Believe it or not, we're already three-quarters of the way through the NFL season. As we approach Week 14, each team has 12 games in the books and four games left to go, which means that it's time to take stock of the league at the quarter pole. Today, that means our scheduled look at the candidates likeliest to win the various league- and media-sponsored awards that'll come out at the end of the NFL campaign.
We've been tracking each of the league's key races, four games at a time, and it's been surprising to see how different things can look with only a month of change. Award winners who seemed like competitors after the first four games of the year or even at the halfway point are now jokes, and at least one candidate who seemed like a lock as recently as Week 9 might be usurped for his award by the time things are said and done. Nobody is having a truly dominant season the way that J.J. Watt and Adrian Peterson did a year ago, and the only guy coming close to that stratosphere has won this award so many times that the voters might very well be sick of him.
So let's go through the league's seven most notable awards and see where they stand with four games to go, starting with the one that actually appears to be locked up. Keep in mind that my picks here aren't necessarily my choices for who should win the award, but instead the person who I think is most likely to win, given the historical preferences of the electorate.
There's actually an exciting slate of Thanksgiving Day football games this year! Well, sorta. Lions-Packers would be a monumental tilt, but with Aaron Rodgers almost surely out with his broken collarbone, the Packers will have to turn to Matt Flynn for a spot start against the Lions, who seem to find new ways to beat themselves on a weekly basis. The Raiders will bring Matt McGloin, roughly the football equivalent of a student film with potential, to Dallas to take on the Cowboys, who are starring in the big-screen adaptation of the story of the Lions. And then, at night, we get a game that should have playoff energy between two teams that shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the playoffs in their current shape, the Steelers and Ravens. Squint and you can see five — maybe even six if you're a McGloinomaniac — teams with legitimate playoff hopes. Put your glasses on and you see six teams capable of playing brutally ugly football.
Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful. We're blessed to have three football games to break up the monotony of talking to family members and eating. So let's not come here and bury six football teams whose games leave us wanting; let's celebrate them. Here's a whole list of things to watch for and enjoy during tomorrow's Turkey Day action.
On the craziest day of the NFL season — as the Chargers hung 41 on the Chiefs, Tom Brady put together another classic, and the Cardinals stepped right into the playoff race — the NFC North still did its best to remain the most insane situation in football. In a span of about four hours, somehow, three different teams managed to gain control of their playoff futures only to lose them again.
Any referendum on the weirdness probably has to start with what happened at Lambeau yesterday afternoon. With the Packers trailing a Vikings team 23-7 at home, it looked like everything we thought about Green Bay a month ago was true. Losing Aaron Rodgers was maybe the most significant blow any team could suffer. Before Rodgers went down, the Packers were a 5-2 team whose only two losses came to San Francisco and Cincinnati on the road. Losing Rodgers meant a fall from clear division front-runner to a team that puts up 13 points against the Giants. With Scott Tolzien completely unable to get anything started for the Packers yesterday, Rodgers’s MVP case was somehow stronger than it could ever be while he was actually playing. As Detroit started its comeback against the Bucs, it looked like one more Packers stumble would be enough to end their chances in the division. Then Matt Flynn scored 16 straight points, Matthew Stafford threw the ball to the other team a bunch, and somehow Green Bay is a half game closer in the division than it was before yesterday began.
After yesterday, I have all the proof I need. I don’t know what it is about this year, but I’m now convinced that more teams than ever just have no interest in going to the playoffs. The Bengals held off the Browns, but they needed two defensive scores and four turnovers to do it. And I’m starting to believe Andy Dalton is a double agent taking some off the side from the Ravens. Meanwhile, the NFC East is now a jumbled mess, and somehow an Eagles team that couldn’t stop anyone for the first month of the season is 6-5 and looking firmly in control — for now.
Nowhere, though, does the division crown resemble a game of hot potato more than it does in the NFC North. A week ago, the Lions were 6-3, holding a one-game lead, and fresh off a tiebreaker-clinching win over the Bears. It’s a division filled with flawed teams. The Vikings are the Vikings, Chicago is without more than half its defensive starters, and yesterday’s Packers game included the dreaded “Who’s that guy?” montage about their starting quarterback:
Don’t be alarmed if you notice a preponderance of C.J. Spiller jerseys in your neighborhood on Thursday night. Spiller was easily the most frequently cited player in the fantasy horror stories you guys sent me after Week 8, and thus should make a wonderful Halloween costume for those looking to strike fear into the hearts of others. In fact, there’s no shortage of costume ideas when it comes to underperforming or injured football players, as evidenced by the following responses.
Fantasy Horror Stories
WARNING: READER DISCRETION ADVISED.
@mattborcas last week I traded Forte for Marshall. You know the rest.
Joshua is right: I do know the rest. You do, too. But this is a house of horrors, not a house of sympathy, so let’s cover the rest in excruciating detail.
1. Joshua trades Matt Forte for Brandon Marshall.
2. Days later, Forte rushes for 91 yards, three touchdowns, and 28 fantasy points in Washington while Marshall posts one of his worst outings of the season.
Further probing revealed Joshua’s motives. In addition to Forte, he owned a robust stable of running backs (LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy, Stevan Ridley), and Randall Cobb’s fractured fibula more or less blew Joshua's receiving corps to smithereens. So while this deal was perfectly defensible given Joshua's needs, it’s hard not to wonder how much more Forte could’ve netted poor Joshua after Week 7, and that’s the type of thought that can haunt an owner for months. Years, even.
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
How ’Bout Them Cowboys!
