Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2014 NFL Recap: NFC North

My Preseason Predictions:
1.Chicago Bears (11-5)
2.Green Bay Packers (10-6)
3.Detroit Lions (8-8)
4.Minnesota Vikings (6-10)

Actual Standings:
1.Green Bay Packers (12-4)
2.Detroit Lions (11-5)
3.Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
4.Chicago Bears (5-11)

Chicago Bears: As a diehard Chicago Bears fan, I kind of have to sacrifice my journalistic integrity when writing this. In my 10 years of being a fan, the Bears have had a lot of disappointing seasons, especially over the past five years or so. But I can honestly say that none of those previous letdowns came even remotely close to the soul-crushing agony they inflicted on their fans season. The 2014 Bears were a trainwreck that no one in the fanbase (or anyone else in the league for that matter) saw coming. 2014 seemed like it was going to be the year the Bears finally returned to being contenders. Their offense was only second behind the Broncos in scoring in 2013 and spent the offseason bringing in high-profile free agents (Jared Allen, Lammar Houston) and a plethora of promising young talent via the draft (Kyle Fuller, Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton) to try and fix their holes on defense.And in the early part of the year, their rebuild seemed to be working. The offense was once again great, putting up a lot of points and riding the trio of running back Matt Forte and wide receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall to early-season victories over the 49ers, Falcons and Jets. The defense wasn't quite as strong, but they showed an ability to take the ball away, keep the run contained and get to the quarterback on a relatively consistent basis, all things they sorely lacked in 2013. However, all of that disappeared around mid-October, when the team started to fail miserably on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they struggled to move the ball with any sort of regularity and were turning the ball over at an alarming rate. Quarterback Jay Cutler certainly hindered the team with his erratic play and league-high 21 turnovers, but the fallman for this terrible offensive play should be head coach Marc Trestman. His terrible play-calling and lack of variation in schemes put the Bears in a position to lose just about every week. Cutler is not a quarterback you can rely on to throw 40+ times in a game and win, especially without a healthy Brandon Marshall in the lineup for about half of the season. With Cutler under center, you need to establish a strong running game and create opportunities downfield so he can showcase his top-notch arm strength. Cutler's gunslinger mentality will always prevent him from being an elite quarterback, but you certainly win with him if you give him the right scheme to work with and have a strong defense to back him up. The offensive woes were certainly problematic, but the biggest crutch for the Bears was their defense. Somehow, this defense managed to be worse than the 2013 unit, who was previously the worst defense in franchise history. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker-who was mind-bogglingly retained after the disastrous 2013 campaign- should be permanently blacklisted from the NFL. His zone-heavy schemes are beyond ineffective and allowed any offense that wasn't a complete dumpster fire to score on them at will. Aside from his awful scheme, his inability to make any adjustments was flat-out absurd. The Patriots, Packers, Saints and Cowboys poured on the points without even breaking a sweat because Tucker didn't change any of the looks he was giving them throughout the game. Granted the talent he had to work with wasn't the greatest- especially in the secondary, but that's still no excuse for how piss-poor defense was this season. A distinct lack of leadership on the coaching staff and in the locker, and scheme/play-calling incompetence sunk this franchise and made them tortuous to watch in 2014. There were a handful of players on both sides of the ball who delivered to  (Forte, Jeffrey, Martellus Bennett, Kyle Long, Willie Young, Stephen Paea, Jeremiah Ratliff) to varying degrees, but their contributions weren't nearly enough to make this season even a slight success. A team with this much pure talent just shouldn't be this bad. The ownership rightfully cleaned house at season's end, and hopefully new general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can put an end to annual disappointment the Bears have been delivering of late.  

Detroit Lions: The Detroit Lions were able to clinch their first playoff berth since 2011 and it was largely because they changed their identity as a team. The Lions offense led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson had been the focal point of this football team for years, so it was a bit of surprise when their defense started running the show in 2014. Their rushing defense was one of the most dominant the league has seen in a long time, as they allowed an average of just over 69 yards a game on the year. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, defensive end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and outside/inside linebacker DeAndre Levy were the primary run-stuffers and their consistency throughout the year was remarkable. Save for DeMarco Murray in the playoffs, there wasn't a single back this season that could get anything going against this stout front.  However, the real surprise on this suddenly dominant defense was their secondary. The secondary had been a longstanding problem on this squad and with a generally unproven, inexperienced group back there in 2014, it didn't seem like this would be the season where they would turn things around. The emergence of second-year cornerback Darius Slay and a career year from veteran safety Glover Quinn allowed them to deify the odds and have one of the most surprisingly affective secondaries in the NFL this season. The offense may have taken a backseat to the defense this season, but they were still able to make some noise-even without Johnson being less than 100% for nearly half of the season. Matthew Stafford threw for over 4,000 yards for the fourth straight year and Golden Tate proved to be a great addition to this offense and finally gave their passing game the number two option next to Johnson that they've sorely lacked for quite some time. If this defense can retain this form and Johnson can return fully healthy next season, the Lions should be in the best shape they've ever been in as a team.   

Green Bay Packers: I don't know what led me to believe the Packers were going to regress this season, but let's just say I was very, very wrong. The Packers played perhaps their most dominant football since their Super Bowl run in 2010 this season. After their 1-2 start, the Packers finished the year on a staggering 11-2 run and went onto clinch the two seed in the NFC. The Packers dominance, per usual, can be attributed to the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers was absolutely sensational, throwing for 4,381 yards, 38 TD's and finishing a second straight season without throwing an interception at Lambeau Field. No quarterback in the league this season was as dominant as Rodgers and considering the fact that Rodgers is just 31 years old, his reign of terror on opposing defenses isn't likely to end anytime soon. Rodgers' stellar play also allowed wide receivers Jordy Nelson and running back Eddie Lacy to have great season once again. Nelson and Cobb further solidified their standing as the best receiving duo in the NFL as they both finished with over 1,200 yards, 14 yards per catch and double-digit TD's on the year. If the Packers don't give Cobb- who is an unrestricted free agent- a huge deal this offseason, I'd be stunned. As good as Nelson and Cobb are, Lacy is the unsung hero on this offense, and a large part of why they are able to operate at such a high level. Lacy is the first running back Rodgers has had in his entire tenure with the Packers that can be counted on to produce on a consistent basis. Lacy's strong contributions in the rushing game have subsequently allowed Rodgers to be even more deadly in the passing game. Lacy is one of the handful of young guys in the league that prove the running back position is far from dead. The 2014 Packers also possessed a defense that was actually pretty damn good. They may lack the star power of the offense and struggle against the run at times, but this unit was far better than they were made out to be. They quietly finished the year as a top 10 pass defense anchored by the highly underrated cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Morgan Burnett, and their pass-rush led by the always great Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers-who rebounded beautifully from a down year in 2013-was pretty lethal. Unless something traumatic happens, The Packers are going to be serious contenders in this league for at least the next half-decade.
        
