Real Deal (Football) Report: 2015 Season Recap

Happy New Year’s Eve everyone!  As 2015 winds to a close, it seems a fitting time to revisit our riveting 2015 RDFL season.  It was a tumultuous season of controversy and close calls, but which concluded with some of the best fantasy football this league has ever seen.  I have some crow that I’ve been slowcooking in my crockpot for just this occasion, and I also have some predictions to gloat about it.  It’s all here folks…

Finish Reading: Real Deal (Football) Report: 2015 Season Recap

But first, a huge congratulations to Pedro Canteiro and the Carolina Panthers on their epic 230-220 win over the Buffalo Bills to take home Super Bowl III.   The Panthers came on strong the second half of the season, posted three of the top 5 overall point totals, survived sending their two top RBs to the IR, and won the Super Bowl on a day when Cam Newton was not his best.  This Super Bowl was all about heroes, goats, and especially, injury replacements.  The Bills lost 22 PPG wide receiver to the Injured Reserve and replaced him with Lucky Whitehead.  Whitehead scored 2 points, didn’t catch a pass, and lost a fumble.  The Panthers lost both starting RBs LeGarrette Blount and Mark Ingram and were forced to Start Tim Hightower.  Hightower went off for 35 PPG including 169 offensive yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Game.  Set.  Match.  Right there.  Both teams lose a stud to injury.  One replacement scores 2.  The other scores 35.  And that’s all she wrote.  Just like how last year a Punter and Albert Wilson prompted the underdog Steelers to victory over the heavily favored Cowboys, Tim Hightower will go down in glory and Lucky Whitehead will become an unfortunate trivia question.

Ironically, for all the star power on both squads, only Hightower and Carolina TE Zach Ertz scored more than 20 points, making the game feel more like a slugfest than the high octane point period we were expecting.  That said, 220 points is nothing to scoff at – and definitely would have been in the top 10% of RDFL outputs this year.

End of the day, congratulations to Carolina on an outstanding season, pure resilience, consistency, and a couple beautiful performances just when it mattered most.  And to Buffalo, condolences, respect, and a thousand what-ifs.  What if AJ Green makes that catch?  What if Alshon Jeffery waits one more week to get injured?  What if Gronk got in the endzone, Jerry Hughes got that sack, or, above all, what if Jacksonville played defense?  It’s a weird game, fantasy football, and both teams should be commended for outstanding seasons.

Seasonal Themes: A few themes regarding this year

Scoring is up:  Ten teams scored 3155 points or more this year (followed by a 200 point drop to #11).  They were, in order, Buffalo, Kansas City, Carolina, NYG, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Oakland, Arizona, and Tampa Bay.  That means 10 of the 12 playoff teams averaged ~200 PPG over the course of the season.  That’s the magic number to shoot for, folks.  Over the course of RDFL, no team has scored over 3000 fantasy points and missed the playoffs.  That said, scoring was up this year as we get better and better at building effective teams.

Balance in All Things: Below are the top ten offensive and defensive teams :

Top Ten Offense: NYG, Det, Car, KC, Buff, Cle, Pitt, Oak, NO, GB

Top Ten Defense: Buff, Car, Ari, KC, Ind, NO, Pitt, Det, NYG, TB

Teams in Both: NYG, Det, Buff, Car, KC, NO, Pit

Ironically, of those 7 teams, 6 of them were in the divisional round and all four of the conference championship teams came from their number.  To win in RDFL a team must have both a good offense and a good defense.  Carolina and Buffalo were both top 5 in offense and 1-2 in defense.

The Passing Game: Of the top 20 highest scoring players, 10 were QBs, 9 were WRs, and only 1 was a RB (Devonta Freeman).  The highest scoring defensive player was #29 – and get this – Safety Reshad Jones, who posted an 18.33 PPG average for the NYG, outscoring the likes of Jeremy Maclin, Calvin Johnson, and Greg Olsen.  Mercy.

