2015 NFL Conference Championship Bettor’s Guide


2015 NFL Conference Championship Bettor’s Guide
M.D. Wright
1.23.2016

This week we will decide the two teams who will participate in Super Bowl 50. It is fitting that they don’t call it “Super Bowl L”, in keeping with longstanding affinities for Roman numeration. However, for some of us handicappers, an “L” is what many of us took throughout the year both on money lines and spreads. Last week was no different.

Last Week:
SU: 2-2
ATS: 0-4

Postseason:
SU: 6-2
ATS: 2-6
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Conference Championship Weekend:
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium
Denver, Colorado
Denver Broncos 4
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
3:00 PM EST
Coverage: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
My Call: DEN +3
Over/Under: Under 44.5

Analysis:
The conjecture and posturing done through the media this week has been palpable, but it does not have any real bearing on the outcome of the game.

New England did not have their chain-mover, Julian Edelman in their loss to Denver here in the previous match up, which is big (as the superlative affixed to Edelman suggests). New England’s drives tend to stall at times, especially now with a non-existent running game.

Injuries are not going to play a major role, as virtually the players who started games last weekend will play; or, at the very worst, be a game-time decision. The keys to this game, and how it will affect your wagering is whether Denver decides to play press coverage and use a lot of nickel to limit the run after the catch, which is a staple of New England’s dink and dunk offense. They really do not need to honor the run game, as Steven Jackson could not out-run a parked car at this point, and with Wade Phillips’ default Phillips (named after his father, not him) 3-4 attacking defense, they can more than handle it, even if New England did attempt to sneak in a run here and there.

Denver will devote underneath and over the top help on Rob Gronkowski and dare Tom Brady to beat them with players like Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola and Scott Chandler. New England knows this, and expect to see multiple two (or even three) tight end looks.

Denver’s main issue is whether they can sustain drives and run the football effectively without fumbling and losing those fumbles. Peyton Manning does not need to air it out to beat New England: rather; do what he does best: patiently take what the defense gives (and hope that his receivers don’t have a half-dozen dropped passes in this game). It is somewhat understandable that Denver is getting points at home, but the altitude will play a role by the 4th quarter, and if New England is unable to rattle Manning in the pocket all game, there will be plays available against a decidedly average Patriots secondary. There won’t be a plethora of points or any blowouts here (barring impossible-to-predict turnovers), unlike what some claim, but Denver gets it done here.

Call:
New England                               19
Denver                                          23
FINAL
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Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte, North Carolina
Carolina Panthers 31
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
6:40 PM EST
Coverage: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman)
My Call: ARZ +3
Over/Under: Over 47.5

Analysis:
Unlike Seattle, who fell short in a comeback attempt, after digging themselves into a hole fooling around with the Panthers’ intentional shenanigans with the field conditions, the Cardinals are well-prepared for what they will face with the turf in Charlotte on Sunday. And it will be just as bad as it was last week, as Charlotte was hit with a decent amount of snow and (mostly) ice. Temperatures will be moderate, which certainly helps, but overall, field conditions don’t appear to be slanted toward one team that is accustomed to practicing on a choppy, sloppy field, versus the other. Let’s just get that out of the way before handicapping.

As for the Cards’ offense, they have an answer at every slot: running back, X, Y, Z and backups at each position. What would haunt them all summer is if they were to lose this game and know that they would have gotten Chris Johnson back had they done so. That may not play as a motivating point, but Arizona could use a bit more depth at RB, as David Johnson and Andre Ellington’s production is rather duplicitous. David Johnson appeared apprehensive and somewhat overwhelmed at the moment last week, which may or may not impact his running in this game. It should be noted that Green Bay plays the run differently than Carolina, so Johnson’s results against Green Bay have little to no bearing in this game.

Jonathan Stewart caught Seattle off guard with his initial rushing attempt last week, and tacked on a few yards here and there to push his total over 100, but he did little to nothing outside of that first run. The Cards’ defense has been solid against the run all year (but not spectacular, which they were under Todd Bowles), as they have been prone to giving up a big run here and there (i.e. Eddie Lacy last week). Same goes for their pass defense — particularly now without Tyrann Mathieu — as they are generally very solid, and attacking, but are prone to a big play here and there; usually the side opposite of where Patrick Peterson (who has actually played like a lockdown corner this season, unlike zone coverage specialist Josh Norman) lines up.

Carolina is going to run the football. If they go down with the ship, it will be while running the football. There are two concerns: 1) Can the Panthers avoid costly turnovers and/or 2) Can the Panthers — should they earn a lead — hang on without blowing the lead for seemingly the millionth time this season? The Cardinals are more quick strike than any team that Carolina has faced all season, and can capitalize quickly on coverage gaffes (of which Carolina has had many, including several in Seattle’s comeback attempt [while Carolina was held scoreless for the entire second half, despite truly attempting to move the football and add to the lead]) and it should be cause for concern…

… Unless Carson Palmer is throwing wild passes that are more at-risk than runaway ward of the state, as was the case last week against Green Bay. Green Bay’s secondary is better (collectively) than Carolina’s, by far, but Palmer’s mistakes with the football did not cost him, because Clay Matthews is not on Luke Kuechly’s (or Thomas Davis’) level in terms of playing in coverage downfield.

If Palmer avoids turning over the football, the Panthers are going to have to play a near-flawless game in order to win. You know what you are going to get from Carolina: 25+ rushing attempts (including a few designed for Cam Newton), about 20-23 points, and a big play or two on defense. Rarely does anything outside of that occur.

What you don’t know is what you will get from Arizona. This game could either be disastrous, and marred by turnovers on the part of the Cards, or it will be a pick-your-poison scenario for Sean McDermott, who plays a lot more zone coverage than people think the Panthers truly do, before watching film. Larry Fitzgerald is going to get his, because he lines up at every slot and runs all of the routes in the tree. What you don’t know is will it be David Johnson or John Brown who takes advantage of what will be favorable matchups (particularly Brown, as you can expect Arizona to use Michael Floyd on Josh Norman’s side in order to force some coverage to that side and isolate opposite field). And if it’s not John Brown, will it be JJ Nelson? Or Floyd? Or even Darren Fells? The Cards have more weapons than the Panthers, and the teams are equal defensively, but will Carson Palmer be John Wayne with those weapons, or will he be Jayson Williams?

For now, all conjecture about his prior playoff performances aside, we are going to go with the former, rather than the latter.

Call:
Arizona                      27
Carolina                    23
FINAL
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2015 New York Football Giants Season Recap/Offseason Changes and NFL Draft Outlook


2015 New York Football Giants Season Recap/Offseason Changes and NFL Draft Outlook
M.D. Wright
1.7.2016

The 2015 New York Football Giants recently concluded their fourth straight season of missing the playoffs. Many reach for explanations and scapegoats for whatever reason this occurred, but the only thing that can be definitively pointed out is that the Giants did a complete 180 in Cincinnati in 2012, where most of the defense was loafing and the offense became stuck in mud; unable to sustain any drives. Prior to that game, the Giants were previously off to a 6-2 start to the season, and this game precipitated a nosedive that concluded with them finishing the season 3-5. From there, the 2013 season saw them open at 0-6 with ghastly play along the offensive line, before rattling off a few wins against backup quarterbacks at the end of that season. In 2014, there was more of the same with a brutal won-loss record and again, rattling off wins against similarly losing teams late to make the despair more cosmetic.