Minnesota Vikings: In a season where running back Adrian Peterson only appeared in one game before being suspended for child abuse and second-year wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson mightily regressed after a strong rookie year, the Vikings shouldn't have done as well as they did. It takes a lot of resilience to overcome the loss of your best player and a terrible season from your next best offensive player and their perseverance over these obstacles can be linked to first-year head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer is one of the toughest SOB's you'll come across in the NFL and he instilled that level of toughness into this football team. No matter how many injuries or off-field distractions mounted on this team, they kept fighting and only got better as the year went on.  Not only did Zimmer lead this team through the fire to overachieve, he.successfully overhauled this defense. His choice to gamble on unproven fifth-year defensive end Everson Griffen as the team's primary pass rusher and select outside linebacker Anthony Barr, who had only played defense for two years in college, in the first round of the draft proved to be justified. Griffen excelled in his first year as a starter picking up 12 sacks and Barr looked great against the run and showed flashes of serious pass-rushing ability in his rookie campaign. However Zimmer's most impressive work was on the back-end of the defense. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes looked like a legitimate shutdown corner in his second year in the league and safety Harrison Smith was perhaps the best safety in the NFL this season, demonstrating the stellar range and takeaway ability that turned heads during his rookie year in 2012, but was forgotten about in his injured-riddled 2013 season. Another huge surprise for the Vikings this season was the development of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater was forced into the lineup in Week 3 after Matt Cassel went down with a broken foot and he ended up looking pretty good for much of the year. As with most rookies, Bridgewater turned the ball over a decent amount, but he showed a lot more poise and pocket ability than I expected him to at this point in his career. If he keep up this trajectory-especially after his strong December- he'll be the Vikings starting quarterback for a number of years. Despite all their success, the Vikings certainly weren't perfect. Their rush defense was pretty ghastly for much of the season and they desperately need to surround Bridgewater with more talent at wide receiver. But with a promising young quarterback in Bridgewater, a blossoming young defense that seems built for the long haul, a strong leader at head coach and the return of Peterson, tackle Phil Loadholt and guard Brandon Fusco on the horizon, the Vikings could very well find themselves in the playoff picture within the next couple of years.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Concert Review: August Burns Red-- Boston, MA-- January 25th, 2015

The Rockstar Frozen Flame Tour featuring five of metalcore's biggest names and hottest up-and-comers including August Burns Red, Miss May I and Fit for a King rolled through the House of Blues in Boston last night. This lineup is basically a dream come true for fans of modern metalcore and based on the response from nearly-sold out crowd in attendance, they didn't leave disappointed.

My friends and I got into the venue a little after 6:00 and the first opening band Erra had already started playing. In just a few years of national exposure, Erra has quickly become one of the most lauded young bands in the genre. Both of their full-length albums (2011's Impulse and 2013's Augment) appeared on a number of year-end best lists and have received extremely positive responses from genre enthusiasts. Despite this nearly universal acclaim, the little of their music I'd heard previously didn't make much of an impression on me, and their live show did nothing to change my mind. Outside of the occasional nice melody, nothing about their music stands out. The instrumentation and screamed vocals are pretty average and the cleans are amongst the most grating and obnoxious high-pitched singing I've ever heard. There are just so many bands in the scene right now that play this type of progressive-tinged metalcore better than Erra does. If you're a fan of Erra, you'll love them live since they sound nearly identical to their studio recordings, I just don't really understand the hype around these guys in the slightest.

Fit for a King came roaring onto the stage about 10 minutes later. Their popularity level has surged over the past year and that was evident by the super positive reaction they got from the crowd last night. While I didn't share crowd's immense enthusiasm for Fit for a King, I can completely see why they've blown up so fast. They play a type of crowd-pleasing Christian metalcore a la For Today and The Devil Wears Prada with breakdowns and catchy choruses galore that audiences just eat up. The samey nature of all of their songs prevented me from getting really into them, but there's no denying that these guys put on an engaging, high-energy show. I definitely wouldn't go out of my way to see them again, but they were a respectable opener that were able to hold my attention for the half-hour they were on stage, which is more than I can say for a lot of other bands I've seen open shows over the years.

Northlane took an abnormally long time to set up and didn't end up starting their set until approximately 20-25 minutes after Fit for a King wrapped up. The long wait ended up being worth it as Northlane put on on the first truly notable performance of the evening. New vocalist Marcus Bridge did a more than commendable job with the older material, demonstrating a pretty impressive vocal range and showcasing much better clean vocals than previous vocalist Adrian Fitipaldes. The hardest task for any new vocalist is tackling the band's older material and Bridge was able to overcome that obstacle pretty easily. While Bridge did a good job on vocals, the instrumentation is still the standout element of Northlane. Guitarists Jon Deiley and Josh Smith know how to lay down a solid groove (though the melodic elements could use work) and their drummer Nic Pettersen is an absolute savage behind the kit. They certainly aren't one of the torchbearers for the genre, but Northlane is talented group who puts on a very solid live show.

Miss May I hit the stage next. Unlike the previous three bands on the bill, I'd seen Miss May I before, so I knew exactly what I was getting into and they didn't stray from the precedent they had set the first two I saw them. Miss May I's studio material isn't anything about decent, but they sure as hell know how to put on a show. Vocalist Levi Benton is an elite frontman who prides himself on getting the crowd pumped up and delivering the best vocal performance he possibly can. The rest of the band is certainly engaged in the performance, but Benton is the undeniable spark plug for their live shows. Aside from Benton's showmanship, the other thing that really stands out about Miss May I live is how cohesive they are as a band. The tightness of Miss May I's performance can certainly be attributed to the fact that they've had basically the same lineup since their inception. A lot of young bands can't hold down the same lineup for long, so it's pretty damn impressive that Miss May I has only had one member change since their formation. The level of consistency in their lineup has built up a special chemistry that really comes through in their live show. Miss May I's catchy, energetic music thrives in a live setting and it makes every one of their shows a boatload of fun to watch.

