The Seattle Seahawks will enter the National Football League Playoffs as the hottest team in the NFL and a favorite to win the Super Bowl. We saw the first edition of this movie last winter, and signs are pointing toward the sequel having a similar outcome. Seattle may be better now than the team was at the start of 2014. The Seahawks have the experience of successfully completing a championship run. Quarterback Russell Wilson has only improved over the past 12 months. No defense in football is playing better. Everything is coming up Seattle at the moment.
With all of that said, nobody should be seeking to hand the Seahawks the Vince Lombardi Trophy just yet. The Dallas Cowboys, left for dead by many so-called knowledgeable football minds and even by some diehard members of the club's fan base in August, have proven that they can go out west and beat the Seahawks in Seattle, and Dallas is also bringing the league's best offensive line and best rushing attack into the postseason. Those of you looking to make predictions as New Year's Day approaches may want to ask yourselves a question that contains four words: "How 'bout dem Cowboys?"
There will be no playoffs for the teams that are already on the clock as it pertains to their 2015 NFL Draft statuses. Marcus Mariota out of Oregon is right now today the consensus No. 1 overall pick, a potential franchise quarterback who has the physical tools to be a star in pro football but who also has plenty to prove to analysts, scouts, and general managers over the next several months. Here is hoping that the Duck likes warm weather, because his flight would be taking him south to Florida were the draft held this holiday season.
32 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)
I get it if you are not sold on Mariota being a quarterback capable of making the transition to the pros. It is, after all, not as if there is a long history of Oregon QBs winning January football games. Tampa Bay has to find a guy capable of doing more than just enough while under center, and neither Brian Hoyer nor Jay Cutler is the answer. Unless some team is willing to mortgage its future to move up to the top spot of the draft, the Bucs likely won't have any other choice but to go all-in on Mariota as the starting quarterback for the future, a future that begins in the summer of 2015.
31 Tennessee Titans (2-14)
Tennessee is similar to Tampa Bay in that neither team has a proven franchise quarterback. Unlike the Buccaneers, however, the Titans are not in a spot to use a high draft pick on a QB. Zach Mettenberger has his flaws, yes, but he also deserves a chance to at least lose the gig during the early months of training camp and a preseason of work. Besides, Tennessee has plenty of holes on the squad outside of the quarterback position. One player alone is not changing this team's fate, and thus the Titans selling their selection to the highest bidder wouldn't be the worst idea.
30 Chicago Bears (5-11)
Let the trade rumors begin. The popularity of quarterback Jay Cutler falls among supporters of the Bears seemingly with every day, to the point that putting him out in front of a home crowd next August could be an outright disaster for the Bears. Whether or not Cutler “gets it” is only a small point in the discussion on what the club should do with the QB. Chicago gave Cutler a raise worthy of a franchise quarterback last winter, and that contract cannot be erased or taken back. The Bears have to build around him over the next couple of years unless a team swoops in with a generous offer.
29 Washington Redskins (4-12)
I have admittedly gone back and forth on the issue myself, and my confidence in this decision will undeniably waver until the Redskins announce what they will be doing with quarterback Robert Griffin III. Those running the club – cough owner Dan Snyder cough cough – embraced RG3 as the hope for the team's future, and Griffin can win big games when he is able to avoid injuries. Give Griffin one last chance to evolve and grow as a NFL quarterback Washington, because you won't be getting much for him if you place him on the open market during the offseason.
28 Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)
There are concerns that the team's young quarterback is not the offensive leader the club has been seeking for years. It's hard to adequately evaluate that man, however, because the Jaguars did not surround him with an abundance of talent. Jacksonville needs all kinds of help on defense, and the Jags could be one more awful offseason away from hitting the reset button. The story remains the same for a franchise that has swiftly become allergic to winning, and one couldn't blame any Jacksonville fan for strongly considering giving up on the cause at any point between now and the summer.
27 Oakland Raiders (3-13)
Protect Derek Carr. Protect Derek Carr. Protect Derek Carr. That had better be the top objective for whoever will be running the Raiders once free agency begins. Carr is a project, one who needs to get to work on improving starting this week. He is also the best quarterback the club has had in recent memory. Sports fans hate the word “progress” for understandable reasons, but those who follow the Raiders need to take a look at the Dallas Cowboys and remain patient. Let your favorite club build a solid offensive line over the next couple of years, which they've begun (they allowed sixth fewest sacks in the league), before you get antsy about Carr.