2015 was a bit different. Entering the season, objective Giants faithful knew that the defense would not be good. It was missing Jason Pierre-Paul due to injury. There was no serious player at free safety. Landon Collins was a rookie at strong safety who had major questions regarding his abilities in downfield pass coverage (for those who actually watched him play at Alabama in college), and the linebacker situation was hanging tenuously by a thread; with the team pinning its hopes on Jon Beason remaining healthy — which, as he hasn’t in years, he didn’t — and trotting out career special teamer Jonathan Casillas and decidedly average strong side ‘backer Devon Kennard. Kennard showed flashes toward the end of his rookie season that he could man the “Sam” and be a presence in run support and cover the flats in pass coverage, but 2015 was a repeat of his early years at USC, when he battled numerous injuries at the same time. This year, it was multiple injuries with his legs which hampered him all season. Even if the entire defense had been healthy entering the season and remained as such all season, the defense would have been average, at best.

Nevertheless, that unit had forced a good number of turnovers, despite giving up the most yardage of all-time in Giants history, and statistically the second-worst defense in NFL history since tackles, sacks and other metrics became official stats. Even still, the Giants had leads in 12 of their 16 games, and blew those leads in nine of those games, and lost seven (at Dallas, vs. Atlanta, at Philadelphia, vs. New England, at New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. NY Jets). They defeated San Francisco and had blown an early lead at Miami before pulling into a halftime tie, falling behind in the 3rd quarter and scoring two touchdowns to hold on late.) The other losses (which pushed the team to a final 6-10 record) were games in which they trailed the entire way: at Washington, at Minnesota.

Despite the shortcomings with the defense, the Giants were in every game except three (and initially led the game in one of those) and the offense was incapable of milking the clock, while the defense was unable to get critical stops. This may have been Tom Coughlin’s best work as the Giants’ head coach, short of leading the team to wins in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. His team was woefully bereft of talent on defense, and was missing his former 2nd team All-Pro WR Victor Cruz all season.

Rather than go by a game-by-game breakdown, one can refer to all 16 game threads on my Facebook page.

Instead, I will do my normal assessment of all three phases of the team: offense, defense and special teams, with position group grades for the season (including coaches).

COACHING
Head Coach
Tom Coughlin: C.

This could be categorized as Coughlin’s best work, outside of the two Super Bowl wins, considering the overall talent level on the team. However, there were numerous clock management errors on the part of Coughlin and the offense, and there were times that Coughlin “played it straight” when the Giants were within reach (i.e. punting in opponents’ territory when he very well should have gone for it on 4th down) and gambled when he should have taken the points, which cost them in three of these losses. A very uneven performance by the offense, spearheaded by a predictably bad defense, and a special teams unit that gave up critical punt returns which swung the momentum against New Orleans and New England.

Ultimately, Coughlin lost his job as a result. Not so much for 2015, but the cumulative effect of what has occurred since the middle of the 2012 season, in which the Giants seemed to go from a highly efficient offense, still-good defense and competitive, to listless and entering a shell; from which they have yet to emerge in the past 52 games (22-32, and 28-36 overall since the beginning of 2012) since the aforementioned game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Offensive Coordinator
Ben McAdoo: B.
McAdoo was elevated to head coach of the team, after Coughlin was scapegoated jettisoned following the season. During the two seasons as Giants’ offensive coordinator, Eli Manning has thrown over 60 touchdown passes, and had as many interceptions total during that span, as he had during the 2013, preceding McAdoo’s arrival. Considering that Victor Cruz missed the entire season, had the typically-sometimey effort from Rueben Randle, the granted (if not spectacular — considering the amount of coverage he saw — output) by Odell Beckham, and shell-of-himself Hakeem Nicks, the only major surprise was the contributions by career special teams ace Dwayne Harris on offense. At times, only Manning had Beckham and unheard of players such as Myles White and Geremy Davis at his dispotal, with Randle’s constant disappearing acts. In one game (at Minnesota, following Beckham’s suspension), Manning only had Randle and nothing more, and the results showed.

Overall, McAdoo did a decent job with the offense, but there were many plays and points left on the field several times per game, and in every game, every week. With the deficiencies on defense, the offense needed to be more efficient that it was in 2015; particularly in the red zone. Even with the defense, the Giants could have very well won 11 or 12 games, if the offense had been able to convert in the red zone with higher efficacy, and be able to milk the clock late with the running game.

No one knows for sure who the “Running Back by Committee” approach came from — whether it was Coughlin or McAdoo — but in the final four games, after abandoning that foolish approach (which never works), Rashad Jennings emerged as the Giants’ lead back, and the offense became the efficient unit that it is designed to be in McAdoo’s offense. There needs to be continuity with this in 2016, with McAdoo calling his own plays hereafter.

Defensive Coordinator
Steve Spagnuolo: C.
There is no need to enter platitudes and disclaimers here. Everyone knows what the talent level was for the Giants defense this season. However, “Spags” misused what he had, and had players in space attempting to make plays that they are either lacking the talent to complete, or were too inexperienced to execute. There were times when blitzes were called and the players used the wrong rushing lanes, and basically took themselves out of the play. In bringing so much pressure every game, the middle of the field was a wasteland for the Giants all season, and that’s with an embarrassing lack of talent at that level (other than Jasper Brinkley, who played very admirably when he became the starter).

Coaches are charged with getting the most out of their players, which includes playing to the strengths of those players. The defensive line was hindered due to injuries to Pierre-Paul, and Johnathan Hankins (who was injured and lost for the season in the first game of Pierre-Paul’s return), which played a role in some of the pass defense issue. Playing zone all game is certainly not the best approach, nor is playing man coverage with substandard members of the secondary. However, Landon Collins should have almost exclusively been utilized “in the box” and Cooper Taylor should have gotten more immediate reps once Brandon Meriweather was initially lost to a knee injury. Chris Dahl does not belong on any NFL roster, other than on special teams. And even there, he had a (bad) hand in a couple of game-swinging kick or punt returns against.

Ultimately, given NFL-level talent (particularly along the defensive line, which emerged upon Pierre-Paul’s return — as Robert Ayers ended up tied for 10th in the league with 9 1/2 sacks), Spagnuolo will field a better unit, which is why he wasn’t scapegoated along with Coughlin after the season; despite the ghastly numbers produced by his unit.

Special Teams
Tom Quinn: B+.
Special teams gave up a couple of returns that killed the team’s momentum, but overall, coverage was relatively good. This is a far cry from some of the putrid units that Quinn produced, particularly in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
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OFFENSE
OFFENSIVE LINE
Left Tackle: A-.
Ereck Flowers played both tackle positions at times at “The U.” (Miami, FL) and it was pivotal for the Giants that he had experience at both left and right tackle, as the incumbent starter at left tackle, Will Beatty, was lost to a freak weight-lifting injury during spring organized team activities. Flowers was expected to play at right tackle, so that Justin Pugh could move inside to left guard, after he himself had a brutal 2014 season (attributed in part to his relatively short arms, despite having good feet). Flowers performed admirably well, despite injuring his ankle in Week 1, and dealing with the ankle periodically for the entire season. He gave up some game-changing sacks (New England, and both Philadelphia games), but these were growing pains which will aid him well going forward, should Beatty decide to move on from the Giants this offseason.