After a pretty quick changeover, August Burns Red came on to close out the evening. To be honest, they were a bit underwhelming the last time I saw them at Warped Tour in July 2013, so I was kind of nervous that they were going to disappoint again at this show. Thankfully, I was proven wrong as August Burns Red killed it. Out of the five times I've seen them, this was probably the best setlist I've ever seen them play. The presence of rarely played older material like "Up Against the Ropes" and "The Eleventh Hour" alongside heavy-hitting staples like "Marianas Trench" and "Composure and a few choice cuts from their most recent album Rescue & Restore was just great to see. August Burns Red is typically fairly predictable with their setlist choices, so it was cool to see them break out a handful of tracks that I've never seen them previously play live. Further bolstering the performance was the overall sharpness of the band. The whole sounded consistently excellent throughout their 75-minute set. Vocalist Jake Luhrs is a severely underrated vocalist with remarkably powerful high and low pitched screams, guitarist JB Brubaker is a versatile powerhouse who excels in both fast and melodic riffing, and drummer Matt Griener continues to become a better player as times goes on (his massive improvement was reenforced by his mightily impressive drum solo before the encore.)  August Burns Red has been one of the best metalcore bands around for a long time, and this performance only reaffirmed that position.

Side Notes:
-While this show was pretty good overall, it takes the cake for highest number of assholes I've ever seen at a metal show in Massachusetts. At least five kids got kicked out for starting fights and there was an alarming amount of people going out of their way just to be dicks to people that were just standing around enjoying the show. That type of senseless violence and macho bullshit has no place in metal ,and it sickened me to watch these jackasses ruin the experience for people who were there just to have a good time.

-The bassist/clean vocalist for Fit for a King is one of the most absurdly energetic musicians I've ever seen in my life. Dude did seriously not stop jumping around for more than 10-15 seconds during the whole set.

 -Jake Luhrs got the crowd super pissed off when he a dropped joke about the Patriots and the whole "Deflate-gate" scandal. He did manage to quickly win them back by saying he was a Boston Bruins fan.

-Some kid came up to me when Erra was playing and complemented me on my Fallujah sweatshirt, and made a point to say to me that it sucked that there was probably only "20 other people in the room who know who they are". Amen brother.    

Scores:
Erra 6/10
Fit for a King 6/10
Northlane 7.5/10
Miss May I 7.5/10
August Burns Red 8.5/10

Setlists:
Erra:
Dremcatcher
Warrior
Frostbite
Pattern Interrupt
Hybrid Earth

Fit for a King:
Hollow King (Sound of the End)
Ancient Waters
Forever Unbroken
Young & Undeserving
Slave to Nothing
The Resistance
Warpath

Northlane:
Quantum Flux
Worldeater
Windbreaker
Rot
Genesis
Scarab
Masquerade

Miss May I:
(At Heart)
Hey Mister
Masses of a Dying Breed
Forgive and Forget
Gone
Our Kings
Hero with No Name
A Dance with Aera Cura
Relentless Chaos

August Burns Red:
White Washed
Beauty in Tragedy
Thirty and Seven
Spirit Breaker
The Eleventh  Hour
Up Against the Ropes
Marianas Trench
Provision
Back Burner
Fault Line
Meridian
The Seventh Trumpet
Composure
Drum Solo

Encore:
Carpe Diem
Empire

Sunday, January 25, 2015

2014 NFL Recap: NFC East

My Preseason Predictions:
1.Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)
2.New York Giants (9-7)
3.Washington Redskins (7-9)
4.Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

Actual Standings:
1.Dallas Cowboys (12-4)
2.Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
3.New York Giants (6-10)
4.Washington Redskins (4-12)

Dallas Cowboys: Saying this year's Dallas Cowboys season was a surprise would be a severe understatement, If you saw this one coming, you are either a psychic or the most loyal, optimistic Cowboys fan on the planet. Analysts and fans around the league (myself included) thought the Cowboys were doomed headed into 2014. The Cowboys had been stuck in the bowels of mediocrity for years and on paper, this year's roster appeared to be the most talent barren it's been in quite some time, especially on defense. But against all the odds, the Cowboys ended up being one of the best teams in the league this season. It can not be stressed enough how good of a job the coaching staff did this season. Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli were able to get every ounce of potential production out of all their players this season. Linehan, who technically shared offensive coordinator duties with Bill Callahan even though he called all the plays, went against his typical pass-heavy tendencies and implemented a rush-first attack in his first year with the Cowboys. The emphasis on the rushing game reduced the pressure put on quarterback Tony Romo- who was coming off a major offseason back surgery, and made this offense much more consistent than they have been in the past few years. While Linehan was undeniably great, the work he did with the offense pales in comparison to what Marilnelli was able to do with the defense. Marinelli took a depleted, talent-deprived defense that was reeling from the departure of defensive end DeMarcus Ware and the loss of inside linebacker Sean Lee, their undisputed best defensive player to a torn ACL before the season started, and made them a legitimately formidable unit  Their front seven was actually quite solid thanks to a highly unlikely breakout season from oft-troubled inside linebacker Rolando McClain and a very strong rookie season from Anthony Hitchens. While the secondary outside of cornerback Orlando Scandrick wasn't nearly as impressive as their front seven, they still played much better than anticipated. If there was an award for coordinator of the year, Marinelli would get it. About the only thing unsurprising about the Cowboys this season was the production of their three superstars, Romo, running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Aided by phenomenal protection from an offensive line that is easily the best in the league, Romo had one of the best seasons of his career completing almost 70% of his passes and 34 TD's, which ranks behind the 36 he threw for in 2007 for the highest of his career. Murray and Bryant made the most of their contract years by stepping their game up to an even higher level than usual. Murray endured the biggest workload of his career without getting injured and was absolutely dominant throughout the year rushing for a league-high 1,845 yards, which was nearly 500 yards more than the league's number two rusher, Le'Veon Bell. Bryant was not quite as dominant as Murray, but he still had a phenomenal season, pulling in a league-high 16 TD's and getting over 1,000 yards receiving for a third straight season. If the Cowboys don't sign both Murray and Bryant to huge deals, I'd be very surprised. The Cowboys were the most surprising team in the NFL this season and I'm very interested to see if the momentum they built up this season will carry over to 2015.    

