Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Breaking down the NFC after Carson Wentz’s injury

 It was the latest injury on a long list of premier players going down in the National Football League this season. The Eagles were the favorites in Las Vegas to win the NFC and play in the Super Bowl in Minnesota. But, the complexion of the entire conference took another turn on Monday when news broke confirming that Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. It was what all Eagles fans feared on Sunday night and it means the team now turns to Nick Foles for the remainder of 2017.
                                                             Jeff Gross/Getty Images

So, now for the question everyone was trying to answer Monday and will continue to answer for the rest of the season. What does this all mean for the NFC and who will represent the conference at US Bank Stadium in February?

The short answer is your guess is as good as mine. Granted, there are teams that would be in better positions than others. During the last two months, on the heels of its defense and surprising play from quarterback Case Keenum, Minnesota has proven to be good enough to offset the loss of running back Dalvin Cook. New Orleans has been a model of consistency with its running game and improved defense, two things Drew Brees hasn’t had in a while. Green Bay would become a dangerous wild card in it were to sneak in as the sixth seed with Aaron Rodgers’ return looming. But none of those teams are the prohibitive favorites in the conference the way the Eagles were with Wentz, who was playing like the NFL MVP.

Of course, there’s arguments to be made for several more teams too. The Eagles could still get the top seed in the NFC, which would of course mean the road to US Bank Stadium would go through Philadelphia.  Seattle can move into first place in the NFC West with a win on Sunday against the Rams and Seattle is one of two teams to beat Wentz’s Eagles this year. Carolina just got a huge win against Minnesota and the NFC South is up for grabs after Atlanta’s victory over New Orleans last Thursday. Atlanta, by the way, won the NFC last year in case you forgot. The Rams are still in first place in the NFC West and are still very much in the mix for a first-round bye. Even Detroit and Dallas aren’t dead. Both teams sit at 7-6, and Dallas gets Ezekiel Elliott back in week 16.

When you think about all the teams that are in the playoff hunt in the NFC, it puts into perspective how impressive Wentz’s season was. The fact that the Eagles were essentially the unquestioned favorite in a conference as deep as the NFC is this year says a lot. While you could do a lot worse than Nick Foles as your backup quarterback, it’s obvious that the latest injury in a slew of casualties across the NFL this year has pumped some more life into the chances of the NFC’s other contenders. With 10 teams in the NFC over .500 after 13 games, there’s obviously going to be some teams beating up on each other on the way to the finish line. Whatever the combination is the of the six teams in the NFC that are playing into January, it’s unlikely that there’s a clear favorite then either. Yes, four of those 10 teams are going to miss the playoffs and we’ll know who has the byes and who won the divisions.  But with Wentz now out for the Eagles, you’d be better off picking a team out of a hat when the playoffs start and you’d have a one in six chance at being right. That’s how it feels now.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Stop babying Baker Mayfield

It’s rivalry week in college football. Then it’s Championship weekend next week followed by the College Football Playoff announcement. One week after that the Heisman Trophy is handed out. The heavy favorite for college football’s most prestigious award has been in the news this week for the wrong reasons.

Everyone knows what happened by now. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was spotted on the sidelines last week making an obscene gesture towards the Kansas players during the Sooners’ blowout victory in Lawrence. The ensuing response from Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley was to bench Mayfield for the start of this weekend’s regular season finale at home against West Virginia. Both Riley and Mayfield were emotional when discussing the discipline this week.

                                                     Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports
It wasn’t the first instance Mayfield made headlines for a celebration this season. After a major non-conference victory early in the year at Ohio State, the senior planted the Oklahoma flag at midfield in Columbus.  Of course, if you’re having the season Mayfield is, your actions are always going to be under a microscope. So, Kansas captains refusing to shake hands with Mayfield at the coin toss last week becomes a much smaller story. But, the bigger question here is why are Mayfield’s actions such a big story in the first place? If Ohio State didn’t want an Oklahoma flag at the 50-yard line, maybe it should have limited Mayfield to less than 386 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. Mayfield tossed three more touchdowns last week against the Jayhawks.