Left Guard: B.
Justin Pugh was solid, although not spectacular, in 2015. He actually became a sieve late in the season, after returning from a midseason concussion. He got off to a good start in both run blocking and pass protection, but he repeatedly whiffed on blocks in the final few weeks of the season. He should remain at guard going forward, if not at right guard.

Center: B.
Weston Richburg is steadily improving. He was expected to man the center position and be an anchor for the next decade or so. He has proven his worth. He doesn’t get beat often at all, and holds up well in run blocking and pass pro. There is obviously room for improvement, but when he was out with his ankle injury, his absence was glaring, which speaks to his abilities that often go overlooked by casual fans.

Right Guard: C-.
Geoff Schwartz has spent more time on injured reserve than he has on the field, and was only average in both aspects of blocking when he was on the field. To be 340 lbs, he is not a road grader, and whiffs far more than a man that size should in pass pro. John Jerry is 345 lbs himself, and he played both guard positions at times, and actually played pass protection better than run blocking, which is extremely baffling; given that a 345 lb man should not be  such a turnstile inside.

Right Tackle: D+.
Marshall Newhouse’s performance throughout 2015 was unacceptable in every phase. The Giants could barely run to his side (their best runs came behind Flowers, Pugh and Richburg), and he was a matador in pass protection. Additionally, he had untimely, drive-killing penalties in multiple games. The only thing that prevented the grade for this position from being an “F” was the play of Bobby Hart in the 2 1/2 games in which he played, which were on par with his play on the 2013 Florida State Seminoles national championship team, in which he was a brick wall on Jameis Winston’s front side, while paving the way for Devonta Freeman, James Wilder, Jr., and Karlos Williams, as the Seminoles got whatever they wanted in the run game all year in 2013. Hart was selected in the 7th Round of the 2015 Draft, and it would be a major disappointment if Newhouse is starting at right tackle and not Hart, come Week 1 2016. Unless Beatty returns, which would allow Hart to move to right guard (which he also played well), the Giants would be better served to maximize Hart’s ability at a premium cost position, as his cap number is extremely low as a 7th Round pick. Any free agent dollars or draft pick (which should not come before the 4th Round at this position, more on that later) allocated to the offensive line need to be used for right guard, if Beatty decides to leave.
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POSSESSION PLAYERS
Quarterback: B+
Eli Manning had a sterling season, before reverting to some bad habits (albeit aided by a revolving door at WR due to injuries and suspension; particularly late in the season), which coincided with an uptick in interceptions late in the season. It should be noted that virtually half of the interceptions Manning has thrown since the beginning of the 2014 season have come as a result of Rueben Randle’s loafing, which is a galling statistic. Interceptions aside, a season of 4,400 yards and 35 touchdowns and a 93.6 rating are astounding statistics, since he played the majority of the season with only one dependable receiver which every team double teamed nearly all game, every week.

Running Back: C*
* – Disclaimer due to the utilization of each player on this section of the depth chart.
Rashad Jennings could have easily had a 1,200-yard season if he had been used as the lead  back/bell-cow in the offense (which he was, finally, in the final quarter of the season). As it were, the Giants ran with a baffling running back-by-committee approach, which prevented any of the back from establishing a rhythm of setting up their blocks and defenders, and recognizing some of the “tells” that defensive players give, as well. Jennings is still versatile and doesn’t have the normal wear-and-tear of a 30 year old back, as he had never been a full-time starter, other than a stint in Jacksonville when Maurice Jones-Drew was out, and a few games when Darren McFadden made his annual trip to the injured list in Oakland. He can catch passes out of the backfield, surprising speed at the second level, a very good pass blocking back who can run between the tackles and get outside. Prior to the final few weeks of the season, Jennings would go several series of downs without even seeing the field, which was appalling to Giants supporters.

Shane Vereen established career highs in receptions (59), yards (494), and touchdowns (4), after coming to the Giants from New England this past offseason. He was miscast as a runner out of the backfield (although he can do this at times out of shotgun/inside-handoff checks by Manning) a bit too often, and was underutilized in certain games, but he and Jennings help this grade.

Andre Williams had questions about his vision in terms of setting up his blocks and when to hit holes or just dive into the line when the holes were not there. To his credit, he only did as he was told, but there were times when he attempted to cut back on plays that were apparently not designed to do so, and lacks the ability of a Jamaal Charles or Lesean McCoy, to execute those types of runs. Too often, Williams was used for outside zone runs and “counter trey” plays, which may have been his strength behind a eight-man offensive line in Boston College’s winged-T system, but that does not work in the NFL. Williams has ability, but he is still ultra raw, and his lack of vision shows (although it got better as the season concluded).

Orleans Darkwa wasn’t given as much of a chance to establish himself this season, but the few times he entered games (which were sometimes just one or two carries in a game, and then not to be heard from for the rest of the game, while getting five or six in one game and none for a couple of other games), he did not disappoint.

Ideally, the Giants should roll with Jennings as the full-time back, use Darkwa to spell him, and Vereen as a spread back out of the shotgun to set up checks to runs or passes out of the backfield. Williams has enough value that he can be traded for a late-round pick (picks that the Giants cannot get enough of in the upcoming draft), but he may be the odd man out here.

Tight End: B-.
Larry Donnell had his moments, but he has a maddening tendency to leap or tumble when he should run with leverage after catching the football. This led to him being in vulnerable positions for big hits, which often led to drops, fumbles, and an embarrassing stripping of the football in a game where the Giants were about to go up two scores in Philadelphia by Malcolm Jenkins (which ended up being the turning point in a game where the Giants, for all intents and purposes, quit for the rest of the night). But he is a big, athletic target who can run and make exceptional catches. If he can clean up the aforementioned issues, he can be dependable.

Daniel Fells was more consistent as a blocker and with his hands than Donnell, but unfortunately, he was lost to a staph infection that may indeed derail his NFL career.

Jerome Cunningham made a play or two here and there, but those were outnumbered by the number of incorrectly-run routes, drops and whiffs on blocks.

Will Tye is intriguing because he has advanced physical attributes (ran a sub 4.5 in the 40 yard dash), and has good hands. He has to work on his blocking, but he has a promising future and comes at a low price for the Giants going forward.

Wide Receiver: B.
Odell Beckham carries most of this grade, although Dwayne Harris plays a good part of this as well. Other than those two, there is not much to write home about at this position after Victor Cruz was unable to see the field throughout 2015.

Beckham would have had a good shot to break all of the Giants’ single-season records for receptions, yards and touchdowns, but has already established himself as a Top 5 WR (he’s not the best WR in the NFL, for those who think so; although he could potentially become such, later). Despite the considerable coverage that he drew, he was able to gain separation due to superior route-running and exceptional hands (although he had a eye-popping number of drops or misreads on passes that he makes without looking in warm ups). But barring injury, Beckham will be a stalwart for years.

Rueben Randle is an enigma of the highest order. With teams often double teaming Beckham, and Randle often drawing everything from castoff cornerbacks, undrafted rookie free agents, and even some who played against him with injuries, Randle should have easily had an 80-catch, 1,100-yard, 10-touchdown season, and only managed two-thirds of those numbers. In fact, much of that came in roughly seven games. Where was he in the other games (excusing the game and a half that he was hampered by a hamstring injury?) He may want to return to the Giants, but the Giants should lace his contract with as many incentives as much as Chandler Jones’ synthetic marijuana was laced with other substances. Otherwise, the Giants or any team would be fools to give him a big-time, multi-year contract. He has failed to even achieve half of what was expected of him in his time in the NFL thus far, particularly in a pass-friendly offense that gives him many opportunities to post big games on par with Beckham, who has to work twice as hard to get open and still dwarfed Randle’s numbers.

