"I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era."
- Michael Jordan
Nowhere is the evolutionary process of greatness more rapid than in the NFL. Last week I wrote about how we're possibly enjoying the tail end of the NFL Golden Age. (At the very least, we might be the tail end of Roger Goodell's career as NFL Commissioner now.) Could we suddenly be at the end of the era of greatness defined by the New England Patriots constant success? Is the evolutionary process of football about to make the once-mighty Patriots an also-ran?
It certainly looked like it in Week 1. After a back-and-forth first half, the Dolphins dominated the Pats and pulled away late for the opening game upset. Cameron Wake and the Miami defense hounded Tom Brady with a relentless pass rush while Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller ran wild on New England's defense.
Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Vikings won by four touchdowns. With a dominating defensive performance. Despite a ho-hum performance from Adrian Peterson. Despite Quarterback of the Future Teddy Bridgewater taking nary a snap.
And they did all of this ON THE ROAD.
Um...what? How can this be?! Nothing makes sense anymore! Up is down! Left is right! Cellar dwellers have become powerhouses! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria! Kyle is actually wearing pants!
That's the only way to explain what happened last week, right? I mean, look at the respective divisions of the Vikings and Patriots:
¡uʍop ǝpᴉsdn pǝddᴉlɟ uǝǝq sɐɥ ˥ℲN ǝɥʇ ǝʞᴉl s,ʇI
Sorry for hurting your brain with the upside down sentence, but that's how topsy-turvy the NFC North and AFC East were last week. The Patriots were supposed to cruise to another division title while the Vikings were supposed to scuffle out of the gate under their untested new regime. But we all got Lee Corso'd in Week 1.
The following ingredients have made the winning recipe of the New England offense for well over a decade:
- Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady;
- A solid offensive line that gives future Hall of Famer Tom Brady time to do future Hall of Famer things; and
- A bunch of no-namers at the skill positions that Brady makes better with his future Hall of Famer play. Sure, Brady had one season with Randy Moss and Wes Welker that was a helmet catch away from a perfect season. Other than that you could apply the phrase "rag-tag" to the majority of players Brady has lined up with over the years.
Same thing in 2014, right? Don't look now, but Brady actually has a handful of good weapons at his disposal this year:
- Two versatile running backs that provide a host of mismatches for opposing defenses (Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley)
- One of the best tight ends of the past decade (Rob Gronkowski)
- A possession receiver every bit as good as Welker (Julian Edelman), a promising second-year player that Brady threw to 72 times last year (Kenbrell Thompkins), and two more WRs that were major options on their previous teams (Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell).
Sure, Gronk and Amendola should get the words "when healthy" legally appended to their last names, but everyone was healthy last week when the Pats put up the second-worst overall offensive Week 1 performance according to Pro Football Focus. Their biggest problem wasn't the skill positions that so many have pointed to as the scapegoat over the years. It was their usually dependable offensive line, which has historically been one of New England's strengths.
Well, "strength" might be underselling it a bit; the offensive line has been more of a linchpin for the Patriots offense. Here are their PFF pass and run blocking ranks since 2007:
|Pass blocking rank
|Run blocking rank
So basically they're always in the top half of the league in pass blocking and in the top 2 at run blocking...until they started to slide last season. And it's hard to imagine that the line will get better in 2014. Logan Mankins was traded away, leaving an interior line that's inexperienced and inconsistent at best. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer played poorly last week but they should be fine--unless of course they're forced to help their teammates so much that they can't excel at their own assignments. If the New England O-line struggles as mightily as they did in Miami, the Vikings front four might hold quite a few meetings in the Patriots backfield on Sunday.
On the other side of the ball, New England's defense is supposed to be much improved. Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork are back from injury. Darrelle Revis has brought the island to the northeast this season. The Pats shouldn't need to outscore everyone this year, but that narrative got flipped last week as well. Ryan Tannehill was sacked 59 times last year; the Patriots managed exactly one last Sunday. The interior of the defense was steamrolled throughout the game by the Miami rushing attack. In case you forgot, Minnesota has a fairly formidable run game and could take advantage as well.
Of course none of New England's (very) early woes would have mattered much if the Vikings still looked like their 2013 iteration. But these ain't your Childress/Musgrave/Frazier Vikings. These boys look like they can play.
And you know what? Maybe these guys always could play, but they're finally being put in a better position to succeed. For instance, instead of clinging to a vanilla defensive scheme that doesn't really work in today's NFL, you make a defensive game plan that emphasizes your players' strengths. What a novel concept!
I thought George Edwards and Mike Zimmer used rookie Anthony Barr brilliantly last Sunday. It's no secret that Barr is an amazing athlete that still needs some work in his coverage skills. But instead of constantly sending Barr around the edge on the pass rush--something that the Rams might have planned on--Edwards and Zimmer actually dropped him back into pass coverage nearly twice as much as they rushed him (13 pass rush, 25 pass coverage). Now if the Vikings were still in the Cover 2 defense, this strategy could have been disastrous. Linebackers are asked to cover a lot of ground in that scheme. Offenses can exploit mismatches with the linebackers pretty easily in the short and intermediate passing game (as Chad Greenway can attest).
It's how Barr dropped into coverage that helped him succeed. As you'll see in the gif below, Barr was lined up over the slot receiver on this play late in the third quarter. Instead of trying to cover the wide receiver downfield, Barr simply gave the receiver a quick bump and then covered the tight end out in the flat. Although Barr's recognition of the underneath route may have been a bit slow, he used his amazing closing speed and sound tackling to stop the play after a short gain.
That play is a perfect example of how Edwards and Zimmer are coaching to their players' strengths while masking their weaknesses. The Rams were 4/4 throwing at Barr last week but they gained only 16 yards on those completions. He was asked to read and react instead of making sure he was in precisely the right position. They let Barr depend on his athleticism and football instincts instead of making sure he "fit the system".