Injured Reserve (RDFL Starters Only): Mark Ingram, Keenan Allen, Tyrann Mathieu, Alshon Jeffery, Joe Flacco, Barry Church, Steve Smith, Thomas Rawls, Jimmy Graham, Charles Clay, Robert Woods, Justin Forsett, Eric Weddle, Martellus Bennett, LeVeon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Nolan Carroll, Vincent Jackson, Dion Lewis, Koa Misi, Jordan Hicks, Colin Kaepernick, Ladarius Green, Chris Johnson, Stephon Gilmore, Corey Liuget, Melvin Gordon, Crockett Gilmore, Jamaal Charles, TJ McDonald, CJ Spiller, Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, David Bruton, Marquess Wilson, Carlos Hyde, Clinton McDonald, William Moore, Robert Quinn, Arian Foster, Paul Soliai, Larry Donnell, Antoine Bethea, Alec Ogletree, Matt Bryant, Brandon Flowers, Andrew Hawkins, Derrick Morgan, Rashean Mathis, Nick Folk, Percy Harvin, Justin Hunter, Antrel Rolle, Cameron Wake, Justin Tuck, Kyle Williams, Joe Haden, Dwayne Allen, Akeem Spence, LaMarr Woodley, Jason McCourty, Nate Allen, Jon Beason, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Cody Parkey, Keenan Lewis, Philip Gaines, Reggie Bush, Marquise Goodwin, Ego Ferguson, Paul Richardson, Sam Barrington, Will Smith, Jace Amaro, Kelvin Benjamin, Victor Cruz, Louis Delmas, Matt Elam, Dante Fowler, Jaiquan Jarrett, Arthur Jones, Akeem Jordan, Cameron Lawrence, DeAndre Levy, Ryan Mundy, Jordy Nelson, Niles Paul, Breshad Perriman, Dennis Pitta, Orlando Scandrick, Shaun Suisham, Kevin White, Jarius Winn.

Ninety-three RDFL starters ended the year on IR.  Some big names.  And that’s not counting nagging injuries, guys who were out for a number of weeks who returned, and backup or spot starters who also went out.  It’s safe to assume that you will lose ~3 of your starting 20 players FOR THE YEAR each year, and an additional handful for significant periods of time.  Depth matters.

Changing of the Guard: This year saw the decline of a number of perennial powers from the first two years, as Seattle, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Green Bay, Dallas, Philadelphia and Denver all missed the playoffs this year.  In their places, we saw new and fresh places in the playoff landscape, such as Tampa Bay, Carolina, Oakland, Tennessee, and Arizona – with Chicago making a concerted push as well.
Crockpot Crow: 

Cleveland Browns – I picked them to finish last in their division with a 7-9 record.  Instead, they made the playoffs with a 9-7 record and finished 11th in total points.  I wrote “In a year when most secondaries are going to generate a good 40 points plus per week, the Browns are going to be at a 10-15 point secondary disadvantage in most games this year.”  And while the safeties were pretty terrible, CBs Bene Benwikere and Antwon Blake both averaged double figures even after Joe Haden went down for the year.  The Browns also hit gold in QB Blake Bortles and got standout surprise performances from Michael Crabtree and Gary Barnidge.

Detroit Lions – I picked them to finish 10-6, lose the division to GB, and maybe get a wild card.  Instead, they finished 13-3, won the division by two games, and advanced to the NFC title game where they scored 271 points in a loss.  I wrote “But beyond that, it’s question mark city.  Ameer Abdullah,  Josh Hill, Tre Mason, Brandin Cooks, Tyler Lockett, Todd Gurley, Phillip Dorsett…” and “But after that – the list of young question marks starts: Stephon Tuitt, Ego Ferguson, Tahir Whitehead, Kyle Van Noy, John Jenkins, LaMarcus Joyner…”  Well, those questions were effectively answered.  Gurley, Lockett, Abdullah and Cooks all put up huge numbers this season on offense and Tuitt, Joyner, and young Ronald Darby answered the bell on defense.  At least Van Noy stunk.  It was an outstanding season from the Lions, who finished with RDFL’s second most potent offense on the back of those question marks.

