Three Potential Landing Spots for Greg Hardy

As the regular season draws closer, one big name free agent is still sitting on the open market, defensive end Greg Hardy.  Despite his struggles, which include lackluster play during his one season in Dallas and his continued misbehavior on and off the field, which he has been in counseling to deal with, Hardy is still a 28-year old with 40 sacks in his career (27 of which came in his last two full seasons) in a pass happy league that craves pass rushers.  
Despite that, the Cowboys let him walk, the Redskins decided not to take a flier on him after another season-ending injury to linebacker Junior Gallette and there hasn’t been much of a market for him to this point.  While things can certainly change in a hurry thanks to injuries or teams seeing that their current crop of sack artists don’t quite live up to the hype, there are three spots right now that make sense for Hardy and his potential suitor.
First up are the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Despite having a defensive-minded coach in Gus Bradley, the Jaguars only mustered 36 sacks last season (ranked 20th in the league).  It’s true that last year’s first round pick Dante Fowler is back from injury, but if he isn’t 100 percent or gets injured again, the Jags will be in need of help off the edge.  They’ve already had Hardy in for a fact finding workout, but they don’t have immediate plans to sign him.  The Jags have an offense poised to score a lot of points, but they need to be able to stop teams too.  With their sack numbers seemingly tied to the health of Fowler, Hardy makes sense here.
Next up are the Buffalo Bills, whose putrid sack total of 21 ranked them 31st in the league.  Head Coach Rex Ryan and his brother, Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan, certainly wouldn’t shy away from a controversial player, especially if they thought he could help.  After all, Ik Enemkpali was signed by the Bills after he was released by the Jets following his cold-cocking of Geno Smith. The Bills are also dealing with key injuries to top draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, further weakening an already suspect defense.  Looking at the team on paper, Hardy’s potential for disrupting offensive backfields is sorely needed in Buffalo.
Finally, you have a team that is always a dark horse candidate, but really shouldn’t be with their history of taking fliers on players others thought were washed up physically or mentally; the New England Patriots.  It usually doesn’t matter who they bring into the fold, with the way the team is run, everyone on the roster ends up doing things the “Patriot Way” very successfully.  Randy Moss was seemingly done after two sub-par years in Oakland, but then came to the Patriots in 2007 and caught 98 passes for almost 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns.  Corey Dillon wore out his welcome in Cincinnati, but came to the Patriots in 2004, rushing for almost 1,700 yards and 12 touchdowns. While the Patriots 49 sacks last year were second best in the league, 12.5 of those were traded to the Arizona Cardinals in the form of Chandler Jones.  With nobody else in double digits, the Pats could find a spot for Hardy.
While it may take some time, the NFL is a league of many second chances (if you can still play) and Hardy is likely to get his.