New York Giants: The New York Giants can't seem to break out out of the same pattern. In each of the years after their last Super Bowl win in 2011, The Giants have spent the season consistently alternating between losing close games in heartbreaking fashion,  getting blown out in the most embarrassing ways possible, and laying down epic beatdowns on their opponents. In other words, they're a woefully inconsistent team who can be elite, downright terrible or somewhere in between depending on the week. This season was an especially erratic ride as they managed to lose seven games in a row at one point yet won by a margin of at least 10 points in every single one of their victories. Despite being the whipping boy for a lot of the Giants problems past and present, Eli Manning can't really shoulder the brunt of the blame for the Giants' issues this season. Manning wasn't exactly perfect this season, but he did a pretty good job adjusting to a new offensive system and did a much better job of protecting the ball than he did a year ago, throwing 14 INT's this year compared to the 27 he threw a year ago. Where the Giants issues were primarily rooted was on the defensive side of the ball. They couldn't stop the run in the slighest all season long and once cornerback Prince Amukamara- who was in the midst of a career season- went down for the year in Week 9, their pass defense become relatively vulnerable as well. They certainly aren't without their standout players, but they're going to need to sure up their front seven if they want to stabilize this team. As for the positives of this Giants teams this year, they pretty much all center around rookie phenom wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. After missing the first four games of the year with a hamstring injury and not making too much noise in his first three games, Beckham Jr. went on a string of dominance that would be unprecedented for a veteran wideout, let alone a rookie. Beckham Jr. got at least 90 yards receiving in the last nine games of the season and became the first person in the NFL to ever finish with a 90+ receptions and 10+ TD's in their rookie season. Beckham Jr. did all of this while facing constant double and triple coverage as he was pretty much the only option in the Giants offense after Victor Cruz was lost for the year after suffering a devastating knee injury in Week 8 against the Eagles. I've seen a lot of great receivers enter the league over the past several years, but none have been as polished, athletic or downright explosive in their first season in the league as Beckham Jr. As long as he can stay healthy and doesn't suddenly undergo a rapid regression in his game, Beckham Jr. is going to be one of the best receivers in the league for a long time. The Giants have the coaching and enough top-level talent to be a playoff team, they just need to play with much more consistency to live up to their massive potential.
     
Philadelphia Eagles: The 2014 Eagles might be the best team in recent history to miss the playoffs. They may have turned the ball over more and not had the exact same level of offensive dominance, but they were undoubtedly more complete than the 2013 team that won the NFC East. I firmly believe that if Nick Foles hadn't gotten injured, this team would've been in the playoffs. The three-game losing streak in December that caused them to miss the playoffs was largely due to backupquarterback Mark Sanchez's inability to make plays. To Sanchez's credit, he was much better than I thought he would be, but he was still far from great. His questionable pocket presence and constant poor decision-making that led to turnovers played a large role in the Eagles late-season collapse. Outside of the poor play from Sanchez, the only real problem with the Eagles in 2014 was once again their secondary. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were the worst corner tandem in the NFL this season, repeatedly getting torched whenever the opposing quarterback had a clean pocket. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was brought in via free agency last offseason, was pretty much the only reason this secondary wasn't quite as bad as they were in 2013. The Eagles really need to put all their offseason resources into improving the secondary because their current personnel just isn't cutting it. The late-season collapse that led to them missing the playoffs may be the story of the Eagles season, but all of the good they did before then can't be swept under the rug. The Eagles once again managed to have one of the best offenses in the league this year. Jeremy Maclin flawlessly filled the void left by DeSean Jackson as the number one wideout on this team by putting up over 1,300 yards and 10 TD's just a year removed from a torn ACL, LeSean McCoy had yet another great season with over 1,300 yards on the ground, and rookie Jordan Matthews showed some serious big play potential later in the year and looks like he has the skills to be a quality starter in this league for a long time. Even though the secondary was terrible, the rest of the Eagles defense was much improved this season. The team's stout pass-rush led by All-Pro Connor Barwin tied for second in the league in sacks with 49 and defensive end Fletcher Cox suddenly emerged as one of the best pure run-stuffers in the league. With a bright head coach in Chip Kelly and a lot of talent on offense and the front seven of the defense, The Eagles should be able to get back on track on 2015.     

Washington Redskins: There may have been a new head coach for the Redskins in 2014, but they were held back by the same old problems. They can't seem to lock down a quarterback and their defense just flat-out stinks for the most part. The quarterback crisis reached a new level this year as Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy all picked up multiple starts and played with varying levels of ineffectiveness. Griffin III's confidence is completely shot since his torn ACL in 2012 and it's honestly painful to watch him play due to how noticeably uncomfortable he is under center, Cousins started off with a ton of promise in his  first two games against the Jaguars and Eagles before quickly turning into a turnover-over prone gunslinger who had trouble moving the ball and while McCoy, played better than RG3 and Cousins, he's not a guy you can rely onto win a lot of games in the NFL. The future of Jay Gruden as a head coach and this franchise in general is going to come down to whether or not they can find a steady starting quarterback. None of the guys they currently have on the roster have proven they be can be trusted, but the brass gave way too much away to acquire Griffin III to throw the towel in on him now. It's a hell of a predicament for the Redskins and it's going to be extremely intriguing to see what route they decide to take with it. While the inept offense was certainly the primary failure of the Redskins this year, their defense didn't fare much better. Aside from outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan's typical pass-rushing dominance and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher's contributions against the run, there was not a whole lot to get excited about watching this unit play this year. The team's inexplicable decision to retain Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator came back to haunt them as he once again failed to get this defense to stop anyone with any sort of consistency. Their secondary outside of promising rookie Bashaud Breeland was pretty bad and showed their age as they consistently got gassed by quick, young wideouts. Their pass-rush was strong even without star outside linebacker Brian Orakpo for most of the season and run defense was pretty good up until the last month of the season, they just couldn't keep points off the board because of their porous secondary. The Redskins finally have some draft picks this year, so they can begin the rebuilding process they've had to put on hold for the past three years with all the high picks they gave up in the trade to get Griffin III in 2012. But given how many problems they have, I don't expect them to have any true, sustained success anytime soon.          

Friday, January 23, 2015

2014 NFL Recap: AFC West

My Preseason Predictions:
1.Denver Broncos (13-3)
2.San Diego Chargers (8-8)
3.Kansas City Chiefs (6-10)
4.Oakland Raiders (4-12)

Actual Standings:
1.Denver Broncos (12-4)
2.Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
3.San Diego Chargers (9-7)
4.Oakland Raiders (3-13)