Chicago Bears – I picked them to finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs.  Instead they finished 11-5 and barely missed the playoffs.  Tough luck for the Bears, who nevertheless looked much better than I thought.  I wrote “Look, I think the Bears are where they have always been – close enough on paper for Green Bay and Detroit to pay them heed and worry a little bit.  But I think they suffer the same fate they always have – the Jay Cutler will dismantle them in the end – just as the Donald will end up being passed by Jeb Bush or somebody.  I’m telling you.  They have to be family.”  So I totally screwed up the Jeb Bush part.  But let’s give credit – Cutler, Forte, Marshall and Martavis Bryant were all outstanding, and the Bears offensively way outplayed my expectations.

New York Giants – I picked them to finish 9-7, 3rd in the NFC East behind both Dallas and Philly, and to miss the playoffs.  I wrote: “On defense, though… mediocrity.  Not a single defender is projected to score 12 or more points per game, and only 4 guys on the squad are projected into double digits, compared to just about everybody on the Eagles defensive roster.  Sure, guys like Christian Kirksey, Kawann Short, and Brock Vereen could surprise – but honestly, it’s just as likely Prince Amukamura and Jerod Mayo get hurt, or Shamarko Thomas’ production doesn’t materialize.  I think this offense is the best in RDFL.  But I think this defense is decidedly mediocre.  And in a division with the Cowboys and Eagles, I don’t think mediocre gets it done – though a wild card birth is definitely possible if things break right.”

The defense was #9 in the league.  Kawann Short scored 15.1 PPG, Reshad Jones was the best defensive player in RDFL, and Carlos Dunlap, Pacman Jones, Prince Amukamura, and Trumaine Johnson all averaged more than 13 points per game.  And the Eagles and Cowboys both crashed and burned as the Giants cruised to a league best 14-2.  Whoops.

Carolina Panthers – The ULTIMATE in crow.  I picked them to finish 5-11 and dead last in the NFC South.  I assigned only two teams worse predicted records than I did the Panthers.  Carolina won the Super Bowl, finished 4th in Fantasy Points scored, and had the best defense in the entire league.  On their way, they had three of the highest point performances.  How did I get this SO WRONG?  I wrote “Unfortunately, this team lacks both the superstars and the star depth to keep it competitive.  After Cam and Kuech, not a single player is projected to average 13 or more PPG, and only 4 other guys on the active roster are projected to reach double digits.  Zach Ertz is potentially hurt, Marcell Dareus and Greg Hardy start the season suspended, and Robert Woods is unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of opponents.”

Basically, I thought that since this team wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t good.  Dead.  Wrong.  This team was never sexy.  It never had much star power beyond Cam.  What it did have was an absolute cavalcade of very good non-stars averaging between 10-12 per game who showed up to work week in and week out and occasionally dominated.  I wasn’t wrong because they developed stars – I was wrong because all the role players played just a few points better than they expected to, and because guys like Mark Ingram, Willie Snead, and Super Bowl hero Timmy Hightower came out of nowhere to have great seasons and great games – just when Carolina needed them.

 

 

Bragging!

Enough of such things.  What did I actually get right?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  I correctly predicted that Tampa Bay would win the NFC South, Tennessee would win the AFC South, and Arizona would win the AFC West – all surprising changing of the guard picks.  I nailed Buffalo and Pittsburgh repeating as AFC divisional champions, and guessed right on Oakland, Detroit and New Orleans as playoff teams.  I also hit on the Jets, Bengals, Vikings, and Jaguars struggling, and hit perfectly on the order of several divisions.  So not great.  But not all bad either.

 

Coach of Year: AJ Sisneros, Buffalo Bills – created an absolute juggernaut and pulled the trigger on blockbuster trades late in the season to set his team up perfectly.  A masterwork, ruined only by those meddling kids Alshon Jeffery, Lucky Whitehead, Tim Hightower, and Zach Ertz.

Runners Up: Pedro Canteiro, Carolina Panthers and Matt Minelli, Green Bay Packers.  Canteiro won the whole thing behind building a strong defense and some nice substitutions at the end.  Minelli made trade after trade to keep his team competitive and afloat after literally everyone on his team got injured, from Jordy Nelson to Tony Romo to the stinkin’ trainer.

Season MVP: Antonio Brown, New York Giants.