Mariota and Winston Year Two

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will be forever linked. These two met in the very first College Football Playoff Game at the Rose Bowl. They came into the game carrying the last two Heisman Trophies and the previous year’s National Championship. The first half of the game was really good, but the second half was Mariota and his Oregon Ducks running up a huge score on Jameis and his Florida State Seminoles.
They met again in their first NFL game after both were selected with the first two picks in the NFL Draft; Winston #1 by the Tampa Bay Bucs and Marcus #2 by the Tennessee Titans. Different uniforms, different leagues, both getting a hefty pay check, but similar results as Mariota again lit up Winston’s team.
It looked as if the Titans were geniuses at the time, but by season’s end, it looked as if the Bucs may have gotten the better quarterback. Winston had the Bucs to 6-6 at one point, thinking they might have a shot at the playoffs. The “P” word was never uttered in Nashville though as Mariota ended up going 3-9.
However, upon further review, Marcus had some really good stats. He passed for 19 touchdowns compared to only 10 interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 91.0. If he keeps that QBR over 90, he will be very successful and so will the Titans.
Winston was also very good, especially for a rookie. He threw for 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and his QBR was 84.2. Not too shabby.
So what will happen in their second year? You’ve heard of the “Sophomore Jinx” of course. There is a reason for that. Many times, that second season can be tough. Defensive coordinators have film on you now, and you now have expectations you that were not there in your rookie season.
But, these guys have dealt with a lot of pressure for several years now. College football, especially at the top of the sport, is every bit the pressure cooker the NFL is. And there was no shortage of film from college ball for the defensive coordinators to check out.
It seems evident that the second year will only get better for these two young talents.  Both Winston and Mariota seem to grasp their offenses very well, and can also read defenses. This is seen when you notice the low number of interceptions each threw. They should only get better in this area the more they play.
They also both have fantastic leadership qualities. Even as rookies, it was clear that they were the voice of their respective teams. Neither shied away from the press even after things did not always go well.  These are not easy things to do as a rookie.
The Bucs schedule includes the Arizona Cardinals, Broncos, Bears, Chiefs, and Chargers as well as the six NFC South teams.  While Tennessee has the Dolphins, Chargers, Packers, Vikings, Lions and Bears as well as the Raiders, Browns and their six games against the AFC South.
Both of those schedules have some land mines, but both could be a lot tougher. Both of these teams should go into the season with playoff aspirations. Will both make it? Probably not. Of the two, the Bucs have the best chance, but making the playoffs for any team in the highly competitive NFL is never an easy task.

The Rise and Fall of Trent Richardson

As the 2012 NFL draft approached, Alabama running back Trent Richardson was viewed as a can’t miss prospect.  Some said he was the best running back to come out of the college ranks in 15 years, while others were comparing him favorably to Adrian Peterson – who by then had run for more than 6,700 yards, 67 touchdowns and was about to embark on a campaign that would see him come close to breaking the single season rushing record – and why not…. in three years carrying the rock for the Tide, Richardson had amassed more than 3,000 yards rushing and scored 35 touchdowns, helping the program win two BCS National Championships.
The first two picks of the draft were quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, III, who went to Indianapolis and Washington respectively.  After trading four draft picks to the Minnesota Vikings to move up from the fourth pick to the third, the Cleveland Browns selected Richardson with visions of building an offense around the strong running game he would provide.
Richardson’s rookie season went fairly well.  He played in 15 games, rushing for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns, but a 3.6 YPC average was cause for concern.  After two subpar outings in the Browns first two games of the 2013 season, they traded him to the Colts for a first-round pick, but the new surroundings didn’t help.  In his two years in Indy, Richardson barely managed to run for three yards per carry and was released after the 2014 season.  The Oakland Raiders gave him a chance to earn a roster spot in 2015, but he could not.  The Baltimore Ravens took a flier on him this offseason, but the results were the same.
So how did a can’t miss prospect, with a stellar college resume go from first round pick to NFL draft bust lists?  Three reasons: lack of ability in a key area for a running back, off-field distractions and injuries.
Former Browns CEO Joe Banner (who did not join the team until October 2012, meaning he was not involved in the selection of Richardson) said the Browns traded him because he lacked vision.  According to Banner, the inability to see where the running lane was going to be undermined the speed and power that Richardson possessed. Understanding blocking schemes and anticipating holes were not Richardson’s only problems.
As the third overall pick in 2012, Richardson received a guaranteed $20.5 million contract and then the leeches moved in.  Richardson was spending thousands of dollars a week for box seats for family and friends.  He would also constantly get calls from those same people asking for money to bail them out of various financial issues and it clearly weighed on him.
Finally, as is the case for many NFL players, the injury bug bit.  Richardson had his knee scoped during the offseason, and even though he was in the Ravens camp, he spent the entire time on the physically unable to perform list until he was released.  Despite the issues that have derailed his career, Richardson could still play in the NFL again at some point.  It’s not inconceivable – or unfamiliar for that matter – to imagine a good team like the Patriots or Broncos taking a chance on a guy like Richardson.  Even Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh recently said the Ravens may still have interest in him. Richardson certainly isn’t giving up on himself.
 

49ers to use 2-QB System Through Pre-Season

Most NFL teams name their starting quarterback prior to pre-season action. The thought is that they can get their starter plenty of first team reps through training camp and then live game action through the first couple pre-season games. Most times the starter will then play limited minutes in the final two preseason games to avoid injury.
Chip Kelly and the San Francisco 49ers have a different plan. Despite being the starting quarterback for the past few seasons, Colin Kaepernick will have to earn that role again this off-season. Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are neck and neck at this point, so much so that Kelly is splitting their reps right down the middle. Kelly plans to use a 2-QB system throughout the pre-season, in hopes of determining a starter.
The pre-season plan of attack from Chip Kelly is not a good sign for Kaepernick. He seemed to lose confidence in himself last season before being benched in favor of Gabbert. And it seems he has lost the confidence from the coaching staff as well. The 49ers acknowledged Kaepernick’s lost confidence when they stated that they were benching him “to give the QB a mental break”. It is strange for a team to put that out in the open for everyone and at the same time surprising that a guy who seemed so supremely confident in his skills could lose it so quickly.
The 49ers were 2-6 when they made the switch at quarterback last season. But what was bad news for the team, was good news for Kaepernick, as the 49ers only won 3 games the remainder of the season with Gabbert at the helm. Although, Gabbert did seem to give the 49ers a small boost as the starter. He kept them competitive in games down the stretch and had probably his best season to date, but was far from setting the world on fire. Over the course of his young career, Gabbert has 33 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, with a 55% completion percentage. Last year showed that Gabbert could be a serviceable starting NFL quarterback if needed.  But did nothing to dispel the reality that he is better suited a solid backup. He has shown consistent mediocrity since being drafted by Jacksonville in 2011 and it’s hard to imagine him as a starter on a winning team.
In the end it still seems far fetched that Gabbert ends up starting over Kaepernick; at least at the beginning of next season. Kaepernick is clearly the more naturally talented player and should get the first look as a starter, but he still has to legitimately show that he can be a consistent enough to rely upon. The 49ers showed that they were not afraid to go away from him last season and if he does not get it together, he could lose out on the job again. If it does come that, he will likely have to look for a new home next season and maybe that would be best for both parties.
It would behoove the 49ers to give Kaepernick one more shot at the starting gig to see if he can regain his confidence before giving up on him all-together. After all, this is a guy who led them to a Super Bowl and two straight conference championships.  But in the cutthroat and highly competitive NFL, you’re only as good as your last pass..

Seahawks Somehow A Sleeper Heading In To 2016 Season ?

The Seattle Seahawks have been led by Pete Carroll for six seasons. During that time frame, Carroll led the club to five playoff berths, three division titles, two conference titles and one Super Bowl title. Seattle is just one year removed from making back-to-back Super Bowls. And yet, it feels as though the Seahawks are slipping out of the NFL forefront.
Part of that is self-explanatory. The salary cap has been catching up with this organization for a couple of years now. With so many highly talented players reaching the end of their deals, Seattle was forced to jettison a lot of depth as well as pay stars their market worth.
It started by moving on from players like Red Bryant, Percy Harvin and Zach Miller. Then it was Golden Tate, Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Brandon Browner.  As the years went, Max Unger and Cary Williams were out the door in a trade and a release respectively. Russell Okung, Bruce Irvin, Brandon Mebane, Jaye Howard and J.R. Sweezy ventured elsewhere as well. Then Marshawn Lynch retired. Suddenly, the Seattle roster, which had been the envy of the league in terms of depth, looked like a stars-and-scrubs knockoff.
With those changes, it was only natural that the team would begin to decline. Even still, last year, while they were worse than they had been, the Seahawks still put together a pretty impressive season overall. I mean, making it to the to the second round of the playoffs is a huge achievement to most organizations. But that was far from the level of expectations of the fan base or the team itself.
This brings us to the 2016 NFL season, where Seattle seems to have taken yet another step back in the public consciousness. Another offseason has resulted in even more roster turnover. Perhaps more importantly, another season has seen the advancement of the Arizona Cardinals, who are now deemed the cream of the NFC West crop to most observers. It’s not necessarily that Seattle has gotten any worse, though its offensive line will certainly be an area of concern even after the selection of 2016 first-round pick Germain Ifedi; instead it’s that Arizona has passed it over.
But the Seahawks still have a case as an NFC title contender. They are still led by Pro Bowler Russell Wilson at quarterback. They have the breakout star at running back, Thomas Rawls, to fully take over for the departed Lynch after he played so well in a relief role a season ago. They have another full year of Jimmy Graham pending as the former Pro Bowl tight end gets acclimated into the offense. They still have the Legion of Boom and most of its founding members, as well as a fearsome linebacking corps.
Suddenly, the two-time conference title winner is looking like an underrated and under appreciated foe entering this season. Even the fans were starting to question some of the moves made by the Seahawks, leading to this feeling of disappointment. It is hard to imagine that a team that has won double-digit games for four straight seasons is being disregarded, but here we are. Just don’t bury the Seahawks among their past cap casualties just yet.