26 New York Jets (4-12)
“Just End The Season” time has mercifully arrived for Gang Green. Rex Ryan brought entertainment and moments of glory to a team that is the little brother of New York pro football. What he didn't do is bring a championship to the Jets, and the team is no closer to winning anything of merit now than it was on January 1st, 2014. That, along with a plethora of other reasons, made Ryan expendable, especially when you remember that the Giants won the Super Bowl twice from February 2008 through February 2012. It was time for Ryan and the Jets to go their separate ways.
25 Cleveland Browns (7-9)
A player on Injured Reserve allegedly threw a party. Several teammates allegedly attended, which landed them in trouble with the club. Fans are hitting out at the guy on IR. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you followers of Cleveland pro sports franchises. There is no logical reason for the Browns to part ways with Johnny Manziel, Josh Gordon, or Justin Gilbert anytime soon, regardless of what some local radio hosts trying to get attention are saying. All three and others on the roster should be on short leashes, but all should remain with the organization through the start of training camp, so long as they avoid trouble.
24 St. Louis Rams (6-10)
Take a quick look around the NFL, and you will understand why the Rams are so happy to bring Sam Bradford back for one last chance. There are a lot of bad quarterbacks in the league at the end of 2014. Bradford may never be able to survive more than one full regular season, and he may never evolve into an All-Pro QB. St. Louis has already given the former first-round pick $50 million. Unless the club finds a sure-thing replacement, which isn't going to happen unless the New Orleans Saints are ready to move on from Drew Brees, the Rams have no other choice but to go forward with Bradford.
23 New York Giants (6-10)
All is not lost for the Giants thanks to the young man who guaranteed himself Offensive Rookie of the Year honors with his final performance of an impressive campaign. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is for real, a once-in-a-generation physical talent with the tools to become a superstar as quickly as next year. Imagine what Beckham could accomplish if he stays healthy and has a full NFL offseason, during which he can improve. The duo of Beckham and Victor Cruz could make for an elite one-two punch in 2015.
22 Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
Get a new coaching staff all you want, Atlanta. That isn't fixing the issue that Matt Ryan has never proven himself capable of winning the big game, even when playing at home. Elite quarterbacks are hard to come by, which is why the Falcons gave Matty Ice the keys to the offense all those years ago. Ryan hasn't wrecked the car or anything, but he also hasn't gotten the vehicle to its final destination. The fact that one could not reasonably choose between Ryan or Jay Cutler says plenty about the current starting quarterback of the Falcons.
21 New Orleans Saints (7-9)
Those “Is Drew Brees in Decline?” articles are going to make for some tasty click bait and hot takes on sports talk radio. While the notion may prove to be accurate, Brees is not responsible for keeping the Saints out of the postseason. What was supposed to be a revitalized defense fell apart early into the campaign, and the domino effect hit the team's offense beginning in September. Brees will get a chance to prove doubters wrong and deservedly so. The train ride will eventually end for all athletes, though, and Brees' time in the league could be wrapping up.
20 San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
All you can do is shrug your shoulders and shake your head about what went down in San Francisco in 2014. The 49ers went from being a team four quarters away from winning a Super Bowl to one that doesn't have a head coach and one that has put zero faith in a talented young quarterback. Where the Niners will go from here is a mystery in the final week of December. Instability sinks pro sports franchises across all platforms, something that San Francisco and the team's fan base are about to learn the hard way. “Who's got it better than us?” Plenty of teams.
19 Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
Teddy Bridgewater was one of the best rookie quarterbacks of the 2014 draft class right out of the gates, which is not necessarily high praise upon reviewing the play of some of his peers. Bridgewater is reportedly already making plans to put in extra work with his wide receivers during the offseason, providing further proof that the Vikes may have gotten the steal of the first round of the 2014 draft. Bridgewater's supposed low ceiling was a main concern among critics last spring. He can forever silence those individuals with his actions and his play in 2015.