Obviously, it’s easier said than done to contain the best player in college football. But, why get so offended by a celebration or two if he’s playing like the best player in college football on that given day? Furthermore, what is Riley really accomplishing by not starting Mayfield this week? Everyone knows Mayfield is going to likely come in on Oklahoma’s second offensive series. The transgressions were very different, but in some ways this is reminiscent of when Texas A&M suspended Johnny Manziel for the first half of the 2013 season opener against Rice. Manziel threw eight passes in the second half, three went for touchdowns and the Aggies won 52-31.

The Sooners almost certainly have to win tomorrow and in next week’s Big 12 Championship game to make the College Football Playoff. Riley’s not going to leave his best player on the sidelines for too long tomorrow. Oklahoma is favored by more than three touchdowns and Mayfield’s probably going to officially seal the deal on the Heisman during the next eight days. Some have speculated that these celebration antics will hurt Mayfield’s NFL draft stock. Coaches and scouts can nitpick all they want, but nobody can argue with what Mayfield’s done on the football field this year. We’re all better off if we just enjoy the last few games of Mayfield’s college career, rather than getting caught up in something as trivial as Mayfield’s celebrations. And if Mayfield wants to enjoy himself as the book closes on what’s been an outstanding career at Oklahoma, what’s the issue with that? Riley’s discipline serves almost no purpose and the entire situation has been blown out of proportion. Mayfield is two wins away from getting to the college football playoff for the second time in three years and locking up the Heisman. He’s had a special career in Norman and that’s what everyone should remember.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Eagles enter bye week firing on all cylinders

If you thought the Eagles would have the best record in the NFL after nine games, you’re lying.  But after a 51-23 demolition of the Denver Broncos, here we are with the Eagles sitting at 8-1 heading into their bye week. So far, nothing has fazed this team in the second season of the Doug Pederson era. Despite questionable officiating in a road win against the Carolina Panthers and long-term injuries to Jordan Hicks and Jason Peters, there’s yet to be a road block that has slowed down the well-oiled machine the Eagles have turned into.

                                                    Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Wentz continues to lead the NFL in passing touchdowns
with 23 after tossing four more yesterday.
Quarterback Carson Wentz is at the forefront of the team’s success. In his second season, the North Dakota State product is looking every bit the part of the franchise quarterback the Eagles moved up to draft second overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Wentz is the MVP favorite through nine weeks and has proved the Eagles have a chance in any game they play with him under center. Pederson has answered a lot of the questions surrounding his competence as an NFL head coach as the Eagles have already surpassed last season’s win total. Several of the moves made by Executive Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman have worked out. Smart decisions made in the front office, good coaching and stability at quarterback often result in lots of wins and the Eagles have all three working in their favor right now.

Aaron Rodgers is unlikely to play for the Green Bay Packers for the remainder of 2017. Expected contenders Atlanta and Seattle looked largely pedestrian at times in the first half of the season. Therefore, media members, odds makers and fans have all recalibrated expectations for the Eagles and Philadelphia is now the favorite to win the NFC and play in the Super Bowl. Granted, there have been other surprises like New Orleans and Los Angeles both at 6-2 and Minnesota and Dallas are very much in the mix as well, but no one has looked more impressive in the NFC than the Eagles.

With all of that said, there are still plenty of challenges to come for the Eagles before the end of the regular season. They still have two games against Dallas, the only team that even has a chance of catching them in the NFC East. A road game in Seattle awaits on December 3. After that, another game out west against the Rams. A Christmas showdown with the Oakland Raiders may prove to be difficult as the Raiders could enter fighting for their playoff lives. But, the Eagles have passed every test so far. Early on, there were questions about how consistently they could run the football. They’ve since found balance offensively and added running back Jay Ajayi in a trade with Miami last week to strengthen the backfield. There were questions about the secondary after Ronald Darby went down in the season opener against the Redskins. But, Patrick Robinson’s steady play has been one of the better stories of the first nine games and Darby should return after the bye week. Many wondered if Nelson Agholor could ever figure things out and he’s blossomed into a trustworthy slot receiver for Wentz. Tight end Zach Ertz looks to be worth the hefty contract extension Roseman gave him in 2016.

The way this season has gone so far, there’s been an answer for everything. This year marks the fifth time in franchise history the Eagles have started 8-1. The previous four times they advanced to either the Super Bowl or the NFL Championship and there’s no reason to think this season bucks that trend. There’s a long way to go, but this feels like a special season. Stay tuned.