Can The Cardinals Take A Step Further in 2017? What Will It Take?

The Arizona Cardinals look like a Super Bowl contender at times, but then other times look pretty pedestrian. Last year they got to the NFC Championship Game, but once they got arrived, looked wretched while getting blown out by the Carolina Panthers.
Can Carson Palmer and the Cardinals get one game better and make it to the Super Bowl in 2017?
To answer this question, let’s first look at the other teams in the Cards division, the NFC West. The Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers would not appear to be good enough to finish ahead of the Cardinals. But the Seattle Seahawks very well could. This would put the Cards in the Wild Card round of the NFC playoffs. If that happens it means the Cardinals winning playoff games on the road. We saw how that went last year in Charlotte. So it seems almost necessary for them to win the division.
Let’s look at the Cardinals schedule, and see how realistic that is.
They start the season with a home game against the New England Patriots. This could be a break since Tom Brady will be suspended for the first four games. Brady will be back for the Pats game with the Seattle Seahawks. So the Cardinals could pick up a game there.
Tampa Bay comes in for the second game. The Bucs should be improved over last year with second year quarterback Jameis Winston, but we still like the Cards in this one. The Cards also catch a break in Week Three because they go on the road to face the Buffalo Bills. If you have to play at Buffalo, playing there in September is when you want to do it because of the horrible weather conditions in November/December. The Cards have a great chance here too.
Week Four brings the Los Angeles Rams to the desert. The Cardinals should have a tough time, but they still can win at home. It seems like the first four games should leave the Cards at least a 3-1 to start, maybe even 4-0.
Then in Weeks Five through Eight, they have the San Francisco 49ers on the road, home games with the New York Jets and Seahawks and a road game with the Carolina Panthers. We know how tough that game at Carolina will be, but it still feels like a good chance they can split these four. They should beat the Niners and they ought to be able to get one of two between the Jets and Seahawks. So the Cards should being no worse than 5-3 at the halfway point seems very realistic.
Weeks Nine through Twelve have the 49ers at home, then away games with the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons and a home game with the Washington Redskins.  If the cardinals can win in all four of these games where they are likely the much better team, that will put Arizona at 9-3.
The last four games are at the Miami Dolphins, a home game with the New Orleans Saints and two away games at the Seahawks and Rams. They should be able to get a split out of these two games. That puts their predicted finals regular season record at 11-5.   The question thought is will that be enough to win the division? It will most likely end up being very close.
If the Cardinals can win the games they’re supposed to, and maybe even a few that they “shouldn’t,” they’ll be on their way to have a potential home field advantage in the early rounds of the playoff, possibly throughout.  That just may be the missing pieces in order for them to make it back to the Super Bowl.  Can they do it one more time for Larry Fitztgerald?  Let’s hope so, the all time great deserves it!