Defensive MVP: Reshad Jones, New York Giants (it’s a SWEEP!)

Runner up MVP: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (was dying to put DeAndre Hopkins for a true Giants sweep, but couldn’t do it.

Teams not mentioned much here who should be REALLY excited about next year: Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans

Congratulations on another awesome year everyone, and particularly to our Super Bowl Champion Carolina Panthers!!  I’ll be back in the off-season!

Real Deal (Football) Report: Super Bowl Preview

We’re here again!  The Super Bowl.  And what a doozy it is shaping up to be.  I don’t think there are enough superlatives to talk about the performances that Carolina and Buffalo put up to get here.  This game is going to be absolutely epic!  So let’s get to the previews (made slightly late by the depredations of Santa Claus and that neo-pagan ritual of Christmas!)

But before we do, a quick look back to the previous years!

Finish Reading: Real Deal (Football) Report: Super Bowl Preview

2013: Green Bay Packers over Indianapolis Colts

2014: Pittsburgh Steelers over Dallas Cowboys

2015: Buffalo Bills versus Carolina Panthers

 

Divisional Championship Recap:

Good.  Lord.  Guys, I don’t think you realize quite how legendary this week was.   Carolina’s 309 points is the highest score this year in RDFL.  It is only the fourth 300+ point game in RDFL history and only the second one this year.  Note the top five scoring games of this season below.  See a common theme emerging?

#1 Carolina 309 (Division Championship)

#2 Kansas City 304 (Week 2)

#3 Carolina 294 (Week 3)

#4 Buffalo 284 (Division Championship)

#5 Carolina 281 (Week 8)

 

Detroit, on the other hand, scored 271 points and finished in the TOP TEN point totals in all of RDFL this year.  Yes, that’s right, the Division Championship round featured three of the top ten point outputs in the entire year.

Also for comparison, before this week, there was ONE game this entire year where the two teams combined for 500+ points (Carolina 281, Indy 222, week 8) – total points, 503.  Totals for the two divisional games:

Carolina 309, Detroit 271: Total points 580

Buffalo 284, Kansas City 223: Total points 507

Yes, that’s right.  The two division championship games happen to be the two single highest scoring games of the ENTIRE SEASON.  #1 and #2. Carolina and Detroit had the highest scoring joint output of the entire season.  By SEVENTY-THREE points.

Due to the scoring changes implemented after last year, I don’t have historical point totals or even standings available to me for previous years, but I am 99% certain that this is the highest combined scoring game in the history of our league – by a wide margin.  I am also confident that Detroit has the highest score ever in a loss – again by a wide margin.  The game in and of itself is noteworthy.  For it to be a divisional championship is INSANE.  For the OTHER divisional championship game to be historic in and of itself is crazier.  This wasn’t just an epic game or week, this was standard deviations above the normal historical, and something I don’t think we’ll see again for years, if we ever do.

Take a moment to appreciate it, folks.  This was special.

Carolina Panthers 309, Detroit Lions 271:  So how did it happen?  Well, twenty-seven of the forty players playing scored in double figures, so it is really hard to figure out how to discuss this game.  Detroit’s team wins almost any other game this year.  So we can’t just look at mediocre performances.  They didn’t exist.  Instead, we look for performances that were merely good, or merely exceptional.  And the place we have to look is Detroit’s defense.  Both offenses were nuts.  Carolina scored 144 between 47 from Cam himself, while Detroit paced that with 141 behind 37 from Brandin Cooks and 27 from Tyler Locket and Ameer Abdullah.  But Detroit’s defense only put up a very strong 119, while the Panthers unloaded with 147 points.  Even there, it is difficult to pick out true areas of difference – incremental points across the board.  Seven players in double figures for Carolina versus six for Detroit.  Two players in the 20s (Luke Kuechly and DeMarcus Lawrence) for Carolina versus just one for Detroit (Jaime Collins).  Three players with three points or less for Detroit vs. only 1 for Carolina.  This was two excellent teams duking it out – with one just being a little bit more dominant on defense and special teams.