Denver Broncos: The 2014 Denver Broncos will go down as one of the few elite NFL teams in NFL history that had a complete change in identity almost 3/4 of the way through the season. From September through most of November, the Broncos were riding Peyton Manning and the passing attack that shattered records and led the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 2013. Then out of nowhere in the last five games, Manning's play started to dip considerably and the Broncos became a run-first team behind C.J. Anderson- who started the season behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman on the depth chart. No matter how they were attacking you, the Broncos offense once again put up huge numbers throughout the year. The receiving corps anchored by Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and newcomer Emmanuel Sanders was without question one of the best overall units in the league in 2014. Demaryius recovered beautifully after a rough start to the year and ended up having the best year of his highly impressive young career, Julius was the most monstrous redzone target in the league for the first two months of the season before an ankle injury slowed him down in mid-November, and Sanders managed to fill the void left by Eric Decker and then some as he registered the first 100 reception, 1,000+ yard season of his career. As I alluded to earlier, the late season boost Anderson gave this offense was huge and kept this team on track when their traditional pass-heavy attack began to falter. Anderson emerged from obscurity in Week 9 against the Raiders after injuries sidelined both Ball and Hillman, and immediately emerged as the best back on the roster. Anderson is an absolute bulldozer of a runner who possesses great pass-catching ability for a power back and the strong nose for the endzone for any running back to be truly great. With his consistently strong play over the second half of the season, Anderson seems like the real deal. If he can keep this going into the next season, the Broncos will have finally found the workhorse back they've desperately desired since Clinton Portis got traded after the 2003 season. Of course, the Broncos having a powerhouse offense is not the least bit surprising. What the 2014 Broncos had that that the 2013 Broncos sorely lacked was a great defense. John Elway's aggressive rebuilding approach paid off as defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward all made notable contributions in their debut season with the team. While all of the new additions delivered, it was the return of two incumbent players, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and outside linebacker Von Miller, from injury that really made this unit standout. Harris Jr. was the only starting corner in the NFL to not allow a touchdown all season long and the Broncos just generously rewarded him for his outstanding play by handing him a five-year/$42.5 million contract extension. As for Miller, he was every bit of the dominant pass-rushing, run-stuffing force he was prior to the torn ACL that cut his 2013 season short, finishing the year with 59 tackles and 14 sacks. Having these two healthy made a world of difference for the Broncos defense and their play was a big reason why this defense was near-elite this season. With Manning on a noticeable decline and contemplating retirement, and at least one of the Thomas brothers potentially leaving in free agency, the prospects for the 2015 Broncos are murky to say the least. If you're a Broncos fan, I'd cross your fingers for next year and relish the memories of your recent success in case things go south next year.           

Kansas City Chiefs: They may not have returned to the playoffs, but the 2014 Chiefs were pretty much the exact same team they were a year ago. It was seriously Groundhog Day-esque as their offense once again ran through Jammal Charles, quarterback Alex Smith maintained his reputation as an effective game-manager who rarely turns the ball over and Justin Houston retained his title as one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the league by leading the league in sacks  with 22. There was a few surprises amidst all the continuity on the Chiefs. Their young offensive line held up far better than expected thanks to a big improvement from second-year tackle Eric Fisher and a borderline All-Pro season from center Rodney Hudson and their mostly prestige-less secondary ended up finishing second in the league against the pass. However, the biggest surprise for the Chiefs this season was the fact that not a single one of their wide receivers were able to reach the endzone all season long. The Chiefs don't exactly have a loaded receiving corps, but their collective inability to reach the endzone even one time this season is mind-blowing. It's a feat so lackluster that it's almost impressive. The Chiefs are far from the flashiest team in the NFL, but as long as they have a solid defense that keeps points off the board and an offense that can manage the clock and not make mistakes, they'll annually be in the hunt for the playoffs.  

Oakland Raiders: Since their Super Bowl appearance in 2002, the Raiders have been one of the worst, if not the worst team in the NFL. The 2014 Raiders lived up to that shameful billing once again as they failed to get much of anything going on either side of the ball for most of the season. They finished in the bottom half of the league in every major statistical category except pass defense (where they ranked in the dead center of the league at 16th) and allowed a ton of points and scored barley any in over half of the games they played this season. This failure wasn't exactly surprising as a majority of their starters were either rookies, veterans far past their prime or journeyman who wouldn't be starting on pretty much any other team in the league. To be fair, there was some bright spots amongst all the misery The Raiders served up this season. This year's draft class appears to be a success as their first two choices, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr, both impressed in their rookie year. Mack was great against the run all season and started to heat up as a pass-rusher in the last month of the season where he picked up three of his four sacks on the year. Their 3-13 record may not show it, but Carr had a pretty solid season under center. He was pretty accurate and managed to make a lot of plays despite the general lack of talent around him. There's certainly some room for improvement with his mechanics and pocket presence, but Carr appears to be on the right track to blossom into a legit franchise quarterback over the next few years. Second-year running back Latavius Murray also shined when he was thrust into the spotlight late in the season after he picked up a ridiculous 90-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs. Murray saw an increased workload after shining in spot duty and appeared to be the real deal as he finished the season averaging over five yards a carry. With Mack, Carr and Murray joining other young talent like outside linebacker Sio Moore, inside linebacker Miles Burris and much improved cornerback D.J. Hayden, the Raiders are establishing a promising young nucleus of players that could finally turn this team around. New head coach Jack Del Rio will have plenty of cap space and a roster with some serious budding talent on it heading into 2015 and even if it doesn't pan out right away, this is easily the most promise the Raiders have had since Rich Gannon, Rod Woodson, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown led them to their last playoff berth 12 years ago.  

San Diego Chargers: Much like their divisional counterparts in Kansas City, The Chargers were able to follow up their playoff bid from a year ago with a solid season that saw them fall just of short picking up back-to-back postseason appearances. However completely unlike the Chiefs, the Chargers had a whole different set of player step up and strengths as a team emerge this season. Their secondary made a wild transformation from an abysmal unit that ranked 29th in the league in 2013 to a very stout one that ranked fourth in the league this season. What makes this sudden turnaround that much more remarkable is that save for cornerback Brandon Flowers-who was acquired in free agency after he was released by the Chiefs- this is the exact same corps of starters that were got torched on the regular in 2013. Flowers certainly helped matters by returning to the dominant form that was completely absent during his last couple of seasons with the Chiefs, but it was the equally impressive play and sharp improvement from cornerback Shareece Wright and safety Marcus Gilchrist that pushed this unit over the edge. The Chargers seem to have finally formed a complete secondary around perennial Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and it has helped out their whole defense immensely. On the flip side, the rushing attack that got them so far in 2013 was all but completely gone this season thanks to injuries to Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead. Matthews missed significant time with knee and ankle ailments and Woodhead went down for the year in Week 3 with a broken fibula. Without the two-headed monster of Matthews and Woodhead on the field, replacements Branden Oliver, Donald Brown and Ronnie Brown couldn't get much of anything going, which forced this offense to become relatively one-dimensional for most of the season. If there is any silver lining for the Chargers, Matthews and Woodhead looked good when they were on the field this season, so their return to full strength should remedy their problems in the run game. The one thing that carried over to this year's Chargers from 2013 was the strong play of quarterback Phillip Rivers. Even with a highly disappointing season from top wideout Keenan Allen, Rivers had yet another season with over 4,000 yards and 30 TD's. Given the inconsistent play from all his receivers not named Antonio Gates- who proved his doubters wrong by having another outstanding season at age 34,  it's pretty damn remarkable that Rivers was able to put up the numbers that he did. He may not have the eye-popping resume of a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, but Rivers is undoubtedly amongst the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL. The Chargers have a pretty talented roster and if they can sure up their front seven and run the ball on a more consistent basis, they won't be sitting on the couch come playoff time next year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2014 NFL Recap: AFC South