Victor Cruz rehabilitated a fractured patella from 2014, and successfully returned from that injury, only to have an ongoing calf injury related to blood clots, which — despite hopes to the contrary several times during the season — cost him the entire 2015 season, and he was played on injured reserve in midseason.

Dwayne Harris fulfilled expectations this season. He had never been a big part of the offense in Dallas. As Terrell Owens once surmised, Tony Romo does indeed play favorites Owens had been Hall-of-Fame level productive everywhere he had been before going to Dallas, and became the scapegoat for Romo and Dallas’ failures in the mid-2000s. Martellus Bennett was another guy who has sprouted into a high caliber receiving (and blocking) tight end since leaving Dallas. Harris was able to take some of the burden off Beckham at critical junctures in several games, making big catches and scoring important touchdowns. He was mostly in the slot to “replace” Cruz, but, in effect, ended up replacing the productivity of Randle, who was lost in space for good portions of the season.

The rest of the receivers are young and inexperienced, aside from Hakeem Nicks, who looked like he had been lounging in his recliner for most of the season before the Giants came calling out of desperation. It is a shame what happened to him with his various leg ailments, because he looks like a shell of his former self, but maybe an offseason of work can help him if he and the Giants agree to his return in 2016.
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DEFENSE
Defensive Line
Defensive Ends: B.
Robert Ayers played well, when he wasn’t in and out of games with various nicks and bumps, and really took off upon the return of Jason Pierre-Paul. This took away some of the attention from Ayers himself (while teams did not fear Kerry Wynn, George Selvie or Cullen Jenkins — when he was at either end position).

Jason Pierre-Paul was his normally active self in his eight games, although obviously hindered by his hand injury. He was disruptive in the run game, as usual, and got tons of quarterback pressures, several of which would have been sacks if he had been able to use both hands as he expects to do following recent surgery to help with flexibility in his hand.

Selvie and Wynn did their best, but they are not highly skilled and it showed whenever Ayers and/or Pierre-Paul were both out of games.

Damontre Moore has ability, but he matched big plays with big penalties or galling misreads. A senseless locker room fight led to his eventual dismissal from the team.

Defensive Tackles: C.
Johnathan Hankins played well inside, but he had very little help. The fact that the untalented Markus Kuhn started (!) several games before landing on IR late in the season, just shows how big of a hole the Giants had at that position. Jay Bromley got important reps and can be a rotational player going forward, but the team must address this position this offseason. Cullen Jenkins is just about at the end of the line in his career, which has been a very good one, but it is time to upgrade next to Hankins. No one else distinguished themselves at defensive tackle after Hankins’ injury in Tampa, which landed him on IR.

LINEBACKERS
Sam: C.
Mike: C.
Will: C-.
Devon Kennard has had a history of dealing with multiple injuries dating back to his time in college at USC, and those reared their ugly head again this season. Not his fault, but he played decently before the injuries clearly affected his ability to run effectively. He was late to the right spot, and too quick to the wrong spot (if that makes sense), depending on whether teams ran right at him or screened to his side. He did not cover tight ends well all season (then again, no one on the Giants did all season, and all of the linebackers and each of the guys who played free or strong safety all took their lumps). Absent were the big plays that he made toward the end of his rookie season in 2014.

Jon Beason was an all world player in college at Miami (FL), and was the anchor of the Carolina Panthers for years, but once he tore his Achilles a few years ago, he has been in and out of the lineup for numerous games both in Carolina and in East Rutherford. It is certainly not from a lack of effort. If anything, his relentless style of play puts him into position to be injured or reaggravate those injuries.

Uani Unga was a good story at first, and his perpetual motor paid off in preseason and early in the regular season. But in reality, he does not belong on the field on anyone’s defense. However, he was forced into that role upon Beason’s season-ending injury. Unga himself was in and out of the lineup with various injuries soon thereafter, forcing Jasper Brinkley into the middle of the defense. Brinkley was only picked up after Dallas cast him off before the season began. If Brinkley had not been in the stead for the Giants, the team might have had every “worst” statistic on defense after the season. He shored up the run defense and handled his responsibilities when he didn’t come off the field in some passing situations.

JT Thomas was always hurt this season also, and was lost in space for most of the season at Will, which is a position the Giants have still yet to fill 15 years after Jessie Armstead left the team in free agency. The linebacking corps must be upgraded to at least AVERAGE NFL standards if the Giants expect to be contenders again.

SECONDARY
Cornerback: B.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has the freedom to play press, bail, trail, shuffle, or “off” (the latter is his preference). He does this because he has elite closing speed and can “bait” quarterbacks into throwing passes that he can jump and take for interceptions. He did this quite often this year, but he dropped two critical “pick six” interceptions (at Washington, vs. Carolina) and dropped a couple others that were gimmes. Otherwise, he was everything that you want from a corner, other than taking himself out of the game a bit too frequently.

Prince Amukamara played well before he had his annual trip to the injured list while making a perfect form tackle. Once he came back, he began to stare into the backfield far too often and gave up several big plays. He can be a very good to All-Pro level corner when he’s on, but if reading the QB is his thing, he ought to consider moving to free safety, where those attributes are better suited. As he is a free agent this offseason, one has to wonder what tenor the negotiatons will take. Considering his constant injury issues, if he re-signs with the Giants, it likely won’t break the bank.

Trevin Wade was thrust into a major role and, for the most part, played well. He has glaring weaknesses, which were amplified even to fans who lack profound football knowledge. This is the case with anyone who plays on the perimeter, because everyone can see it, unlike linemen. Considering his role in the slot and sometimes covering tight ends, he did about as well as could be expected. Same goes for Trumaine McBride.

Jayron Hosley has been a flat out bust (even allowing a mulligan for the season that he was injured). He hasn’t progressed at all since his rookie season, and it is apparent that he benefited from the relentless style favored by his college defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, as he doesn’t even excel at what he did well in college (press coverage) at this level. At his size, that is not entirely surprising, but when that is the only thing he apparently did well, to see him flat out stink in every other regard in playing the cornerback position makes him virtually useless.

SAFETIES
Strong Safety: B-.
Free Safety: F.
Landon Collins, a rookie, is the only player who played every game this season on defense. He played like a rookie. A rookie with skill, from a winning college program, but a rookie. Collins can eventually reach something close to what his idol, Sean Taylor would have eventually reached. It should be noted, the dearly departed Taylor played both safety positions with high acumen, and Collins does not run as well as Taylor. He hits like Taylor, however. Taylor excelled in pass coverage and run defense. Collins was proven as an in-the-box safety  in run defense, but he could not cover a tight end if the game depended on it (and it did, in a couple of instances, with him giving up big plays). You cannot kill him for that. It was a known shortcoming for those who watched him in college (and presumably, the Giants scouting department did, although you never know with some of the picks they’ve made in the draft in recent years), but he excelled at what he is good at and has room to grow in the areas where he has always been pedestrian. A rangy free safety alongside him would help immensely, however.