18 Miami Dolphins (8-8)
I completely understand why Miami fans would be upset about head coach Joe Philbin being given at least one more season to lead the club, but the question remains: Who would any of you have replace Philbin this offseason? Harbaugh was never coming to Miami. Never. Get that notion out of your minds. There is not a long list of top-tier available coaching candidates this holiday season outside of men who are currently working for television stations, coaches who may or may not want to return to the NFL. Staying the course for the now is wise for the Dolphins.
17 San Diego Chargers (9-7)
San Diego entered 2014 with two major concerns plaguing the roster: Age and a lack of depth. Those worries continue to hover over the club one year later. Philip Rivers turned 33-years old earlier in December, and he should physically have a couple of years left before his window to win a title is closed. San Diego needs to make multiple moves to fortify the team's offensive line. Rivers has elite quarterback skills, but he isn't going to accomplish much when he is being sacked seven times in a game.
16 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Mark Sanchez will not be available for long if Chip Kelly and the Eagles go in a different direction at the start of free agency. Sanchez is far from a perfect QB. He is going to make mistakes and he is going to have poor outings. One could say the same for Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford and – gasp! – even Peyton Manning. Kelly and company had better be sure that Sanchez is not the right quarterback to lead the offense into the summer of 2015 before letting the former New York Jets flop sign with another club. That decision will make or break Kelly's tenure with the E-A-G-L-E-S.
15 Houston Texans (9-7)
It has been some time since the NFL hype machine has gotten behind a player as it has promoted defensive standout J.J. Watt. Watt is a phenomenal asset, one of the top defensive players in all of the NFL. That does not eliminate the reality that there is not a single general manager in the league who would take Watt over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, or Russell Wilson. That, above anything else, is why Watt does not deserve to be named Most Valuable Player as a member of a team that didn't manage to qualify for the postseason.
14 Buffalo Bills (9-7)
Be careful what you wish for, Buffalo fans who wanted the team to upgrade from quarterback Kyle Orton. You asked for it, and you've got it. With Orton choosing to spend time with his family over returning to the Bills for another campaign, the team now has E.J. Manuel as the only legitimate quarterback on the roster. Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler are three names that will immediately be linked with the Bills, with Hoyer being the early favorite to grab the gig. Is Hoyer that much of an upgrade over Orton or Manuel?
13 Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
Kansas City was in the playoff hunt up through the final day of the regular season, and the Chiefs spoiled San Diego's postseason hopes with a win at home. That was, unfortunately for KC, not enough to push the club past the Baltimore Ravens and into the postseason. Three AFC West teams finished the campaign with winning records, but only one of them failed to go .500 when away from home. That side was the Chiefs. A home loss to the Tennessee Titans, as well as a road defeat to the Oakland Raiders torpedoed KC's playoff chances.
12 Arizona Cardinals (11-5)
Arizona earned eleven wins despite being down to a quarterback who shouldn't be starting for any team in September, let alone in January, and the Cardinals do not even have a home playoff game to show for it. Bruce Arians is the best coach in the league once again, but Arians can only do so much with what the football gods have given him. Arians and those running the Cardinals could have a tough decision to make this offseason, regarding who will be the team's starting quarterback for the future. Carson Palmer, attempting to recover from a serious knee injury, recently turned 35-years old.
11 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Congrats go out to the Ravens for moonwalking into the postseason. Things got a bit nervy for Baltimore over the weekend, as a Browns team filled with players who had already checked out on 2014 gave the Ravens a real scare for three quarters until quarterback Joe Flacco was through with letting Cleveland hang around. Flacco can be a top quarterback when he is hot and on-form, as he was against the Browns when it mattered most. Don't forget that the former Super Bowl champion once outplayed Tom Brady in an AFC Championship game.
10 Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1)
Andy Dalton and the Bengals had an opportunity to prove fans and analysts wrong by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in a road Sunday Night Football contest with the division title on the line. Cincinnati could not, to the surprise of nobody who is a casual follower of this team, get the job done, and thus the Bengals will find themselves on the road during Wild Card Weekend. Is there any guy on the list of to-be playoff quarterbacks who would be lower than Dalton? He needs to use that deserved criticism as motivation to notch the first postseason win of his career.