How Do The Weekly Monday Night Football Matchups Stack Up This Year

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Monday Night Football used to be a huge event. Back in the day, the Monday Night game was the best game of the week. But then again, back in the day there was no Thursday Night or Sunday Night games so it was easier for Monday Night to get the best match-up.
Some of the best games ever have been on Monday Night Football. Some memorable Monday Night games that come to mind is the 1985 Chicago Bears at Miami Dolphins game, which turned out to be the only game the Bears lost all season, and the Green Bay at Oakland game when Brett Favre had one of his best games of his career days after the death of his father.  And who can ever forget the Oakland Raiders at Seattle Seahawks game when Bo Jackson trucked Brian Bosworth on his way to the end zone. There was the Houston Oilers vs Miami Dolphins game when Earl Campbell led the Oilers to a thrilling win in the Astrodome.
Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford were must-watch TV for years. Every game seemed to be a classic. I remember as a kid, the main topic of conversation at school on Tuesday was always the Monday Night Football game.
While Monday Night Football isn’t what it once was, it’s still football, so it’s still a good thing. Let’s take a look at how each week of MNF stacks up on a interest and watchability scale.
 
Week One- Pittsburgh Steelers at Washington Redskins:
Two playoff teams from last season clash in the first game of a double-header in the season opening Monday Night Football game. Important to note this game is on at 7 pm eastern time so if you’re on the west coast and have a job may be a little tricky to catch the start. Big Ben and Kirk Cousins should be a really good quarterback battle. Hopefully the progress the Skins made last year will continue and make this a competitive contest.
Watchability – 3.5 out of 5
 
Week One – Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers: This one doesn’t sound like much based on actual skill level, but the Rams and 49ers had a big rivalry back in the day when the Rams were in L.A. With the Rams back in L.A. we will see the NorCal vs SoCal rivalry possibly re-ignite once again. Since this one doesn’t start till 10pm on the east, you fantasy football fans may have to go to sleep not knowing if they won week 1.
Watchability – 3
 
Week Two- Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears: This could be a good game if we get good quarterback play from Sam Bradford and Jay Cutler. But both of those guys are prone to stinking up the joint at times so this one could end up pretty bad too.
Watchability – 2.5
Week Three- Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: The Falcons and Saints always put on a good show and they really put one one when they play on Monday Night. This one should be a shootout between Matty Ice and Cool Brees. They are two NFC South rivals and both want to be the team to challenge the Panthers this year. The winner will have a leg up to do that.
Watchability – 3.5
 
Week Four- New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings: This could be fun. Teddy Bridgewater is becoming a good NFL quarterback add in stars like Adrian Peterson, Eli Manning and Odell Beckham and this thing get’s pretty interesting.
Watchability -3.5
 
Week Five- Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: This is another NFC South division rivalry game. This one is a bit more one-sided than Falcons Saints though. The Bucs may hang in there for a while but they have little chance in this one. Cam Newton is always entertaining, and seeing how Jameis Winston performs following his Rookie Of The Year rookie season is an interesting sub plot.
Watchability – 3
 
Week Six- New York Jets at Arizona Cardinals:  The Cards are always fun to watch and they seem to always play well when they are on in prime time. The Jets were surprisingly good last year as well. The Larry Fitzgerald vs Brandon Marshall matchup is worth the price of admission in itself.
Watchability – 3.5
 
Week Seven- Houston Texans at Denver Broncos: Well, come on now, this is Brock Osweiler going back to Denver! You have to watch this one. J. J. Watt is playing and you have the Super Bowl Champs at home.  Must see tv.
Watchability – 4
 
Week Eight- Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: Halloween Night in the “Black and Blue” Division. If you like to watch two old rivals go at it in a good defensive game, then you’ll like this one. It might not be the prettiest game though.
Watchability – 2.5
 