Speaking of which, the Giants dropped the ball this year by not addressing the huge hole at free safety heading into the season. Cooper Taylor should have gotten more reps than he did, especially with Craig Dahl being by far the worst safety in the NFL (and starting in several games). Brandon Meriweather played decently, but he has some shortcomings at this point in his career. None of this was suitable, considering that you knew that your starting strong safety is a liability in coverage at this point in his career. By the end of the season, due to injuries, some of the corners had to slide over to that slot in an emergency basis.
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KICKING
Place Kicker
Josh Brown: A-.
Brown had been perfect until the worst possible time (missing a kick in a game that the Giants eventually lost). The only issue was his ability to get touchbacks with more frequency.

Brad Wing: B+
Wing punted well for the most part, but again, like Brown, had a departure from the norm with a bad decision to punt directly to Willie Snead in New Orleans, on a play that (after the officials used the Superdome replay on the scoreboard to decide how to dole out penalties, illegally) eventually set the Saints up for a game-winning field goal. He was better early than late, but was still solid all year.

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Heading towards the Magical March 1 date, the Giants have well over $40 million in cap space to decide which among their own free agents that they want to keep, and which unrestricted free agents are available on the market from other teams.

Following the Indianapolis Combine and all the jockeying by teams’ personnel chiefs through the media, we will meander through the draft, where the Giants can address a few of their needs.

After reading the above season recap assessment, you can see where the Giants’ primary focus should be via free agency and the draft:

Weakside Linebacker.
Middle Linebacker.
Free Safety.
Defensive Tackle.
Cornerback (potentially).
Interior Offensive Lineman.
Wide Receiver.

Some of those players may currently be in-house. Some may be out there in free agency. Others may be available in the upcoming draft, which should be pretty deep through the first three and a half rounds.

In the coming weeks, once we see the combine numbers and pro days, a more focused draft worksheet will be put into place. We will also know who will be cut from other teams (some being cap casualties, and not just castoffs who can no longer play) during the week of March 1-9. Once we see who the Giants keep, cut, and who they may (not guaranteed to do so) sign from other teams during that period, we will address draft picks in more specific details, including particular players who would fit the bill with the #10 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Stay tuned.

— OMW.

2015 NFL Divisional Playoff Bettor’s Guide


2015 NFL Divisional Playoff Bettor’s Guide
M.D. Wright
1.15.2016

Chalk was held last week, although two of the road warriors failed to cover (Steelers, Seahawks), but this round shall be a bit more difficult to handicap.

Last Week:
SU: 4-0
ATS: 2-2

Postseason:
SU: 4-0
ATS: 2-2
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Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Massachusetts
New England Patriots 3
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
Saturday, January 16, 2016
4:35 PM EST
Coverage: ESPN/ABC (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden)
My Call: KC +4
Over/Under: Under 43

Analysis:
We will know how forthcoming (not likely) will be Bill Belichick regarding Rob Gronkowski’s knee and back inside of 24 hours. However, what is the deal with Chandler Jones? Regardless of what he inhaled (and what it was laced with), how well will he be able to perform on Saturday? Julian Edelman will return, but it is difficult to expect him to go back to full midseason form after missing 2 1/2 months of football. The Patriots offense has stalled with either or both Gronkowski and Edelman out.

The Chiefs have become an efficient machine offensively, even without Jamaal Charles. Health-wise, the Chiefs are in decent shape other than Jeremy Maclin, who is pivotal to the Chiefs’ passing game. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali were listed as questionable, but are expected to play, as are Spencer Ware and Albert Wilson. Defensively, the Chiefs have what it takes at every level to disrupt Tom Brady and stifle the Patriots’ run and passing game.

As always, the officials will be under the microscope in a game involving New England, and that should be in the backs of bettors’ minds when wagering.

Call:
Kansas City                        24
New England                     17
FINAL
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Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals
University of Phoenix Stadium
Glendale, Arizona
Arizona Cardinals 27
NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
8:15 PM EST
Coverage: NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth)
My Call: ARZ -7
Over/Under: Over 49

Analysis:
The Week 16 game does not matter in this case, but the injuries facing the already-shorthanded Packers receiving corps, however, do.

Green Bay had to ad-lib much of their offense in Washington, and it worked. The Packers have pass protection issues, and should have David Bakhtiari back at left tackle. Davante Adams will not play, meaning there will be more snaps for Jared Abberderis at wide receiver.

Green Bay’s only chance is to be able to run the football consistently, both to control the clock (shorten the game), and work the short passing game. Calais Campbell wrecked the game last time, and Bakhtiari will have his hands full (as will everyone on the line, as Campbell lines up in every possible line technique; unlike most defensive linemen). It is going to be difficult for the Packers to get the ball downfield minus a coverage gaffe — which the Cards are actually wont to do at times this year, unlike last season — so efficiency is key.

As long as Carson Palmer does not turn the football over, Green Bay is going to have a difficult time in this game, regardless of what happened the last time these two teams squared off.

Call:
Green Bay                     19
Arizona                         31
FINAL
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Seattle Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte, North Carolina
Carolina Panthers 32.jpg
NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
Sunday, January 17, 2016
1:05 PM EST
Coverage: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman)
My Call: SEA +1
Over/Under: Over 44

Analysis:
In the same vein of “X game does not factor into the outcome of this game”, such is the case here. Seattle had issues with their downfield coverage early in the season, and it showed in all of their losses — in which they blew leads in each game — and those issues have been shored up.

Many have suggested for weeks (even months, once it was apparent that the Panthers would win the NFC South, beginning with the Atlanta Falcons midseason swoon) that Carolina would be one and done. And this is the matchup that they should dread. The Panthers desperately wanted Minnesota, a team that plays right into its hands with its ball control run game and dink and dunk passing game, which allows for the Panthers (who predominantly play Cover 2 and Cover 3), but that is not the case.

Carolina is a frontrunning team, in that they bully their way to leads and keep everything in front of them defensively, allowing their linebackers (particularly Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly) to flow to the ball and limit big runs and runs after the catch on intermediate routes. The Panthers secondary is actually not very good at all individually, but they benefit from the zone and Davis and Kuechly’s ability to aid in their zone slots downfield. When Josh Norman and Cortland Finnegan are in man coverage, they are decidedly average, and Kurt Coleman — who has been a ballhawk in this scheme, but below average everywhere else he’s been — becomes a liability again.

Short of Kam Chancellor failing to get the proper depth when he is in the box in Cover 1 and Cover 3 (although Seattle has played much more man this season than they did 2012-2014; and Cover 1 is a man look, as well), this is where the questions about the Panthers’ receiving corps finally come to roost. It is going to be difficult for Ted Ginn, Corey Brown, Devin Funchess, Jerricho Cotchery and Greg Olsen to find much room to work in this one. Thankfully, in Carolina’s case, they do get Jonathan Stewart back, and will need to run the ball (including Cam Newton) in order to limit Seattle’s offensive possessions.

Marshawn Lynch is set to return for Seattle, as is Luke Willson (who is important to the Seattle passing attack). In a league where transposing results from one game to another is folly, doing so with Seattle’s game in Minnesota is especially faulty.

Seattle will get much of what it wants offensively, particularly once they force Carolina to come out of zone coverage, which will allow for Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Willson to take advantage of Norman, Coleman and others downfield.