My Preseason Predictions:
1.Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
2.Houston Texans (7-9)
3.Tennessee Titans (6-10)
4.Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)

Actual Standings
1.Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
2.Houston Texans (9-7)
3.Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)
4.Tennessee Titans (2-14)

Houston Texans: The 2014 Texans were able to recover pretty nicely from their disastrous 2013 season that ended in 14 straight losses. First-year head coach Bill O'Brien returned this team to their run-heavy, defensive-minded roots. Arian Foster once again bounced back nicely from injury and served as the centerpiece of this offense. How Foster is still able to play at such a high level after obtaining so many severe injuries over the years is astonishing. Veterans like Foster and Andre Johnson's impact on this offense is to be expected at this point, but they got some serious help this year from second-year wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins was easily the most improved wideout in the NFL this season, showing off a big play flare and pretty reliable hands that made helped him surpass Johnson as the go-to-guy in the passing game. Of course, you can't talk about the Texans without gushing about J.J. Watt. No player in the NFL takes over a game like Watt. Even though he's facing double and sometimes triple coverage on just about every down, Watt still managed to dominate once again and ended up becoming the first player in NFL history to pick up two 20+ sack seasons in his career. This year he even added reps on offense and ended up scoring TD's on all three of his receptions on the season. If there wasn't a huge bias against players from non-playoff teams and defensive players winning MVP, I firmly believe Watt would walk away with that coveted honor this season. As expected, the Texans were hampered by subpar quarterback play. Four different guys lined up under center for the Texans this year and none of them looked to be a long-term solution at the position. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the longest tenured starter of the bunch and was his typical respectable but not overly productive self, Ryan Mallet was average in his first two career starts before going down with a season-ending pectoral injury, rookie Tom Savage didn't do much of anything in his cameo in Week 15 when Fitzpatrick broke his leg and Case Keenum managed to stop the bleeding at end of the season once literally every other quarterback on the roster went down with season-ending injuries. With Mallet entering free agency and the team possessing the 16th overall pick in April's draft, it should be interesting to see how the team approaches their quarterback situation heading into 2015. While the middling quarterback play was pretty much expected given their available personnel, the complete lack of impact from number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney was not. The pairing of Clowney next to Watt was heavily hyped going into the season, but Clowney didn't really see the field much due to injury and when he was playing, he didn't fare well picking up just 7 tackles and 0 sacks in four games. After undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee in November, it's going to be a long, hard road back for Clowney. The Texans are trending in the right direction, but they're a still a year or two from returning to playoff form.

Indianapolis Colts: The Indianapolis Colts are a team that has been showing steady progress since Andrew Luck arrived in 2012 and that continued this season. Luck was sensational as he played easily the best football of his young career by throwing for a career-high 4,761 yards and 40 TD's- which is nearly double his total from each of the past two seasons. Luck is every bit of the franchise quarterback he was hyped up to be when he came out of Stanford, and I don't expect it to be much too much longer before he is hoisting up the Lombardi trophy. Growing right alongside Luck is third-year wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. With his blazing speed and phenomenal route-running abilites, Hilton has emerged as a legit number one wideout that Luck can count on in any situation. Hilton may not have the prestige of guys like A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant, but he can make just as many huge plays and spectacular catches as anyone in the league. If you look outside of the passing offense, there is still a lot of room to grow on this team. Their defense is certainly getting better thanks to solid play from veteran offseason acquisitions D'Qwell Jackson and Arthur Jones, and the continued dominance of highly underrated cornerback Vontae Davis, but they still aren't an overly scary unit. They don't get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, their run defense is very vulnerable and their secondary outside of Davis is above average at best. If they want to really contend in a conference that is owned by top-flight offenses in the Patriots and Broncos, they're going to need to build up a more stout defense that can be relied on to shut down those powerhouse offenses. The Colts can take solace in the fact their biggest problem for much of the season, the running game, seems to have finally been remedied with the late-season emergence of Daniel "Boom" Herron. Trent Richardson continued to be a let down once he was thrust into the starting role for the umpteenth time after Ahmad Bradshaw- who was in the midst of a great season- went down with a broken leg in mid-November. Richardson's continued struggles allowed Herron an opportunity to play and he delivered the goods. Herron showed promise as a powerful runner who also serves as a nice asset in the short passing game. If Herron can carry over his late-season momentum to 2015, The Colts' long-standing rushing woes will finally come to an end  The Colts are a very good football team that is inching closer and closer every year to achieving greatness.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Much like I could write a summary about the Patriots success in August, I could write one about the Jaguars failure around the same time. This is a squad that just can't really catch a break. No one expected them to be a good team this year, but they still managed to play below expectations for much of the season. The whole Toby Gerhart as a bellcow experiment backfired, their offensive line allowed rookie quarterback Blake Bortles to get massacred, and their defense once again trampled week after week. Any of their laundry list of flaws could be assessed at length, but perhaps the most pressing one is at quarterback. While Bortles wasn't as bad as his numbers (11 TD's, 17 INT's in 14 games, 13 of which he started) indicated, he never really looked comfortable under center. There was of course a variety of factors (offensive line play, lack of a running game, revolving door of receivers) that were out of his control that made his transition harder than it should've been, but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence when the guy you have pegged as your quarterback of the future is missing his targets and turning the ball over on a consistent basis. Bortles progress is going to be essential for this team's success moving forward so the Jags better hope he can develop the mechanics and decision making abilities to match his exceptional athleticism and arm strength. Despite finishing another season  well below .500, there are a few things that inspire some confidence for the future of the Jaguars. Their trio of rookie wideouts (Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns) all produced at various points of the season. Robinson looked especially good as a possession receiver before he went down with a broken foot in Week 11. If Justin Blackmon can return from his suspension and remain out of trouble, Bortles could have a pretty lethal young group of wide receivers to help him progress over the next few years. Despite having a pretty weak defense overall, the Jaguars had no trouble getting to the quarterback in 2014. The Jaguars were tied with the Jets for the sixth most sacks in the league, finishing with 45 on the year. Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks has quietly become one of the best interior pass-rushers in the NFL and the Jaguars have gotten huge production of rotational pass-rushing specialists defensive ends Chris Clemons and Ryan Davis. The Jaguars are a pretty young team with some intriguing up-and-coming talent, but they still needs some serious development before they get of the NFL's basement.