Week Nine- Buffalo Bills at Seattle Seahawks: Seattle is always a great atmosphere, especially in prime time. It will be loud there, we know that for sure. The Bills are getting better, but might not be ready for this quite yet. This has blowout potential.
Watchability – 2.5
Week Ten- Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants: This one should be fun. We know Eli Manning and Andy Dalton will put it up a lot. They might not always go to the right color jerseys though. It’s hard to say what might happen in this one. These two teams are capable of playing great and also stinking it up. Sometimes they do it both in the same game.
Watchability – 3
 
Week Eleven- Houston Texas at Oakland Raiders:   The Houston Texans are back on after only a three week absence. This time they face the Raiders in a game that might be half empty in the stands. If the Raiders announce they are leaving town by then, there might not be anyone.
Watchability – 1.5
 
Week Twelve- Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles: The Packers are always fun to watch. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game’s history. Eagles fans make them a tough opponent to take on at home. This game has high potential, but could also end up a very one signed affair.
Watchability – 3.5
 
Week Thirteen- Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets: Joe Namath guarantees the Jets will win. Just kidding. But Andrew Luck is in the house, and with that new contract he signed in the offseason he better put up some serious numbers this year.  So this should be a good one.
Watchability – 3
 
Week Fourteen- Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots-  This one could be a really good one if the Ravens are still in contention. When Baltimore is at their best they are one of the few teams that can go into Foxboro and win.  They won in Foxboro in the 2o09 playoffs, can The Ravens do it again? But it all really depends on how their season is shaping up leading in to this late week contest.
Watchability – 4
 
Week Fifteen- Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins-  Cam Newton vs Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback match-up, assuming they’re both still healthy. If both of these team are in the hunt for a division title, and they really should be, then this will be surely be a good one.
Watchability – 3.5
 
Week Sixteen- Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: It’s hard to say what we might have with this one. Both teams could be well out of the playoff race by then. If Tony Romo goes down to another injury this could be a real stinker, but there is always the chance that the Cowboys could be well in the hunt for the NFC East. Hard to call.
Watchability – 2.5
 
Week Seventeen- No Monday Night game.
On paper, there are definitely some good looking games on Monday Night Football, but not too many that make you really salivate. They don’t seem to get those great games like Ravens vs Steelers or Packers vs Bears or Pats vs Broncos that the Sunday Night matchup constantly gets now. Theres also a lot of teams that don’t ever make it to Monday Night spotlight.  Unlike the Thursday Night game where you can see every team play. But then again, are you really all that  sad the Titans, Jaguars, Dolphins, or Chargers aren’t on Monday Night?
 

Did Denver Give The NFL The Key To Stop Cam and The Panthers?

Up until last year’s Super Bowl, it appeared that nobody had an answer to Cam Newton. He was running and passing all over the best defenses in the NFL, making them look inept. Then along came The Super Bowl, and frankly, they made it look easy.  The Denver formula went something like this. Stop the run on first down, putting the Panthers in second and long. Bring everybody up on second down and stuff the run or the short pass. Then put pressure on Newton on third down, not letting him scramble out of the pocket.
 
The Broncos defense had another component as well. They went conservative on offense and played the field position game. Denver did not try to stay with the Panthers, score for score. They did not try to take chances on offense. They were quite to punt, put the Panthers back deep in their own territory, play great defense and dare Cam to drive the Panthers down the field. A taunt that ended up working out very well, they just could not do it.
 
Last year, the Panthers formula for winning was to cause turnovers and turn the ball over to Cam and the offense with a short field. Denver made sure that did not happen, even if it meant handing the ball off on third and long.
 
To pull this off, a team needs a stout defense and a good amount of patience. If your defense can’t stuff the Panthers run game, then third won’t work. If the Panthers can keep the defense guessing on whether they will run or pass, then they won’t be able to sell out on the pass rush or they will be susceptible to the screen pass, draw, or Cam taking off on a run.  But if there are teams who feel they can stop the Panthers run game on first down, then the Panthers will have to come up with something to combat this.
 