Call:
Seattle                                    27
Carolina                                 20
FINAL
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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium
Denver, Colorado
Denver Broncos 4
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
Sunday, January 17, 2016
4:40 PM EST
Coverage: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
My Call: DEN -7.5
Over/Under: Over 38.5

Analysis:
Pittsburgh is in awful shape health-wise. Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams have been ruled out, and Ben Roethlisberger may be limited in the types of throws he can make with a sprained shoulder joint. Denver’s defense was tops in the league this season in several categories, and missing their primary chain-mover in Brown is particularly devastating for the Steelers. They won’t miss Williams much, because Fitz Toussaint and Jordan Todman are as capable of running the football and aiding the short passing game as Williams. Pittsburgh’s plan for attack has to feature this in the passing game, as Denver doesn’t have to worry as much about the short drop offs to Brown or the crossing routes which Brown masters. This limits downfield  chances for Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, along with Darrius Heyward-Bey. Pittsburgh will still take chances, particularly if Roethlisberger can throw the ball with any zip.

That said, there are too many things stacked against the Steelers (including their secondary) that it will be difficult for them to pull this out, although anything is possible.

In fact, the Steelers could actually win this game, particularly with savvy and their front seven on defense, but it is not the wise call for this one.

Call:
Pittsburgh                     17
Denver                           26
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2015 NFL Wild Card Bettor’s Guide


2015 NFL Wild Card Bettor’s Guide
M.D. Wright
1.8.2016

The regular season was solid, if not unspectacular, from a handicapping standpoint. But if anyone is doing better than 65% on either money lines or spread counts, they must be the ones buzzing down the officials to throw phantom flags (or pick them up for blatant penalty infractions), which we’ve seen much more this season, while officials are equipped with these headsets.

Wild Card Weekend is upon us, and we have the bettor’s guide for each game for you.

Last Week:
SU: 8-8
ATS: 9-7

Season:
SU: 150-106 (.586)
ATS: 144-107-5 (.563)
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Wild Card Weekend:
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Houston Texans
NRG Stadium
Houston, Texas
Houston Texans 29.jpg
AFC Wild Card
Saturday, January 9, 2016
4:35 PM EST
Coverage: ESPN (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden)
My Call: KC -3
Over/Under: Over 40

Analysis:
A rematch of these two teams’ Week 1 tilt, which was won by Kansas City. The Chiefs played that game with Jamaal Charles (who was held in check by the Texans’ defense), and obviously will not have him for this game. Strangely enough, the Chiefs went 10-1 without Charles, which is a testament to Alex Smith taking care of the football (only 3 interceptions in his last 13 games, including 317 consecutive passing attempts without an INT), and the ability of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware to pick up the slack in the run game. Smith’s rapport with Jeremy Maclin has allowed for the Chiefs to move the chains more efficiently, as well.

Brian Hoyer appears to be on track to return for this game, but there are two things working against him: 1) The Chiefs have been stingy on defense all year, including a 12.8 PPG against clip since Charles went down, and 2) Justin Houston missed several games during that stretch and is going to play on Sunday; further fueling the Chiefs’ defense.

The Texans play stout defense themselves, but it is difficult to see the Texans being able to run the football effectively, or Hoyer having enough time to find DeAndre Hopkins and Jaelen Strong (who figures to have an increased role, as Marcus Peters will be on Hopkins for most of the game) downfield. Given the Chiefs’ knack for taking care of the football, how do the Texans get more than nine or ten possessions in this game without creating extra possessions and shorter fields via turnovers? The odds actually tilt towards the Chiefs being touchdown favorites here, and that is about right. Wait for it to get to 2.5 or 3.5 before locking in, however. No one likes the dreaded “push”, particularly if it occurs late in the game.

Call:
Kansas City                  24
Houston                         17
FINAL
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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Paul Brown Stadium
Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati Bengals 29.jpg
AFC Wild Card
Saturday, January 9, 2016
8:15 PM EST
Coverage: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
My Call: PIT -3
Over/Under: Over 45

Analysis:
Andy Dalton has been ruled out of this game, so at the very least, he can escape the “Can Dalton deliver in the playoffs, though?” talk for another year.

We know an Alabama QB had not won a regular season game since the scabs infiltrated the league during the 1987 strike season (Jeff Rutledge, with the New York Football Giants, for those who care). We shudder to think about the last time an Alabama QB won a playoff game, however (Richard Todd with the New York Jets in 1982, another strike season, ironically).

The Bengals probably will wish there were a strike during the 2015 season at this rate. AJ McCarron has not been more than pedestrian since taking over for Dalton.

The Steelers won’t have an easy time in this game, though. They ware down DeAngelo Williams (ankle), and Martavis Bryant hasn’t really made much of an impact in the past few games, dealing with an illness and a sore neck of late. LeVeon Bell and Williams helped make the Steelers’ passing attack that much more lethal, Antonio Brown is a swiss army knife of a weapon, and Heath Miller is a stalwart at tight end, with the emerging Jesse James. Darrius Heyward-Bey has had his moments, and Markus Wheaton has become the more reliable deep threat of late. However, if the Steelers have designs on winning any games (including this one, as anything can happen), they need more from Bryant in order to accomplish such.

And that’s before discussing one of the worst secondaries in the league, possessed by the Steelers. Their front seven does quite a bit of damage, and can disrupt McCarron (Dalton’s season-ending injury occurred against the Steelers in their last matchup), but they do surrender big plays due to lackluster secondary play. If the Bengals have any chance, it will be because of this.

We don’t think they will take advantage, however.

Call:
Pittsburgh                       26
Cincinnati                        20
FINAL
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Seattle Seahawks vs. Minnesota Vikings
TCF Bank Stadium
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minnesota Vikings 30.jpg
NFC Wild Card
Sunday, January 10, 2016
1:05 PM EST
Coverage: NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth)
My Call: SEA -4
Over/Under: Over 39.5

Analysis:
38-7 means nothing. Let’s just get that out of the way.

On the injury front, Marshawn Lynch is on track to play, and in his absence, the Seahawks ran the ball relatively well with Thomas Rawls, and, to a lesser extent, Christine Michael, Bryce Brown and Fred Jackson. Once Rawls was lost to a broken ankle, Russell Wilson became (actually a couple of games prior to Rawls’ season-ending injury) more prolific in the pocket passing game. If Luke Willson is cleared to play after suffering a concussion in Week 16, Seattle is in very good shape heading into a brick-cold Minneapolis on Sunday.

The Vikes had a few players missing from that 38-7 shellacking, but despite a December loaded with injuries, the Minnesota will have Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph up front, and Adrian Peterson’s balky back is not going to stop him from going on Sunday. Whether he finishes the game (as backs go), remains to be seen. He had to leave the game against Green Bay in Week 17 because of the back.

Can Teddy Bridgewater take advantage of the few areas where QBs must attack the Seattle defense (outside, behind the strong safety in the box, and between the corner and safety in Cover 1, and up the seams behind the linebacker level and between the corner and safety in Cover 3?) and can Minnesota force Seattle to play even more man coverage — which they’ve done more in 2015 than they had in the previous three seasons?

The Seahawks did not surrender a 100-yard rusher all season, and that includes the previous game with Minnesota, in which Peterson played. Because of numbers in the box, it is difficult for Peterson to find his patented cutback lanes and gather enough momentum on the edges to break big runs, as everyone on Seattle’s defense runs well.

