After 256 regular season games and three weeks of thrilling playoff action, we are just about one week away from the big game. We have seen young superstars emerge, some teams ascending from the ashes while others fell off badly, historic offensive numbers being put up and two electrifying Conference Championship games ending in controversial manner. However, after all the drama we have seen over these last five months, we end up with the Super Bowl favorites from the preseason squaring off on February the 3rd. On one side we have the Patriots, who have dominated the league, making it to the final game in half of the last 18 seasons, and on the other is a team in the Rams that went 4-12 just two years ago and hasn’t made it there since 2001. That was when these two squads faced off against each other, featuring the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ under MVP Kurt Warner as two-touchdown favorites against the defensive-minded Pats with some first-year starter at quarterback named Tom Brady. With New England winning the game on a last-second field goal, this launched one of the (if not the) greatest dynasties in American Sports history, led by what is widely considered the best quarterback-head coach combination ever, while the Rams would go on to win just two playoff games until this season. Here we are 17 years later – the most dominant team in the NFL over that stretch facing off against a young bunch in the L.A. Rams that many look at as the most talented squad. Jared Goff as the youngest quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl versus the oldest one in Tom Brady. The youngest head coacher ever to start a Super Bowl in wonderkid Sean McVay against the old master in Bill Belichick. The Rams versus the Patriots Part II.
Heading into Championship Sunday I looked at these two matchups and how things might play out. Instead of trying to preview one of them and pointing out schematic advantages and disadvantages like I did a week ago, I decided to present one X-factor for each team on offense and defense respectively. I believe these are truly the four best teams in the league when I combine players and coaching. There might have been more talented teams on paper, but when I look at these four head coaches and their staffs I think we are blessed with some of the very best play-callers and guys who excel at preparing their troops. So which players for each of them, who don’t usually play a primary role, could be key factors on Sunday?
Now in his 15th season in the NFL, Philip Rivers has started 218 straight games, recorded over 55000 passing yards and almost 400 touchdowns. He has made the Pro Bowl eight times, beaten basically every quarterback record in Chargers history and even seen them move cities. However, there is one thing he has never been able to do – beat Tom Brady. In eight total games versus the Patriots, Rivers’ only win against them came in 2008, when Matt Cassel replaced an injured Brady. And I don’t want to make this all about the quarterbacks, but these two guys have been the constants in that matchup for more than a decade now and so I thought the title makes a lot of sense. The Bolts finished the 2018 season tied for the best record in the AFC at 12-4, but with the Chiefs holding tie-breakers over them, they entered the postseason as a Wildcard team and already had to go on the road to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Now they once again travel up to New England, where the Patriots are being questioned once again but still have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time under center. What might be different this time around? Rivers has the best team surrounding him since they went to the conference championship game over ten years ago. Will he finally slay the dragon?
With the regular season wrapped up and a full 16-game schedule for the first-year players in the books, I decided to name my All-Rookie team for 2018. To do so I put together starting lineups on offense, defense and the specialists, plus I added key substitutes for each unit. While I did want to put the best 11 players out there respectively, the full body of work for these players had to be considered and I could not go with a couple of players I liked but simply didn’t play enough. So here are my starting lineups:
Every year the Pro Bowl rosters are revealed at this time and every year I have a problem with the voting process. While NFL defenses get more hybrid players every year that don’t have a clearly defined position, the league hasn’t adapted the categories people can vote for. That leads to stand-up 4-3 linebackers like Anthony Barr being compared to 3-4 outside linebackers, who primarily get upfield, like Jadeveon Clowney, five-technique defensive ends in a 3-4 being compared to true edge rushers in fronts with four down-linemen and other stuff. My solution would be differentiating between interior D-linemen, edge rushers, stand-up linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. This would make things easier in terms of comparing job descriptions and not tag players for one specific alignment and responsibility. Offensively I don’t understand why there are only three running back and four wide receiver slots and we also need more depth on the D-line, but let’s work on one issue at a time. Since these are the parameters to work within, I tried to make appropriate exchanges of one player at that position with another and then I listed a few other players I think deserve a trip to Orlando. So instead of just listing snubs, I actually tried to provide solution. I don’t blame the fans too much for some of these mistakes because they are obviously biased for their team, but players and coaches contribute to this with a third of the votes each as well. So I would expect a more objective outcome.
We have now played 14 weeks and it is time to reflect a little. At this point I want to take a look at the five rookie signal-callers, who were drafted in the first round and all played between four and twelve games. To make this clear, I didn’t want to rank the quarterbacks against each other because I think it’s still too early for that, but we can see what they have shown so far and talk about them. So I listed them purely based on where they were drafted at. While all of them have shown promise and won some big games, the guy at the very top has truly stood out.
I usually like to do my power rankings after the first four weeks, where I feel like I have a beat on who these teams are, and then with about four games left, because I can already look ahead to potential playoff implications and how I think these squads could perform down the stretch. At this point of the season the records of all these teams are pretty indicative of where they stack up against each other, but that makes it even more crucial to compare teams with the same records, because not all schedules are built the same and not all teams are as good or bad as they seem like on paper. For the purpose of this edition I wanted to focus on the teams in the actual playoff race, so the criteria for me to analyze them more exclusively was to have at least five wins on the record, because I think you have to be at least 9-7 in both conferences to earn a Wild Card spot. With that being said, here are my power rankings heading into a crucial week 14: