If you’ve watched ESPN or CBS or FOX it’s been nothing but the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow. Actually, it’s pretty much been about Tebow. He’s been mentioned and discussed to death on the internet and on TV and the TV programming has been so Tebow-heavy that you think that these networks deliberately wanted the Broncos to be successful under Timmay. Well I’m not here to talk about him. Today’s discussion is about some of the other storylines that have played out this season and have been completely overlooked as a result of TEBOWMANIA.
5.) The resurgence of Arizona and Seattle. Believe it or not, the Cardinals and Seahawks are both 6-7 and in the playoff chase. Two months ago the Cardinals were 1-6 and the Seahawks were 2-6. Now they’ve both gone on an absolute tear and not necessarily through their QBs, but their running attack and defense. Arizona’s Chris Wells lit up St. Louis for 228 yards in a 23-20 win at the Edward Jones Dome. In fact, the entire NFC West could feature starting running backs having 1,000 yard seasons. Wells is currently at 943 yards, and like his rival Marshawn Lynch, they’ve both missed games due to injury. Arizona has been known in recent seasons to be a huge aerial threat, especially with a guy like Larry Fitzgerald, who is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. However, the injuries and ineffective play of Kevin Kolb have slowed down their passing attack. Their trademark passing offense came to life last week against San Francisco, as John Skelton threw 3 touchdowns en route to a 21-19 upset victory. Skelton’s performances have been mixed, ranging from good in Philly and against San Francisco, to looking pitiful in St. Louis and at the same San Francisco 49ers. The Cardinals’ defense has also held their opponents to 20 points or less in 5 of their last 6 games, after a three game stretch where they conceded 30 or more. Ken Whisenhunt not only has let himself off the hot seat, but given Arizona fans reason to cheer for the last 3 games and as they build towards next season.
I’m certain that by now you know the story of the Seattle Seahawks reading my previous posts. Their turnaround has been remarkable and essentially identical to Arizona’s, only the passing offense remains near the bottom of the league. Maybe, just maybe, the NFC West is no longer the laughing stock of football.
4.) Darren Sproles’ career year. If there’s anything that the San Diego Chargers do well, it’s provide the New Orleans Saints with elite offensive talent. Darren Sproles was reunited with Drew Brees this past offseason and the impact Sproles has had in the Saints offense cannot be overstated.
Sproles has achieved career-high totals in nearly every single major statistical category. He averages 6.8 yards-per-carry, a career high 463 yards rushing, and is tied for 4th in the NFL in receptions with 74. Believe it or not, Darren Sproles has more catches than Calvin Johnson! The only person on the Saints with more catches than Sproles is their standout TE Jimmy Graham. Sproles looks to be one of the top free-agent signings of the 2011 NFL Season and his quickness, versatility, and even power for such a small man, is a perfect fit for Sean Payton’s offense. Meanwhile in San Diego, Philip Rivers is on pace for one of his worst seasons as a pro, and Ryan Mathews appears to be a first-round bust.
3.) The kickoff returns for TDs have dried up. I’ve hated his new kickoff rule from day 1. This year the NFL decided to move kickoffs five yards further from the 30 to the 35. Additionally the run-ups were reduced to five yards instead of ten. The reasoning is “player safety”, because as you all know, the return guy is the one who always gets concussed on kickoffs. Last year there were 23 kickoffs returned for touchdowns, this year we have only 8. No team in the NFL has more than 1 kick return TD, and 3 of the 8 TDs were scored on the opening week of the season. The only thing that this has encouraged is players to come out from 9 yards deep in their own end-zone. Otherwise it’s touchback after touchback after futile return after touchback. They need to move the kickoff back to the 30 and admit this new rule sucks. Nothing in the NFL is a bigger buzzkill than a touchback, especially when there’s been a score in the game and a subsequent commercial break. The last thing I want to see out of the break is a touchback, and then more commercials.
2.) The Detroit Lions are winning!!!! Unfortunately Detroit has brought upon the “dirty team” reputation on themselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about how good this team is. Detroit clinched their first non-losing season since the pre-Millen year of 2000. Their last playoff berth was in 1999 and they can break that funk by beating two of Oakland, San Diego, and Green Bay. Of course those “good years” the Lions had to close out the 20th and start the 21st century involved horrendous 2nd half collapses. The ’99 and ’00 Lions were both 8-4 and fell to 8-8 and 9-7 respectively. Bobby Ross’ 1999 team made the postseason but the 2000 team was not as lucky. So here we are again with Detroit, once 6-2, now 8-5 with teams breathing down their neck for that #6 spot. They sport the 8th best passing defense, an 11th ranked total offense, and of course a fearsome QB-WR combo in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Detroit has a lot of excellent players in skill positions and hopefully they will mature into one of the best teams in the league. I picked them to finish 9-7 and just miss the playoffs, and now I need to hope for that to be true as a Seahawks fan. Regardless of how Detroit’s season ends, Lions fans should consider it a huge success that Jim Schwartz has turned an 0-16 team into a wild card contender in just three seasons.
1.) The resiliency of the Houston Texans. Every year for the past three or four seasons it’s felt like the Houston Texans needed to make that playoff push. In 2009 they were pretty close and finished with their first winning season at 9-7. The 2010 campaign fell apart pretty quickly after a 4-2 start and things looked to be heading that same direction in 2011 after a blowout loss in Baltimore dropped them to 3-3. Now here they are in week 15 with no Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart, Mario Williams, Wade Phillips on medical leave this week, and a gimpy Andre Johnson…and they are the AFC South champions with a 10-3 record. The Texans are winning with rookie QB TJ Yates at the helm. Of course, their #1 ranked defense makes it easier for the offense to win grind-out close games like they did in Cincinnati last Sunday. The Texans have not conceded more than 19 points during their seven-game winning streak and also help Yates through their 2nd ranked rushing offense. Ben Tate and Arian Foster are on pace for 1,000 yard seasons, and have so much depth at RB that former 1,000 yard rusher Derrick Ward is their 3rd string back! Yates himself has proven to be no slouch and led a remarkable 4th quarter comeback in Cincinnati, capped off with a late TD pass to Kevin Walter with :02 left in the game.
Have I left anything out? I did leave out San Francisco’s turnaround year under Jim Harbaugh, New England’s 10-3 record despite playing Julian Edelman at DB, Green Bay’s undefeated season, and even the dramatic fall of the Indianapolis Colts. There are so many things going on right now in the NFL, but it’s hard to know what’s going on when ESPN and other sports channels force-feed you their network-driven narrative. Forget Tebow, forget Denver, these are some stories in my view that should be getting more national attention.