Ultimately, Teddy Bridgewater is going to have to make several plays, because Russell Wilson is in some type of extra-terrestrial zone and certainly will make plenty of his own.

Call:
Seattle                      27
Minnesota               17
FINAL
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Green Bay Packers vs. Washington Redskins
FedEx Field
Landover, Maryland
Washington Redskins 3
NFC Wild Card
Sunday, January 10, 2016
4:40 EST
Coverage: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman)
My Call: GB +1
Over/Under: Under 45

Analysis:
The Redskins easily have the worst pass defense of all the playoff teams.

Additionally, Washington hasn’t beaten a single team with a winning record all season.

Green Bay has had troubles with teams that play a lot of man press on the outside, but Washington isn’t one of those teams that is effective at doing so.

Ultimately, Kirk Cousins will be running for his life all game. Washington can only truly counter with Ryan Kerrigan to get after Aaron Rodgers throughout the game, but while Green Bay is technically getting a point, the road team gets 3 points by default, thereby making them slight favorites here.

Something has to give here. Washington has only lost one game at home all season (again, none of them to winning teams), and Cousins has largely avoided turnovers of late. However, front sevens like Green Bay’s have given him fits. If there is one glimmer of hope for Washington, it is that Sam Shields is unlikely to suit up for this game, as he is still in the concussion protocol dating back to the Dallas game a month ago.

But that’s about it.

Call:
Green Bay                     26
Washington                 17
FINAL
_____________________________________________________

2015 NFL Season Concluding Powre Rankings


2015 NFL Season Concluding Powre Rankings
M.D. Wright
1.6.2016

We have reached the conclusion of the 2015 NFL season, as such, the rankings generally reflect where the teams fell in the standings, outliers being hot or cold streaks (such as the Giants losing 6 of their final seven games, and the Buccaneers losing four straight; coinciding with Kwon Alexander’s four-game suspension).

1. Carolina Panthers (15-1).
This is about as tenuous as a 15-1 team can appear to be.

2. Minnesota Vikings (11-5).
The Vikes won the NFC North for the first time in six years, and appear to be getting healthy at key positions and clicking on offense.

3. Arizona Cardinals (13-3).
The Cards needed their first-round bye as much as the Patriots did in the AFC, as they hope to get at least one of their running backs in the stead in lieu of the Divisional Playoff game a week from Saturday. They were battered and bruised against Seattle, and the wonder is will Tyrann Mathieu’s injury two weeks ago cast doom for the Cardinals’ defense, which has not been nearly as good without him, once the playoffs unfold.

4. Denver Broncos (12-4).
Peyton Manning’s return will either spell triumph or ultimate doom. It is boom or bust for Manning and the Broncos, for that matter, as Manning’s best days are clearly behind him, and the Broncos are in line for cap-altering personnel changes this offseason.

5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5).
How good are the Chiefs in reality? We will find out on Saturday afternoon.

6. Seattle Seahawks (10-6).
Other than their annual tussles with the Rams and the baffling blown leads in their other four losses, Seattle has been right on par with the past four seasons: a team that no one — including Arizona, who got their asses whipped before a national audience on Sunday, and Carolina — wants to face.

7. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4).
At least once they go one and done again this year, Andy Dalton’s play in playoff games won’t be the reason why.

8. New England Patriots (12-4).
The Patriots limped home, after beginning the season 10-0 (and barely avoiding a loss in the 10th win), going 2-4 down the stretch without chain-mover Julian Edelman. The Patriots have another thing coming if they believe that Edelman will come back after not playing for two months and pick up where he left off before getting injured. James White has played well, Rob Gronkowski can make a big play once in a while, as can Danny Amendola, but Edelman is the player who consistently keeps the sticks moving for the Patriots’ offense.

9. New York Jets (10-6).
The Jets’ loss in Buffalo (Orchard Park, technically), and relatively easy win for Pittsburgh vs. an IR-laden Browns team, which they own — subsequently leading to the Jets getting eliminated from playoff contention — was seen coming a mile away.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6).
Ben Roethlisberger is right for calling out Martavis Bryant — neck injury, flu-like symptoms or not — as the Steelers are not going anywhere as long as Bryant continues to lack in productivity, as he has over the past month, and especially the final two games of the season.

11. Washington Redskins (9-7).
Are these guys really any good at all? They literally did not beat a single team with a winning record all season, and got outright blasted in losing to those in which they faced (which were few). An easy schedule, coupled with implosions by Philadelphia and Dallas made the Redskins division winners, but even a hampered Green Bay team is favored against them on the road in the Wild Card round. With good reason.

12. Green Bay Packers (10-6).
It  has been clear for weeks that the Packers miss Jordy Nelson’s ability to stretch the field, as teams began to employ a strategy to jam their receivers at the line of scrimmage every week since they struggled to gain separation in San Francisco. Although Green Bay won that game, they proceeded to go 6-6 thereafter (including losses in 6 of 10 games), mostly because the offense stalled for the aforementioned reason, along with injuries and lackluster play from the offensive line.

13. Houston Texans (9-7).
The Texans have a chance for revenge after Week 1’s loss at home to Kansas City.

14. Buffalo Bills (8-8).
It boggles the mind how the Bills actually got much better on offense this year, while the area of strength for the team — with an incoming defensive guru (which Rex Ryan still is, but outsmarts himself at times) — the defense, actually failed the Bills in six of their eight losses.

15. Indianapolis Colts (8-8).
What a weird season all around, from the team spinning the injury situation with Andrew Luck all year (much like they did with Peyton Manning throughout the 2011 season), to the subsequent merry-go-round at the QB position after Luck’s injury, to the all-but-certain firing of Chuck Pagano, to the Colts actually having a chance midway through the slate of games in Week 17 to still win the AFC South, to Pagano immediately getting an extension to coach the team at the conclusion of the season. Somewhere, as always, some Patriots fan will make this 2015 journey for the Colts about something unrelated to the Patriots in the past, as is seemingly always the case, no matter where you look on social media.

16. Oakland Raiders (7-9).
The Raiders made progress this season to be sure, but Derek Carr regressed in some areas of his game once December hit.

17. Detroit Lions (7-9).
The Lions came on late, playing closer to what was expected entering the season, once they shuffled their offensive philosophy and developed continuity along the offensive line (which got them killed during their woeful start through the first seven games). It should be enough to save Jim Caldwell’s job, but maybe not enough for Calvin Johnson to pay homage to Barry Sanders with retirement talk (and possibly follow through with it, like Sanders in the winter of 1999).

18. New Orleans Saints (7-9).
The Saints finished up with a couple of wins to save face on yet another losing season, and five out of 10 missing the playoffs under Sean Payton, who was somehow lusted after by nearly half the teams in the NFL as their next head coach.

19. Atlanta Falcons (8-8).
Teams are quick to figure out Kyle Shanahan’s offensive schemes, and each year, his teams falter down the stretch, yet he keeps getting jobs on the back of his old man’s name, a name that was overrated in and of itself, as the elder Shanahan never once came close to winning anything outside of the elite triumvirate of John Elway, Terrell Davis and Rod Smith in the late 1990s.

20. St. Louis Rams (7-9).
Wash, rinse, repeat. Same record, same results, same baffling week-to-week performance, yet Jeff Fisher keeps his job every year. Unquestioned.

21. Chicago Bears (6-10).
It is time for the Bears to draft Jay Cutler’s (eventual) replacement. With the amount of money that the Bears are on the hook for with Cutler, he certainly won’t be going anywhere immediately, but by 2018, they will be free from the most burdensome aspect of his contract. Will John Fox be able to stick around long enough to do his normal reclamation project before getting fired? Stay tuned.

22. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9).
The cupboard is certainly not bare, but there is going to be yet another massive overhaul this offseason, as the pendulum of the power struggle in the front office swings back in Howie Roseman’s direction, from which it swung a year ago, when Chip Kelly (fired nine days ago) secured control over all personnel decisions at this time last year.

23. New York Football Giants (6-10).
The Giants, playing with the worst personnel (which, naturally, produced the worst defense in the league and the worst in team history, statistically speaking), literally held leads in 13 of their 16 games late in the 3rd or even late into the 4th quarter. In fact, they were only blown out once (in Minnesota, with half of the teams’ starters injured or suspended, no less), but the (predictable) failure to close out those games with abhorrent personnel (including starting four career special teamers, a couple of practice squad players and two career backups, while each of their five viable starters on defense missed multiple games (Pierre-Paul: 8, Amukamara: 5, and parts of two others, Rodgers-Cromartie: 1, and parts of three others, Ayers: 2, and parts of three others, Hankins: final 7, on season-ending IR). Landon Collins, a rookie, who is still taking his lumps while learning the ropes in the NFL, is the only defensive player to play every game, and virtually every snap. That the Giants even held leads in 13 of those 16 games into the 2nd halves is a testament to Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, the former losing his job after missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

The Giants could have easily won 11 or 12 games this season with an embarrassing dearth of talent on defense, and despite blown leads prior to their bye week (including against New England just prior to the bye), the team would have held its destiny in its own hands for the rest of the season had it defeated Washington on the road. From that point, the Giants lost five of their final six games, and had to grind and grit their teeth just to win that one game in Miami against a team that mirrors them in regards to ineptitude.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10).
Jameis Winston threw caution to the wind over the final month of the season, as he only had one viable receiver for most of the season (Mike Evans, as Vincent Jackson missed all of or portions of eight games) as did the defense, which missed Kwon Alexander (serving a four-game suspension) while the team lost all four of those games. For the season, the Bucs surrendered nearly 70% completions to opposing QBs, despite playing a Base Cover 2 scheme, ultimately costing Lovie Smith his job. As it were, Smith had control over personnel, and brought over the slough that stunk in Chicago — getting him canned there — only to proceed to stink even worse in Tampa. Doing the same thing and expecting different results isn’t exactly the recipe for success.

25. Miami Dolphins (6-10).
The Fins have given the Patriots fits over the past few seasons, splitting the past four games, as a matter of fact. Ndamukong Suh did what many figured he eventually would: land a hard shot on Tom Brady, injuring him. The Fins did their best to play some sort of spoiler for the Patriots, who are limping into the playoffs, although Brady does not appear to be one of those who will be doing the limping.

26. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11).
A season of missed opportunities by this team. They blew four games outright, and were in two others until the final possession for either team and lost each of them. Blake Bortles also regressed sharply (while putting up cosmetic, late-game comeback stats that belie his overall performance in the second half of the season). The Jaguars desperately need a legitimate left tackle, consistent running game, hope that Dante Fowler is healthy in 2016 and another pass rusher to complement him. The other pieces are in place, as Gus Bradley appears to be taking more of an active role in the defense in 2016 (as his job will be on the line without marked improvement overall).

27. San Francisco 49ers (5-11).
A predictable outcome for this season after seeing what occurred last offseason. Politics and football do not mix, and the fact that the owner of the team continues to employ the GM that caused a great deal of the mess that the 49ers (will continue to) deal with, makes you wonder if anyone in that building knows what they are doing.

28. Baltimore Ravens (5-11).
To the credit of the remaining players who didn’t land on IR (which outnumbered the number of opening day starters who actually finished the season) and John Harbaugh, the Ravens never quit. They played four of their first five games on the road, and were in every game into the 4th quarter; even if they proceeded to blow most of them late. They did sweep the Steelers this season, considered by most to be the most explosive offense in the AFC this season when healthy.

29. San Diego Chargers (4-12).
The Bolts didn’t go out with a whimper, at least, although at one point, it seemed like a Charger was down on every play for about two quarters in the game at Denver on Sunday.

30. Tennessee Titans (3-13).
The Titans are now on the clock.

31. Cleveland Browns (3-13).
Why anyone — other than an old coach looking for one more shot at glory, or some young assistant destined to repeat Jim Tomsula’s fate in San Francisco — would want this job is beyond comprehension. The front office is in shambles, the team couldn’t even locate its supposed starting QB for 36 hours before the final game of the season, and all but one of its opening day WRs ended the season on IR, with half of them highly unlikely to even be with the team next year.

32. Dallas Cowboys (4-12).
Jerry Jones still believes that Dallas was closer to winning the NFC East — even after an outright bludgeoning at the hands of the Washington Redskins in Week 17 in the 1st quarter alone — than the cellar, and the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
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2015 Preseason Standings Predictions vs. Actual 2015 Finishes, Division-By-Division

— Actual Finish Indicated in (Parentheses) 

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
AFC East
Buffalo                     11-5 (8-8, 3rd)
New England         11-5 (12-4, 1st)
Miami                      10-6 (6-10, 4th)
NY Jets                      8-8 (10-6, 2nd)

AFC North
Baltimore               12-4 (5-11, 3rd)
Cincinnati              11-5 (12-4, 1st)
Pittsburgh              10-6 (10-6, 2nd)
Cleveland                5-11 (3-13, 4th)

AFC South
Indianapolis          13-3 (8-8, 2nd)
Jacksonville           10-6 (5-11, 3rd)
Houston                   9-7 (9-7, 1st)
Tennessee               7-9 (3-13, 4th)

AFC West
San Diego                12-4 (4-12, 4th)
Denver                     12-4 (12-4, 1st)
Kansas City             11-5 (11-5, 2nd)
Oakland                     8-8 (7-9, 3rd)

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
NFC East
Philadelphia             10-6 (7-9, 2nd)
NY Giants                   9-7 (6-10, 3rd)
Dallas                          8-8 (4-12, 4th)
Washington              3-13 (9-7, 1st)

NFC North
Minnesota               11-5 (11-5, 1st)
Detroit                     10-6 (7-9, 3rd)
Green Bay                 9-7 (10-6, 2nd)
Chicago                     8-8 (6-10, 4th)

NFC South
Carolina                    9-7 (15-1, 1st)
Atlanta                      8-8 (8-8, 2nd)
New Orleans            8-8 (7-9, 3nd)
Tampa Bay               7-9 (6-10, 4th)

NFC West
Seattle                       14-2 (10-6, 2nd)
Arizona                     11-5 (13-3, 1st)
St. Louis                    9-7 (7-9, 3rd)
San Francisco         6-10 (5-11, 4th)

PLAYOFF TEAMS:
AFC: Indianapolis, San Diego, Denver, New England, Buffalo, Cincinnati
NFC: Seattle, Minnesota, Detroit, Philadelphia, Arizona, NY Giants
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* – 2015 NFL Wild Card Weekend Begins Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 4:30 PM EST.