Every year it seems like fantasy seasons get crushed in late December because players on your roster come from teams that are either too good or too bad. The ratty teams tend to make changes once their season if officially in the tank. Injured players get put on injured reserve so that can add a couple of warm bodies from other team’s practice squads in the hopes of getting them to sign on after the season ends. Players who are hurt get dialed back on their playing time and some of them get shut down completely. It’s not uncommon for bad teams to get a look at the backups in the final two or three games of the season to get a live-action look at how they perform under the spotlight.
On the other end of the spectrum are those teams who are too good. They don’t completely take their foot off the gas, but, for those 14-2 type teams, once they have their postseason spot assured, they tend to cut back on the number of reps and get them a little healing time before the postseason dance begins.
There’s a reason why most leagues play 16-week schedules because, typically when you hit Week 17, most teams know their fate and don’t have much of a need to send their top guys out there, especially if they’re banged up.
2014 may well be a different animal completely. There isn’t what can be called a truly dominant team. Denver got hammered by New England. New England got lit up by Kansas City. Indianapolis got slammed by Pittsburgh. The team with the best record (Arizona) is going to be without its starting quarterback the rest of the season. In short, nothing is guaranteed, which is great news for fantasy owners because the best teams may all have to keep playing hard until Week 17.
Consider the following scenarios:
In the AFC East, New England sits at 7-2 and has a win in hand over Denver. If they can continue to roll, they have the short track to getting home field advantage. But with road games at Indianapolis, Green Bay and San Diego in the next month and the only home game against Detroit, the Pats don’t have much wiggle room for a poor performance. With Buffalo and Miami both a 5-4, they’re very much alive for the wild card if one or both gets hot and strings together wins.
In the AFC North, everybody is 6-4 or better and only a half-game separates first place Cleveland from last place Baltimore. Over the last four weeks, each of the teams in the division has been in first place at some point. This one could go down to the final week and Cincinnati’s tie could be the death of them, considering that Mike Nugent missed a chip-shot field goal that kept the tie in place. Any of the four could win it.
In the AFC South, Indy is going to be the only team that likely finishes with a record above .500 and, after New England next Monday, they have a very favorable schedule. If they can beat the Patriots at home next Monday, they will be in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye heading down the stretch, so they will have to keep playing hard.
Denver is the class of the AFC West, but with their loss to New England, as things currently stand, if they want home field for the AFC playoffs, they will have to finish a game ahead of the Patriots, which will likely force them to keep their foot on the gas. Kansas City (6-3) and San Diego (5-4) are both very much alive in the wild card scenario, so they will all be playing for something meaningful.
Over in the NFC East, Dallas and Philadelphia are going to be slugging it out the rest of the way. Both are in line to lock down a playoff spot, but the competition is going to be fierce and both appear to be playoff bound.
In the NFC North, Detroit sits at 7-2, but they have a long and storied history of choking down the stretch. Green Bay is 6-3, but if the playoffs were to start today, they would be on the outside looking in. The Packers are one of the more dominant teams in the NFL and could still force teams to come through Lambeau Field to get the Super Bowl.
In the NFC South, things are a complete mess. New Orleans leads with a 4-5 record and Carolina and Atlanta, despite having God-awful records for what was expected of them, are in the thick of the playoff hunt and all three of the Falcons wins have come in the division, so they are very much still alive for a playoff berth despite having a 3-6 record.
In the NFC West, Arizona has been the happy surprise of the conference at 8-1, but can Drew Stanton lead them the rest of the way? With a closing schedule that includes Seattle twice, Detroit, Kansas City and San Francisco, if the Cards are going to stay the No. 1 seed, they’re going to have to earn it. Denver proved the Cardinals could be pounded, so hopes are high in Arizona, but Carson Palmer will be missed.
Whether it’s team fighting for a division title, a first-round bye or making it in as a wild card, we may have more teams playing through all 16 games because many of them will be meaningful in numerous different ways, which is great news for fantasy owners who have a Week 17 championship or free-for-all dance for the cash in the transactions pool. Buckle up, boys and girls. It’s going to be a crazy ride to the finish of the 2014 season.
- It’s been a tough time to be Johnny Unitas. In 1960, Unitas saw his streak of 47 games with at least one touchdown pass end. That streak would remain the big daddy of quarterbacks for more than 50 years. In 2012, he got caught and passed by Drew Brees, who saw his streak end at 54 games. Last year, he got passed by Tom Brady, whose own streak ended at 52 games. On Sunday, Peyton Manning threw a touchdown for the 48th straight game. For a half-century, Johnny U stood alone. In two years, he went from first to fourth.
- What’s with these six touchdown games? Ben Roethlisberger did it back to back weeks and now Aaron Rodgers gets it done in one half. It seems like three TDs and 300 yards doesn’t cut it anymore.