The "play to their strengths" philosophy seems to be one that Norv Turner--excuse me, NORV~!--has adopted as well. For example, the Vikings tend to be better at run blocking than pass blocking. Again, I'm not doing some sort of football insider trading by sharing this information. St. Louis also has one of the best pass rushes in the league. So what did Turner do? Knowing that he might not have time to run Cordarrelle Patterson on deep routes, he ran a bunch of handoffs and jet sweeps with him instead. By utilizing the Vikings' superb run blocking and ensuring that the ball gets in his dynamic wide receiver's hands right away, you end up with plays like this:
(Note: Be sure to check out Bucky Brooks' amazing breakdown of the jet and fly sweep concepts on NFL.com. He perfectly illustrates why they can be so effective. The interactive gifs are amazing--I wish I had that kind of technology to play with!)
It was great to see the Vikings outplay a team like they did, but it may have been even more encouraging to see the Vikings finally outcoach a team. So maybe the Vikings are actually talented enough to flip the script on the big boys and continue the undefeated reign of Mike Zimmer on Sunday. Unfortunately I think things will start heading right side up this week. The parity-rich NFL has a way of evening out, and the Patriots definitely have a way of correcting themselves. Bill Simmons even has a gambling rule about how they bounce back:
Rule: Don't go against the Pats after a loss and/or when they're getting points.
We have a 13-year Belichick-Brady track record at this point. In the situation I just described, they are 97,567-2 against the spread (all numbers approximate).
The actual numbers aren't that far off his approximation. The Patriots haven't started 0-2 since 2001 (their first Super Bowl championship season, coincidentally) and have lost two regular season games in a row only FOUR times since 2003. That's a span of 176 games, folks. Which means Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 27-4 in games immediately following a loss in the past 11 years. (How many times have they lost three in a row during that span? ZERO. It hasn't happened in New England since October 2002.)
So we could look into the small sample size of Week 1 and analyze how the Patriots could be on the decline while the Vikings are on the rise. (Ted had a great outline of how the Patriots are beatable earlier this week and it's hard to argue with any of his points, some of which I reiterated in more detail here). Or we could look at the big picture of the past 11 seasons, how the Pats always struggle at Miami anyway, and how they started two of their three Super Bowl seasons with bad road losses. The Vikings undoubtedly looked great last week but they beat a team that used something called Austin Davis at quarterback.
Tom Brady might be on the decline, but he sure as hell hasn't declined to Austin Davis levels. Bill Belichick always finds and exploits weaknesses in his opponents; I think the Vikings defense still has a few soft spots that won't be as easy to cover up as they were in St. Louis. They'll be even harder to conceal if Shariff Floyd and Xavier Rhodes can't go on Sunday.
But who knows--maybe my prediction will end up upside down too.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Vikings 24
And now for the rest of my Week 2 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
RAVENS over Steelers
Oh boy, just the nationally televised game that Roger Goodell wanted after this week's news! I'm sure this won't be awkward or anything! I'm not choosing Baltimore here because the "did the right thing"; the right thing would have been to part ways with Ray Rice when the first video came out. I'm choosing them because Pittsburgh almost got upset by the freaking Browns last week.
BENGALS over Falcons
Dolphins over BILLS
This is a battle for first place in the AFC East. Wait...why are locusts suddenly raining down from the sky?
Saints over BROWNS
I almost went with Cleveland here because this is exactly the kind of game that New Orleans has blown in the past. But then I remembered that nobody out-blows the Cleveland Browns.
TITANS over Cowboys
I wonder if Tony Romo gets mercilessly picked apart in all walks of life now. Like if he brings home the wrong kind of bread from the grocery store, does his wife just berate him and tell him how much he sucks? "OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU PICKED THAT BREAD! THE OTHER BREAD WAS RIGHT THERE, WIDE OPEN! HOW COULD YOU NOT SEE THAT BREAD?! YOU SUCK ROMO!!" That probably doesn't happen but I still like to imagine it.
Let's cheer Tony up with our Gratuitous Picture of the Week. Thank you, Titans cheerleader Stormi!
"Yes it's true my name is Stormi / Does this bikini make you..." (image via www.titansonline.com)
Lions over PANTHERS
I'll admit that I thought both teams were going to suck this year. Both teams decidedly did not suck in Week 1, so I wasn't really sure who to go with here. Since I already feel a bad week of picks coming on, I might as well jinx Detroit so it helps out the Vikes.
GIANTS over Cardinals
I'm sorry but Arizona shouldn't have won that game last week. Of course the Giants shouldn't win any game with how they played last week, but I'm still taking a flier on them at home.
Jaguars over REDSKINS
Why not? At least Jacksonville was good for a half last week. Can't say that about Washington.
BUCCANEERS over Rams
We all know what we saw in St. Louis. The Vikings aren't going to be the last team to make the Rams look bad.
Seahawks over CHARGERS
I still want to believe in this San Diego team, but I can't bring myself to go against the champs on four more days rest.
BRONCOS over Chiefs
PACKERS over Jets
Texans over RAIDERS
THE MATT SCHAUB REVENGE GAME! Oh wait, that's right. Derek Carr will be such a better quarterback once he starts playing for a real NFL team.
Bears over 49ERS
Sure Chicago lost at home to Buffalo last week. But the Niners obviously have some offensive problems to straighten out. They only put up 319 yards and 21 offensive points against Dallas last week!
Eagles over COLTS
This is assuming that Philadelphia has realized that you are allowed to start trying in the first half of football games as well.
Man, I do not feel comfortable about my picks this week. So feel free to pick against me and go at least 11-5. Guaranteed or your money back.
Last week: 10-6
Season so far: 10-6