9 Detroit Lions (11-5)
Aaron Rodgers picking up a knock serious enough for him to be carted off of the field should have given the Lions a chance to shock the NFL and win the NFC North title at Lambeau Field, but Rodgers made a heroic return to the contest and took care of business against a Detroit team that is not ready for prime time. The Lions are an example of a talented side that is missing that extra something needed to make a run in the playoffs. Holes on both sides of the roster have Detroit as a favorite to be a one-and-done postseason team.
8 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
Complain about the playoff system all you want. All teams need to do to qualify for the postseason is win a division championship, and that is exactly what the Panthers did on Sunday. Nobody can ever again question the toughness and grit of quarterback Cam Newton, who is playing with renewed purpose following a car accident that could have been catastrophic for more than just Newton's NFL career. Newton has become an easy player to root for over the past several weeks, and he and his teammates are playing their best football of the season at the perfect time.
7 Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
You won't be playing the AFC South anymore, Indianapolis. It's time to see what you are really made of against the best of the best in the conference. Andrew Luck is a special quarterback who is only going to get better over the next several years of his career. It is his team's defense that is a real liability. No division winner in the AFC allowed more points in 2014 than did the Colts. Luck will have to put Indianapolis on his back if the Colts are to defeat the likes of the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots in postseason play. Has Luck's time to ascend to the mountaintop arrived?
6 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
They're baaaaaaaack. It was in early October of 2013 when rumors emerged that the Steelers were seriously considering shopping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had played poorly in the opening month of the season. Pittsburgh responded by nearly backing into the playoffs last December, and the Steelers left no doubt on the issue this time around by defeating the Bengals and winning the division championship on Sunday night. Big Ben and others within the organization have been to the dance before, and they know what it takes to win a Super Bowl. Watch out for Pittsburgh.
5 Denver Broncos (12-4)
Quarterback Peyton Manning has stated that he is not yet eying retirement. Manning is also incredibly bright, and he has to realize that he can count the chances he has left to win a Super Bowl on one hand. The offense of the Broncos was not historic as it was a year ago, and Manning is leaning heavily on his rushing attack at the start of winter. The Sheriff showed this past Sunday that he can still sling it with the best in the game, and the best regular season QB in the history of the NFL may be required to take a contest over if the Broncos are to return to the Big Game.
4 Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Manning. Brady. Wilson. Luck. Roethlisberger. They're all great. Tony Romo is also having a season to remember. There is not one of them I would take over Aaron Rodgers as of January 1st, 2015. Rodgers gets the job done with his arm, his legs, and his mind. He is tough as nails and he is a leader. Add in that Rodgers is looking to cement his legacy by earning a second Super Bowl victory, and Rodgers is the quarterback I am taking for my playoff fantasy roster. Good thing for the Packers that the team will be on the Bye this coming weekend. Rodgers needs the break.
3 Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
There is an easy argument to be made for the Cowboys and not the Seattle Seahawks being the best team in the NFC. Dallas has a championship offensive line. The defense of the Cowboys has exceeded all expectations. Tony Romo has showed zero signs of suffering any late-season collapse that could cost Dallas a chance to win the Super Bowl. Dallas already defeated the Seahawks in Seattle this year. Love them, hate them, or somewhere in between, you have to respect the 2014 edition of the Cowboys. Dallas has the goods to make history.
2 New England Patriots (12-4)
An elite quarterback. One of the best head coaches to ever work in the NFL. The top defense in the AFC. Home-field advantage. A Super Bowl berth is there for the taking for Tom Brady and company. There are no sure things in life and in pro football, of course. The Pittsburgh Steelers would make for one nasty match-up for the Patriots, even in a game occurring at Gillette Stadium. Regardless of any future match-ups, New England will be the favorite to emerge out of the AFC Playoffs after having gone a perfect seven-for-seven in home games that mattered in 2014.
1 Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
They were unable to keep possession of the throne for all 17 weeks, but the Seahawks begin and end the regular season as kings of NFL power rankings. That is an impressive feat. The hottest team in all of football has lost only once since the middle of October, and that game occurred on the road. That loss on November 16th was the last time that an opponent posted 20+ points on Seattle. The Seahawks surrendered a total of 19 points over their last 12 quarters of play. Oh yeah: Quarterback Russell Wilson is even better than he was last January. Best of luck to the other NFC playoff teams.