Tennessee Titans: They might not have the number one overall pick, but for my money, there was no team in the NFL worse than the Tennessee Titans this season. Unlike the Buccaneers and Jaguars-who were in a lot of the games they lost-the Titans weren't even competitive in a majority of their 14 losses, especially in the last month of the season. The answer to why the Titans were so bad in 2014 is simple: they lack adequate talent on both sides of the ball. There's a few standout players on the roster including tight end Delanie Walker, wide receiver Kendall Wright, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback Jason McCourty, but other than them, this roster is pretty much made up of journeyman veterans who've seen much better days and young players who just haven't lived up to their potential. It's a toss up as to which side of the ball has more deficiencies, but if I had to chose, it would be the offense. The quarterback carousel that took place in this organization this year is about as disastrous as you can get in the NFL. Jake Locker ended his tenure in Tennessee just like he started it: By getting injured and missing most of the season. Locker's replacements didn't fare much better. Rookie Zach Mettenberger flashed his big arm and not much else in his six starts, and journeyman Charlie "Clipboard Jesus" Whitehurst did a job of protecting the ball, but still couldn't make a whole of lot plays. It would certainly be a pretty big shock if the Titans didn't draft a quarterback at some point in this year's draft. Failing to pull their weight with the constant state of flux at quarterback was the running back tandem of Shonn Greene and rookie Bishop Sankey. Greene has shown pretty much none of the power or vision he showed he showed with the Jets since he arrived in Nashville and Sankey failed to live up to the shifty, two-way, every-down back title he was given before and after the 2014 draft. Their issues on defense are no where near as wide spread, as they are mostly confined to the front seven. They just don't have anyone on that roster that can consistently stop the run and it showed all year long. Only the Browns allowed more rushing yards than them this season, and given all the missed tackles/assignments they had defending the run, I'm surprised they weren't dead last. The Titans are arguably the most talent-barren team in the NFL and are going to need a flawless draft and free agency period to turn the ship around next season.         

Tennessee Titans:  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper

Clint Eastwood's latest film American Sniper-which is based on the life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who has the most confirmed kills in the history of the United States military- has made all sorts of waves in the past week. Just a day before its nationwide expansion on January 16th, the film shockingly picked up 6 Academy Award nominations after getting next to no fanfare at every other major film award show. The film then went onto shatter the record for the highest all-time opening weekend for the month of January by racking up just shy of $90 million in its first three days of wide release. Since its release, the film has been the subject of many heated, heavily publicized debates about whether the film is slanderous pro-war propaganda celebrating the life of a soulless killer or the story of a true American hero who's worthy of being idolized.

All politics and judgements of Kyle's character aside, American Sniper fails miserably as a piece of art. The film is essentially a two-hour highlight reel of Kyle's kills. Kyle shooting people from afar and aiding with ground support on other missions without getting to truly know the man behind the gun. Screenwriter Jason Hall teases character depth in the sequences on American soil between Kyle's four tours with scenes that show Kyle being distant from his wife (Sienna Miller in a thankless role) or hearing a sound that flashes him back to something in the war. But instead of really following through on these moments of internal conflict and humanity, Hall chooses to head back to the battlefield for another extended round of dull, tension-free combat scenes. Hall simply doesn't have the guts to analyze the effects war had on Kyle with any sort of real depth and it makes this film incredibly frustrating to watch. Call me crazy, but if you make a biopic that contains literally no vital information that couldn't be found on the subject's Wikipedia page, you've failed miserably as filmmakers.

With an established director like Clint Eastwood at the helm, I'm legitimately shocked at just how empty this film is. Eastwood has made a career off making films (Unforgiven, Absolute Power) about reluctant gunslingers, who are forced to kill for noble reasons but regularly doubt whether or not they're doing the right thing. Aside from a couple of all too brief moments, Kyle doesn't wrestle with any of the moral questions that are surely raised on the battlefield. Given his history as a director and this film's focus on one man's life and not the events of an entire war, I expected Eastwood to delve headfirst into what makes Kyle tick and the effects combat had on him as a person. It's disappointing to see one of the boldest filmmakers in American cinema pull away from his roots in a film that desperately needed a heavy dose of his exploration of moral ambiguity.

The only reason American Sniper isn't a complete failure is Cooper's performance as Kyle. Cooper has proven himself to be one of Hollywood's most capable actors over the past few years and this is yet another impressive notch on his increasingly impressive resume. When the film takes those all too short breaks from the battlefield and lets Cooper sink his teeth into the character, American Sniper shows flashes of real potency. If the script allowed him a chance to properly convey the complexities of Kyle at length, the quality of this film would've skyrocketed. American Sniper is nothing but a massive missed opportunity that's completely unworthy of the accolades that are being bestowed upon it.

2/5 Stars

Monday, January 19, 2015

2014 NFL Recap: AFC North

My Preseason Predictions:
1.Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
2.Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
3.Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
4.Cleveland Browns (5-11)

Actual Standings:
1.Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
2.Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1)
3.Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
4.Cleveland Browns (7-9)

Baltimore Ravens: The Baltimore Ravens returned to form in 2014 after a disappointing 2013 campaign that saw them missing the playoffs for the first time in the Joe Flacco/John Harbaugh era. The Ravens continued their recent trend of being an offense-first football team and arguably had the best offense they've had in franchise history in 2014. Their success on offense can largely be attributed to their revamped offensive line. The combination of having guys like Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda return to lineup fully healthy and the introduction of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone blocking schemes transformed this unit from one of the worst in the league in 2013 to one of the best in 2014. The O-line excelled in both pass protection and run blocking which allowed Flacco to have the best season of his career and journeyman running back Justin Forsett to have an unexpected breakout season in his seventh year in the league. The offense was also bolstered by the addition of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith. Smith continues to prove he's an ageless freak by leading the team in receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,065) at age 35. Smith's playmaking ability and leadership was a godsend to a Ravens team that desperately needed more offensive weapons. Really the only glaring weakness with the Ravens this year was their secondary. Their loaded front seven made their secondary looked passable at times, but when they couldn't get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they got ruined. Aside from cornerback Jimmy Smith (who went down with a foot injury in early November) and safety Will Hill, there was no one in this secondary that played even passable football this season. Former first round pick Matt Elam continues to disappoint at strong safety and Lardarius Webb just isn't the same player he was before he tore his ACL in 2012. They're going to have to solve these secondary issues fast if want to they pick up another title because a lot of their impact players-especially on defense-only have a couple of great years left in them. 2014 could have been a tumultuous season in wake of the Ray Rice scandal, but their veteran leadership and excellent coaching was enough to overcome the off-field distractions and get this team back to the playoffs. If this offense can continue to play at a high level and they can fix the massive issues on the back end of their defense, the Ravens will rise back to the top of the AFC in 2015.