Having Kelvin Benjamin back for this season will surely be a big help. Somehow Newton managed to throw 3,837 yards and 35 TD’s without the physically gifted deep threat last year, as he was out all season with an ACL injury suffered early in the preseason; nonetheless, having him back is surely a huge benefit.  If Cam can hit him on some big passes, this might make the Denver blueprint a little bit tougher to follow. It’s tough to load the box if you can’t cover Benjamin one on one.
 
What Denver did show the rest of the league in last year’s Super Bowl is that Cam is not Superman. He is just like every other quarterback in the game. If you put pressure on him and keep him from getting outside the pocket, he will be pretty useless.
 
The defense will also have a little bit tougher time giving Cam a short field this year without one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Josh Norman, who signed with the Washington Redskins as a free agent in the offseason. In his time with the Panthers Norman was able to shut down the opposition’s top wide receivers, leaving the safeties free to ball hunt. Now those safeties may have to help try to cover the number ones on the other side which means they can’t sit back and play center field, picking off passes and running them back into their territory.
 
All this adds up to the Panthers having a bit tougher time this season. Does this mean they are not a serious Super Bowl contender again? No. Does this mean they will not go 15-1 again this year. Yes, it almost certainly does.   

The One NFC Team That Could Take Down the Patriots in the Super Bowl

The Patriots almost lost to the New York Giants last week – but they didn’t. Instead, the Patriots are undefeated and look for all the world like they’re ready to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Among the AFC teams, only the Bengals look truly capable of standing in their way – and there are matchup concerns there, as the Bengals play a similar offensive-minded brand of football but have been unable to put up the same point differentials as the Patriots have.
The Patriots seem destined to make the Super Bowl again, and if they do so, there’s reason to believe that they’ll triumph. That said, the New York Giants showed that there was a way to stay competitive with the Patriots: you just have to pick on their secondary and pit a strong pass rush and secondary against their offense. Can any playoff-bound NFC teams manage to do that? Yes: the Arizona Cardinals can.
Beating the Butler
The New England Patriots have few weaknesses, but their secondary is one of them. The New England Patriots let CB Darrelle Revis walk in the offseason, replacing him with Super Bowl star Malcolm Butler. Butler is a solid player, but he’s no superstar, and it shows: the Patriots are 22nd of 32 teams in pass defense. They’ve played only a couple of strong passing teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts), so matchups haven’t been the issue. The likes of the Bills, Jaguars, Cowboys (who started their backup quarterback), Jets, Dolphins, and Redskins have been the ones pushing the Pats down the list, so this is a matter of real concern.
Enter the Cardinals, who lead the league in total offense and are fourth in the league in pass offense. The Cardinals have gotten it done against tough defenses like Seattle’s and St. Louis’, and they should be more than capable of making life miserable for the Patriots defense. Malcolm Butler would have to line up against Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ legendary and seemingly ageless receiver. That’s a tough matchup, and it favors the Cardinals.
Stopping the Pass
The other key to beating the Patriots is perhaps the more important of the two, and that’s defending the pass. The Patriots have scored practically at will against their opposition, but they looked more than a little thrown off when they had to deal with the New York Giants’ game plan. Pressuring Brady can lead to results if it’s paired with strong secondary play, and the Cardinals have what it takes to use that formula. They’re the third-best defense in the league (trailing only Denver, a team that seems lost on offense, and Seattle, a team that will likely miss the playoffs). They’re sixth best in pass defense. They’re likely to be the best defense in the NFC playoff picture, and that could serve them well in the postseason.
Putting it All Together
There are other teams in both conferences that can match one or the other part of this formula. Pittsburgh could use Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown to light up the Patriots’ secondary, but they can’t defend well enough to stop Brady. Denver could do wonders against the Patriots’ passing attack, but Peyton Manning is injured and the Broncos can’t seem to score. The Packers, among other NFC teams, feature strong passing games but mediocre defenses. The Panthers have a good pass rush, but Cam Newton may not be the quarterback that can pick apart the Patriots’ secondary.
Only the Arizona Cardinals have both parts of this crucial formula, and it seems clear that they’re the best matchup for the Patriots. If the Super Bowl comes down to a showdown between the Cards and Pats, it will be a matchup to remember – and one that will favor Arizona.

