie at quarterback in Dak Prescott.
Prescott has more than overachieved this season as he is completing 68.1% of his passes, while he has thrown 23 touchdown passes to just 4 interceptions. And typically a season like this would see Prescott as a shoo-in to be the National Football League’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he has some very stiff competition from his teammate in running back Ezekiel Elliot.
Whereas much wasn’t expected from Prescott who was selected in the fourth round of the National Football League Draft by the Cowboys, the same cannot be said for Elliot. Elliot was the fourth overall selection of the draft as he was expected to ignite the running game for the Cowboys which is what he has done. Elliot is leading the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards, and he has brought excitement back to that position in Dallas which has not been seen in Dallas since the days of Emmitt Smith.
Prescott and Elliot have benefited from playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League, while Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has kept the game plan simple, but effective for his rookie quarterback.
And if Dallas continues on the pace that they are currently on, they could be in line for their first Super Bowl Championship since 1995.
Ben McAdoo-New York Giants
Ben McAdoo spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants and he found himself being promoted to being the team’s head coach last January. McAdoo’s task was to get things turned around for a Giants franchise that had not reached the postseason since winning the Super Bowl in 2011.
Under McAdoo, the Giants began the season 2-0 for the first time since 2009 and their 10-5 mark has seen them qualify for the postseason. McAdoo’s Giants are the only team to defeat the Dallas Cowboys this season as they’ve done it twice. But it has been the Giants defense that has kept them going this season as they are 11th in the NFL in total defense, but third in points allowed at 18.3 per contest. McAdoo’s specialty is supposed to be offensive football, but New York has been stuck in the mud as they are 24th in the National Football League. However being that the Giants have improved after going just 6-10 in each of the last two seasons has to put McAdoo in the mix as far as being the NFL’s Coach of the Year.
For more than four decades the Oakland Raiders lived by two monikers which were “Just Win Baby”, and “Commitment to Excellence”. From 1960-2002, the Raiders won an American Football League Championship, along with three Super Bowl Titles as they were one of the most revered organizations in football. But following the Raiders 48-21 loss in Super Bowl 37 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, things drastically changed for this once proud organization. The Raiders have failed to post a winning season since then while they’ve become one of the most futile organizations in the National Football League. Over this stretch the Raiders have had 10 seasons where they’ve lost at least 10 games, while they have also employed nine different head coaches. But things appear to finally be turning for the silver and black.
Following the passing of longtime Raiders owner Al Davis, his son Mark assumed control of the team. The younger Davis began to do things his way which included him doing something that his father didn’t prefer to do which was to hire a general manager. Reggie McKenzie was named as the Raiders general manager in 2012, and slowly, but steadily he has been putting a team together through the draft. At first it was difficult for McKenzie due to the fact that the Raiders had a limited amount of draft picks to work with. However the fortunes of the Raiders would begin to change in 2014 when they selected quarterback Derek Carr.
The Raiders used a second-round pick on Carr which might have been the steal of the 2014 National Football League Draft. During Carr’s collegiate career with the Fresno State Bulldogs, he was one of the better quarterbacks in the nation which was highlighted by him being a two-time Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year, and taking home the Sammy Baugh Award as the nation’s top passer in 2013. But all of that didn’t prevent Carr from not being a first-round pick.
What hurt Carr was that he was the younger brother of former National Football League quarterback David Carr. The elder Carr was the first overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans, but he was never able to live up to the hype as the organization made the mistake of starting a rookie quarterback on an expansion team, and the mental and physical beating that he took nearly ruined his career. Carr was able to salvage his career as a backup quarterback which included him winning a Super Bowl Title as a member of the New York Giants in 2011. And the older Carr’s lack of success hurt his little brother’s stock as he had teams, including the Texans who were in need of a quarterback pass on him.
But McKenzie wasn’t ready to pass on Carr as he saw his potential to be a franchise quarterback and he would begin the process of putting quality players around his young signal caller.
In 2015, the Raiders used their first-round pick on wide receiver Amari Cooper, while also signing former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree in free agency. In 2015, Carr passed for 3,987 yards as he became the first Raiders quarterback to be selected to the Pro Bowl since Rich Gannon in 2002. And now in 2016, Carr is taking his game to another level.
Through eight games this year, Carr has already passed for 2,321 yards and 17 touchdowns as he is on pace to become just the third quarterback in Raiders franchise history to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. Carr’s season has been highlighted his game this past Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he passed for 513 yards as the Raiders got the 30-24 victory in overtime. But the most impressive stat for Carr is wins as the Raiders find themselves with a record of 6-2 which has them tied for first place in the competitive AFC West with the defending Super Bowl Champions in the Denver Broncos. And for the first time in a long time, the silver and black are thinking about the postseason.
McKenzie has built this team piece by piece, but he needed a head coach that was going to help him change the culture in the Raiders locker room. And in 2015, McKenzie hired Jack Del Rio to be the Raiders head coach.
Del Rio is a football lifer as after being a two-time, first-team All Pac-10 member as a linebacker for the USC Trojans and the co-MVP of the 1985 Rose Bowl, he enjoyed an 11-year playing career in the National Football League. Del Rio won a Super Bowl Championship as the linebackers coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, while he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine years. From Del Rio’s first day he has made the Raiders believe that they can not only compete with other teams in the NFL, but defeat them as well.
After the Raiders went 7-9 under Del Rio last year, they were expected to somewhat improve this season; however skeptics weren’t sure if they’d be able to take the next step in order to become a contender.