1. There were bright spots, definitely.
2. Then Dez went Michael Douglas–out-the-car-now on the Dallas sideline.
3. And I think that actually helped. After that Dez freak-out, Romo went out and threw two touchdown passes totaling 110 yards on the next two drives: one to Terrance Williams and one to Dez. There's no way anyone would ever give Troubled Wide Receiver Dez Bryant credit for lighting a fire under the offense that'd been wheezing along all day, but that's sort of what happened, right? Even as Calvin Johnson disemboweled the Dallas secondary, the Cowboys offense was clicking for most of the fourth quarter and the game was in hand, thanks in large part to a spark from Dez. It was actually pretty refreshing to see things play out like this.
In case you were busy regretting your attempt to introduce that exchange student living in your home to the joyful simplicity of America's pastime, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
A weird weekend in the World Series left the Cardinals and Red Sox knotted at two games apiece, after Saturday's game ended on an obstruction call that handed St. Louis a 5-4 victory, and Sunday's game closed with a Koji Uehara pickoff in Boston's 4-2 win. "What a weekend!" declared MLB rules aficionado Peter Greggsman. "The only way it could have been better is if one of these stadiums had been a dome, so we could get some catwalk interference in there." Greggsman's demeanor then darkened, before he added, "The real tragedy though is that the World Series can't end on an infield fly call. No game can." Greggsman then pounded his fist on his Hardball Times Baseball Annual and cried to the heavens, "Oh founders of baseball, you've cursed us with the possibility of perfection, yet made it as impossible to witness as a local game without digital cable! Damn you apocryphal Abner Doubleday! Damn you straight to the fictional hell you belong in!"
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson amassed 329 receiving yards, the second-most in NFL history behind former Rams receiver Flipper Anderson, as Detroit came from behind late to stun the Dallas Cowboys 31-30. Meanwhile, back at his New Jersey home, Anderson cracked a bottle of champagne as the game ended. Not because his record was preserved; that would be incredibly tacky. Who would do that? No, he popped a bottle of champagne because it pairs well with the panko-crusted halibut he whipped up for his wife as a special Sunday treat.
There’s no use in deluding ourselves — this week’s slate of games is pretty terrible. After maybe the most anticipated prime-time matchup of the season last Sunday, the most we have to look forward to in Week 8 is a Cowboys-Lions game in which the main appeal is a chance at 80 total points and about 800 yards of offense. Doug Marrone’s return to New Orleans doesn’t exactly have the same appeal as Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis.
I believe, though. Together, we can get through this. The marquee pairings might be underwhelming, but there’s always something worth watching, even if this week those things were a little harder to find.
Before we talk about the upcoming slate of games and their fantasy implications, a quick note of mourning:
HOYER THE DESTROYER is dead. Long live HOYER THE DESTROYER.
From a fantasy standpoint, Brian Hoyer’s torn ACL slightly decreases the value of Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon, because Brandon Weeden is Pete Wheeler from Backyard Sports (minus the speed). No, the transition from Hoyer back to Weeden will not be seamless.
For someone who loves both giving awards and pro football, I should love the NFL MVP race. And maybe I would, if it weren’t completely devoid of fun and/or intrigue.
Bill Barnwell wrote about this in detail amid last year’s uncharacteristically murky race, but here’s the gist: The NFL MVP is the Best Quarterback Award, barring a mind-blowing, record-shattering season by a running back. In the past 20 years only seven non-QBs have won the award, and each time, it’s taken an historic effort to do it.
Adrian Peterson needed the seventh 2,000-yard season ever. Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis each needed one too. Shaun Alexander broke the single-season rushing touchdown record during his MVP campaign in 2005. LaDainian Tomlinson broke that record the following year. You get the idea.
Charles Tillman, Bears vs. Calvin Johnson, Lions; Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Someday, when Charles Tillman’s career is over, this is the moment Bears fans will point to when mentioning him as the best cornerback in the team’s history. It came in 2003, when Tillman was a rookie second-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette and Randy Moss was more than a man, but less than a god. At the end of the year, Moss would have 111 catches, 1,632 yards, and 17 touchdowns — his best season as a pro. This was before all that, just two games into both the season and Tillman’s career. With the Bears leading Minnesota 13-10 in the final two minutes, Daunte Culpepper challenged the rookie cornerback on a jump ball in the end zone to the best receiver on earth. Tillman won — both the ball and the game — and started a career that’s been mostly excellent, somehow defined by forcing fumbles, and ultimately undervalued.
It’s that time of year — when snakes, auctions, ADPs, keepers, and sleepers start to rule our football hearts and minds. This season, last year’s Fantasy Island contest winner, Matt Borcas, will be providing some fantasy insight, starting with the tools you need for a league-winning draft.
Did you know that Denver is the only place in the whole wide world Wes Welker would’ve left New England for? I did, because I read Chris Ballard’s revealing profile of Boston’s biggest traitor since Johnny DamonRoger Clemens Benedict Arnold. Some other crucial tidbits from the piece:
Robert Mays and I talk a lot about football. We exchange texts. We talk on Gchat. During those times when we are both in Grantland's Los Angeles offices, we talk about football at great length, even in times when there is very little football to talk about, because that is the extent to which football has taken hold of us.
What makes our discussions particularly fun, for me at least, is that we come from different perspectives. (Disparate opinions? On ESPN? You don't say.) Mays is a blood-and-guts die-hard Bears fan from the Midwest who would actually live in the cloud of dust that comes after the three yards if he could; as you may already know, I am an occasional Giants fan from the East Coast who trusts the numbers and thinks Andy Reid didn't pass the ball enough. We definitely agree on a few things: you build great teams from the lines out, people should chill out about Jay Cutler, and, OK, two things. Everything else is up for grabs.
You can listen to this podcast on the ESPN Podcenter here or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.