Cincinnati Bengals: Out of all the playoff teams in the NFL this season, no one was more erratic than the Cincinnati Bengals. In their 10 wins, they were mostly dominant and looked like a legitimate force of nature. In their 5 losses, they looked like a doormat (all of their losses were by at least 10 points) who was years away from making the playoffs, let alone contending for a Super Bowl. The Bengals' schizophrenic play as a team largely lies on the shoulders of quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has been in the league for four years and he still can't shake off any of the problems that have plagued him since his rookie year. For every game where he shows his stellar accuracy and shreds defenses for 300+ yards and multiple TD's, he has another where he throws multiple INT's and looks completely lost whenever he drops back to pass. In Dalton's defense, his top wideout A.J. Green wasn't healthy for approximately half of the season and reliable number three wideout Marvin Jones missed the entire season, which left him with extremely limited options in the passing game. Dalton is a serviceable quarterback who can consistently accumulate 10-11 wins in a season, but until he learns to step up under pressure and limit his turnovers, he won't be a true franchise quarterback. Things didn't go much better on the other side of the ball as the Bengals defense was pretty mediocre for much of the year. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins didn't bounce back well at all from the torn ACL that cut his 2013 season short, outside linebacker and run-stuffing specialist Vontaze Burfict missed 11 games with a variety of injuries, their secondary was passable but didn't scare anyone, and they struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, finishing with a league-low 20 sacks.  While the middling play of Atkins and absence of Burfict for much of the year are certainly at the root of the problem, it was pretty clear all season long that they missed former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Zimmer knew how to scheme well regardless of personnel and always had this defense in the top half of the league. New coordinator Paul Gunther just couldn't really make it work with the guys he had and it certainly held this team back when the offense wasn't clicking. The Bengals were dealt their fair share of bad luck this season, but one of the very few blessings they got this season was in the form of rookie running back Jeremy Hill. The drafting of Hill in the second round seemed a bit perplexing considering they just drafted Giovani Bernard a year ago, but Hill proved to be a great choice as he gave them a two-way power back they could lean on every week. The pairing of a bruising, durable runner in Hill with an elusive speed back who can shread defenses in the open field in Bernard gives the Bengals a good shot at having the single most lethal backfield in the league for years to come. The Bengals were once again the most polarizing good football team in the league and they're going to remain that way until they can stop falling into the same pitfalls that hold them back every single year.      

Cleveland Browns: The Browns looked to be well on their way to their second winning season since their return to the league in 1999 this year. Brian Hoyer was a solid albeit unspectacular quarterback who protected the ball, they had a legitimate running game for the first time since Jamal Lewis left the team and their defense was doing a relatively solid job of keeping points off the board. Their remarkably solid play left them with a 6-3 record after Week 10 and very much alive in the playoff hunt going into the stretch run. Then late November and December happened. The team lost seven of their last eight games-often in the ugliest fashion possible- and reverted back to the sloppy, laughing stock Browns the football world has come to know all too well in recent years. Hoyer became a turnover machine, their running game faded away and the defense started getting blown up on the regular. Not even the return of star wideout Josh Gordon from suspension in Week 12 could fix their offensive woes. Even with the turbulent finish to their season, you have to give the Browns some credit. First year head coach Mike Pettine was dealt a less than ideal hand that only got worse as the year went along ,and he still managed to make this team competitive for most of the season. This was an offense that was missing its two cornerstone pieces (Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron) from a year ago and were dealing with the offseason loss of numerous veteran difference makers on defense including inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and D'Qwell Jackson, and safety T.J. Ward. No one expected anything from them this season and while they still didn't fully deliver, Pettine and his staff can take pride in the fact that they picked up as many wins as they did with a team that was missing a number of its best players on both sides of the ball. Even with their overachieving for first half of the year, there's no denying the Browns do have some huge holes to fix if they want to keep this upward trend going. Their rush defense was dead-last in the league and was the only aspect of the team that wasn't affective at any point in 2014. Jackson and Dansby's help in the run game was desperately missed and their entire interior line was horrendous all year long. Finding some quality defensive tackles and inside linebackers should be at the top of their offseason priority list. And of course, you have the dilemma at quarterback. Hoyer is a free agent this season and even though he looked good at the start of the year, his collapse at the end of the season showed that he just doesn't have what it takes to start in this NFL. The problem for the Browns is that it looks like their 2014 first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel also lacks what it takes to be the starter. His two starts this season were absolutely painful to watch. He showed zero semblance of prowess or football IQ as he consistently made boneheaded throws into double/triple coverage on the run and looked painfully uncomfortable in any situation where he was forced to stay in the pocket and pass. Manziel's Tasmanian Devil, chicken running around with its head cut off style of play just doesn't translate well to the NFL. The Browns are pretty much forced to roll with him for at least a little bit moving forward since they spent a high draft pick on him, but unless he drastically changes who he is as a player and shows drastic growth in maturity off-the-field, he's going to have an incredibly hard time succeeding in this league. The Browns showed more signs of life in 2014, but the results were familiarly disappointing for the long-suffering fans in the Dog Pound. 

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers rose from the ashes and silenced their critics who said their days of greatness were behind them by finishing with their first winning record and playoff berth since 2011. The 2014 Steelers were defined by a massive resurgence on offense. Ben Roethlisberger led the charge with what was quite possibly the season of his career, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 32 TD's on the year. Roethlisberger had some struggles early in the year, but with the help of a much-improved offensive line and a suddenly formidable running game, he showed resilience and went onto help this team pick up 11 victories with his often dominant play. Helping Big Ben achieve his career year was the tandem of wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. Brown continued his rapid ascent to the top of the league's receiver ranks with another absurd 100+ catch season with a league-leading 1,698 yards and 13 TD's. If Brown still can get the respect he so rightfully deserves after this season, there's no justice in the football world. Meanwhile in the backfield, Bell had a breakout season in his second year in the league picking up an astonishing 2,215 all-purpose yards and 11 TD's on the year. As far as I'm concerned, Bell is the most complete running back to enter the league since Matt Forte. Offense may have ran the show for the Steelers this season, but head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau deserve a lot of credit for the way they put the defense together this season. The injury bug ran rampant through this team as starters Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Brett Kiesel, Steve McLendon and rookie Ryan Shazier all missed significant time, which forced a lot of career backups and inexperienced young guys into the starting lineup. Outside of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who had an All-Pro caliber season, they weren't an overly dominant unit, but they were pretty damn good (in fact, they were exceptionally good against the run) considering the revolving door of starters they had throughout the season. LeBeau's-who just resigned from the team last week- wizardry on defense is going to be sorely missed in the Steel City next season. The Steelers got back on track in 2014 and if they can stay healthy, they have a good shot of matching or possibly exceeding this productivity next year.