But Del Rio and the Raiders changed that in Week 1 with their 35-34 road victory over the New Orleans Saints. All afternoon the Raiders went back and forth with the Saints at the Superdome. And in the final moments of the game, Carr would lead Oakland’s offense on a scoring drive. With 47 seconds left in the game, Carr would connect with wide receiver Seth Roberts on a 10-yard touchdown pass to make the ledger 34-33 in favor of the Saints. However when everyone expected the Raiders to kick the extra point and settle for overtime, Del Rio decided to roll the dice on and go for the two-point conversion. And on that two-point conversion, Carr would find Crabtree for the score as the Raiders won the contest which has set the tone for their season.
The Raiders have become the “cardiac kids” on the National Football League this season as they have comeback wins over the Saints, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, and Buccaneers. And although that none of these teams currently have winning records, the wins by the Raiders are still important as these were contests two years ago that they would have lost. This has shown up in the Raiders record as they are 5-0 on the road which gives this young group confidence as they’ll more than likely have to win on the road some more if they expect to be a playoff team. But the biggest thing that the Raiders have improved on is their execution.
McKenzie has worked on improving the offensive line as he has drafted offensive tackle Menelik Watson and guard Gabe Jackson, while signing free agents such as offensive tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson, and guard Kelechi Osemele. This unit has provided quality protection for Carr who has only been sacked 9 times this year, while the Raiders have the fourth best passing offense in the National Football League.
Defensively the Raiders have had their issues as they are 31st in the National Football League in total defense, but they’ve found a way to make the key stops late in contests which gives Carr and the offense a chance to win the game. The Raiders do have talent on the defensive side of the football in defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin. The Raiders only have 11 sacks this season, but they should get a boost in two weeks when outside linebacker Aldon Smith who was the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 returns returns from his one-year suspension which will give Oakland another quality pass rusher.
But one of the things that has soured the Raiders resurgence is the fact that there is a strong possibility that this team could be relocating to Las Vegas, Nevada. Davis has been seeking funding for a new stadium from the City of Oakland for several years which he has been unable to receive which is something that Las Vegas is more than willing to do. And unless Oakland is able to wow Davis in the next few months, their time in Northern California will be a thing of the past. And if the Raiders were to leave Oakland, it would be bad for the fan base there that has had to sit by and watch this team be so bad for so long only to have them depart for success in another city. However under the watch of Del Rio, the Raiders have been able to focus on their business on the field which is why they are currently tied with the Broncos for first place in the AFC West.
For the first time in a long time, the Raiders will find themselves playing a prime time game as they will host the Broncos this Sunday night and the Oakland Coliseum should be buzzing. But being that the Raiders already lost at home this season to the Kansas City Chiefs, this is an important game as they need to show that they are for real as they seek to defeat a quality team. And aside from a combined three games with the Chiefs and Broncos, the Raiders do have a favorable schedule that awaits them. However they must find a way to clean up in the penalties category which saw them tally 23 penalties for 200 yards this past Sunday against the Bucs as that is a new National Football League record.
But ESPN’s Herman Edwards said it best this past Sunday when he mentioned that when the Raiders have a good team, it is indeed a benefit to the National Football League. The Raiders are in that rare air of iconic NFL franchises as their fan base spreads across the entire United States. And as the Raiders have always been viewed as the outlaws of the NFL with their iconic silver and black uniforms, anytime that they become competitive brings back memories of Hall of Famers such as Kenny Stabler, Howie Long, and Gene Upshaw. However these young Raiders that are led by Carr, Cooper, and Mack are out to make their own name as they look to end the second longest postseason drought currently in the NFL.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. New England Patriots
3. Oakland Raiders
4. Indianapolis Colts
5. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Baltimore Ravens
AFC Wild Card Round
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Indianapolis Colts
As dysfunctional as the Cincinnati Bengals are, not even they can lose in the Wild Card round in six consecutive years; especially since they are much better than the Indianapolis Colts.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Oakland Raiders
The fans in the Bay Area have waited a very long time to see an Oakland Raiders playoff game and they wont be disappointed.
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Bengals will finally be happy to get the playoff monkey off of their backs, but their big brothers from the AFC North in the Pittsburgh Steelers want to show them that they are still in charge.
Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots
The Raiders are happy to win a playoff game, and the battle tested New England Patriots will be too much for them.
AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been on a mission to put “Deflategate” behind him and get back to the Super Bowl.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2. Green Bay Packers
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Dallas Cowboys
5. Arizona Cardinals
6. Minnesota Vikings
NFC Wild Card Round
Minnesota Vikings vs. Carolina Panthers
The road to a consecutive Super Bowl berth for the Carolina Panthers begins with a home victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Dallas Cowboys
The Arizona Cardinals could be a team on a mission as they steamroll the Dallas Cowboys.
NFC Divisional Playoffs
Carolina Panthers vs. Green Bay Packers
In a battle of MVP quarterbacks in Cam Newton of the Panthers, and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, the legs of running back Eddie Lacy will lead Green Bay to the NFC Championship Game.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Cards-Seahawks rivalry is quickly becoming one of the best in the NFL. And for the Cardinals, they are definitely one team that isn’t afraid to travel to Seattle and seek a victory.
NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals vs. Green Bay Packers
With the frozen mystique of football in Green Bay being a thing of the past, the Cardinals have what it takes to get a victory there and reach the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
Super Bowl Bowl 51-NRG Stadium-Houston, Texas
New England Patriots vs. Arizona Cardinals
These two teams began the year against each other, and it’s only fitting that they’ll finish they year on the gridiron. But the Patriots will find a way to win their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.