4 Reasons that the Patriots and Broncos Should Worry about the Cincinnati Bengals

Entering the ninth week of the NFL season, there were no fewer than three undefeated teams in the AFC. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, and Cincinnati Bengals were all 7-0. And on Thursday night, the Bengals became the first of these teams to reach 8-0.
Lots of people are talking about the defending champion New England Patriots or the Denver Broncos team that recently beat the Packers, and with good reason. But there are also plenty of good reasons to talk about the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that the Patriots and Broncos should be pretty scared of. Here’s why.
Andy Dalton Has Become an Excellent Quarterback
The Bengals have been a competent team for a few seasons now, but their jump to elite status has been made possible in part by the superb play of Andy Dalton. While Dalton is still a cut below the Tom Bradys of the world, he’s now actively improving his team instead of holding it back. As quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick, and even Russell Wilson have shown, you don’t need elite quarterback play to get to the Super Bowl – but you do need very good quarterback play. That’s what Dalton is providing now.
Dalton’s 2015 stats are really, really good. He’s throwing for per game, a top-ten mark in 2015. He’s third in yards per attempt, and fourth in ESPN’s total QBR. Did we say Dalton wasn’t quite elite yet? Heck, in 2015, maybe he is!
The Bengals are an Offensive Team, but a Balanced One
The Bengals are 8-0, but they do not have a top-five offense. They do not have a top-five passing offense, and they do not have a top-five rushing offense. They also do not have a top-five defense, or a top-five pass defense, or a top-five rush defense.
What they do have is an offensive-minded team that is remarkably well rounded. The Bengals are sixth and seventh, respectively, in passing and rushing offense. That means that they’re not overly reliant on either. They’re a bit weaker on defense, where they finish in the low twenties, but they’re pretty balanced there, too. There isn’t an obvious way to attack this Bengals team or an obvious way to defend against them. They’re just a team you have to beat honestly – and that’s very tough to do.
The Bengals Schedule Has Been Tougher Than You Think
The Bengals are undefeated, sure – but who have they played? Well, some teams that are quite a bit better than you’d think.
The Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks, for instance. Those are both technically .500 teams. But the Seahawks taken three of their four losses to undefeated teams, and they have a strong defense that should have matched up well against the Bengals offense (and, frankly, did – the Bengals were just too good to let it stop them). The Steelers, meanwhile, have started both of their offensive superstars (QB Ben Roethlisberger and RB Le’Veon Bell) in just two games this season. The only time they lost with both stars starting was against the Bengals. Le’Veon Bell was injured again in the Bengals game, so we’ll never now how good the Steelers could have been if he’d played the whole season. But considering the Steelers are 4-4 and have only been at full strength of a few quarters, it seems safe to say that the Bengals beat a very dangerous team.
We could go on: the Raiders look like a playoff team, the Chargers’ high-powered offense makes them perhaps the best 2-6 team ever, and the Chiefs took three of their five losses against elite teams (Denver, Green Bay, and the Bengals themselves). Yes, many of the teams the Bengals beat have losing records – but were any of them truly bad? Frankly, we don’t think so.
The Bengals Have Shellacked The Opposition
Even if you think the Bengals have had a cupcake schedule, you still ought to be impressed. The Bengals haven’t just won games – they’ve won them in style. The Bengals have outscored their opponents by a total of 66 points this season. That’s the third-best point differential in the entire NFL. The Patriots best them (nobody’s point differential is higher than the Patriots’ +116), but the Broncos lag ten points behind. The Bengals are right in the thick of things with the best teams in the league, and they’ve earned their point differential even while dealing with defensive-minded teams like the Seahawks and the Bills.