- Over the last three-plus weeks all four teams in the AFC North have led the division at some point and Cleveland went from last to first in the span of 10 days. This division is going to be fun to watch down the stretch.
- What was up with Josh McCown crying after Tampa Bay’s loss Sunday? It’s bad enough when you look like an aging boy band member. It’s worse when you act like one.
- Even though they stink at 3-6, keep an eye on Atlanta in the ugly NFC South. All three of their wins are in the division and, even at 3-6, they control their own playoff destiny.
THE RAZOR’S EDGE
10. Battering Rams – Nobody was convinced St. Louis was going to make the playoffs, but they could have put together an impressive resume if they had wins over the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals. They were ahead 14-10 in the second half of their game at Arizona and had knocked out their starting QB. Instead, two defensive touchdowns in the final few minutes blew the game open and, for all intents, ended the Rams season.
9. Read the Fine Print – When most fans became aware that something called the Commissioner’s Exemption List even existed was when Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy was almost simultaneously placed on it. In the paragraph in the league rules about the exemption list, it clearly states that its purpose is to place players there (with pay) while their legal process is adjudicated. Peterson’s case was decided last week, yet the NFL kept him on the exempt list – in defiance of its own rules. The NFLPA doesn’t need a reason to draw a line in the sand with the NFL. The league’s mishandling of its own policy is troubling, especially since Peterson’s “people” have been working behind the scenes
8. Sign On the Dotted Line – The Arizona Cardinals haven’t made too many mistakes this year, but they may have made a costly one. The team signed Carson Palmer to a three-year $50 million extension last Friday, which included $20.5 million in guarantees. Two days later, Palmer torn his left ACL and is lost for the season and, if his injury is consistent with other ACL tears, he could be out for as much as a year. Given that he turns 35 next month, the Cardinals investment may be an expensive one with potentially little in the way of return.
7. They Call It Gambling for a Reason – Nobody was happier at The Shop Friday than Clyde the Bookie. He had been trying to lay off bets on the Thursday night game because he knew the numbers. Cincinnati was 13-0-1 in their last 14 home games and Cleveland was 0-17 in their last 17 divisional games. Just about everybody wanted a piece of Cincinnati and he breathed a big sigh of relief when the Browns not only covered the spread, but kicked the Bengals butt.
6. In a Black Hole, No One Can Hear You Cheer – Nobody was expecting the Raider to get their first win against the Broncos, but they were ahead 10-6 with three minutes left in the first half. By the start of the fourth quarter, the Ray-duhs behind 41-10, Peyton Manning was on the bench and Brock Osweiler was taking snaps.
5. Breathing Room On the Bye Week – It’s always a pleasant time for players when they get the bye week and a chance to heal up. But, for the New England Patriots, it was a double bonus. Being chased by both Buffalo and Miami, who entered play Sunday with the chance to pull within one game of the 7-2 Patriots, both of them lost – the Bills at home to Kansas City and Miami on the road at Detroit. Both of them had leads in the second half with a chance to come away with a win, but now both are two games back of the Pats and the song is sounding pretty familiar.
4. Who’s In First? – The big thing about the New Orleans Saints was that, despite playing awful on the road, they have been a killer home team. That was until Sunday. The defense gave up an unforgivable bomb in the final seconds of regulation and lost to San Francisco in overtime to drop to 4-5. Yet, it the hideous NFC South, 4-5 is still good enough for first place and an ugly finish of also-ran teams will continue to play itself out for seven more weeks before the eventual winner (and its losing record) gets bounced by a quality wild card team.
3. Newton and Not Improved – We mentioned a week or two ago that Cam Newton just doesn’t look right. A quarterback is supposed to be an inspirational leader, but Newton has the body language of a guy who doesn’t want to be out on the field and it would appear to be having a ripple effect on his team. Perhaps Ron Rivera should consider benching Newton for a week or two to give his body time to heal because he looks like a sitting duck in the pocket and seems to have no awareness – or concern of how badly he is playing and how that affects his team.
2. Rusting Steel – The Pittsburgh Steelers should be in first place right now in the AFC North. Instead, they’re tied for last. Why? Because two of their losses have come to Tampa Bay and the Jets. For the Bucs, it represents their only win of the year. For New York, Sunday’s win snapped an eight-game losing streak. It seems like every time the Steelers look like they’re back on the right track, something like happens and makes you question whether they are playoff material.
1. Gone With the Wind – The Chicago Bears entered the 2014 season with legitimate division title aspirations. At 3-6, their division title hopes are dead and they’ve set a dubious record of being the first team to allow more than 50 points in consecutive games since something called the Rochester Jeffersons in 1923. To make matters worse, Chicago has trailed at halftime of their last two games 38-7 and 42-0. The finals could have been much worse, but both the Patriots and Packers called off the dogs in the fourth quarter. With all the talent (and money) the Bears spent to build its offense, the defense has been brutal and they’re just playing out the string now.