Buffalo Bills 284, Kansas City Chiefs 223:  Speaking of a defensive horsewhipping, this was an absolutely historic performance by the Bills defense.  Possibly the best defensive performance in the history of RDFL.  The Bills big name offense actually struggled a bit, putting up only 93 points (compared to 110 by KC), but the Bills dominated the defensive side of the game 163-90 to post a historically good score and make sure the game wasn’t ever really in doubt.  Led by 30 points from Deone Buccanon, the Bills also got 20 spots from Aaron Donald and Navarro Bowman, 18s from Brandon Marshall and Mike Adams, and not a single player below 7.  By contrast, the Chiefs managed only 3 players in double figures and nobody above 17.5.  This is worth appreciating about Buffalo – for all the big name trades GM AJ Sisneros has pulled off for offensive players like Gronk, AJ Green, Alshon Jeffery and AP, this team has built it’s league-high point totals and championship run on defense.  In its two playoff wins, Buffalo’s defense has combined for 311 points (163+148).  In that span, Carolina has the second best defensive at 272 (147+125).  A lesson for the team builders out there – offensive names are flashy, but THIS is how you create consistent, historic teams – with defense.

On to the Super Bowl!

Quarterback:  Cam Newton Vs. Tyrod Taylor

Tyrod Taylor has been a huge find for the Bills this year, and has put up very nice QB numbers (~20 points per game).  He’s a big reason the Bills are where they are.  But Cam has been special.  He’s scored 345 points, averages 25 per game, and is 2nd in total points behind only Tom Brady.  And after 47 in the divisional championships, he’s playing some of the best ball of his life.

Advantage: Carolina – and it’s not close.

Running Backs: Tim Hightower and Cameron Artis-Payne vs. Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman.  

Seriously?  One of the things that makes Carolina’s greatness all the more impressive is a quick look at their IR, wherein live LeGarrette Blount, Mark Ingram, and Steve Smith.  The Panthers are definitely hurting at RB, while Buffalo’s big late-season trade brought in some serious players at RB.  This looks like (and is) an egregious no contest.  Still, last week’s dud by AP (only 6 points) meant that Buffalo won the RB edge by only 13 points.  They need a much wider victory than that to win the week, as this is likely their greatest advantage – the ground game.  Time for AP to shine.

Advantage: Buffalo (by the combined philosophical amount of Scott Norwood’s misses – a lot)

Wide Receivers: AJ Green, Alshon Jeffery, and TJ Jones vs. Brandon LaFell and Willie Snead

Not the sort of wide receiving corps you expect to see from historically great teams, eh?  AJ and Alshon are clearly the names that stand out here, and they have been as good as advertised, finishing 10th and 14th among WRs from a PPG perspective.  TJ Jones, on the other hand, has been as bad as expected.  Buffalo has really needed just that one more guy to round out the offense, and TJ will go down as the irrelevant footnote of trivia (who was the “other” WR on that legendary Bills team of 2015?).  On the other hand, Carolina’s receivers have been solid but unsung.  Willie Snead has quietly emerged as a top 40 WR, and well, yeah, Brandon LaFell is just kinda meh.  Can’t really make a case for him.

Advantage: Buffalo

Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski vs. Greg Olsen and Zach Ertz

Very strong positional group here.  In fact, Gronk and Olsen are the top two scorers at TE this year, with Ertz back at 13.  While Gronk gets all the accolades, Greg Olsen has quietly and consistently stayed very close to him (271 vs. 253) total points for the year.  Gronk’s games missed makes the PPG difference significant (21 vs. 18).  Ertz has played well in both playoff games after a relatively mediocre regular season, but isn’t in the same league.

Advantage: Tie (Gronk is a little better than Olsen, but it’s close, and Ertz makes up the difference

Defensive Line: Jerry Hughes, Jason Pierre-Paul and Aaron Donald vs. Greg Hardy, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Marcell Dareus

Two strong positional groups here, with every one of the six players averaging in double figures (this will be a common refrain as we go through the defensive groupings).  The difference here is Aaron Donald, who has been an absolutely MAN all year, as evidenced by his 20 point outburst in the playoffs.  His 17 PPG makes him the best DT in the league by three full points over Kawann short and a full six points better than Dareus, a solid DT in his own right.

Advantage: Buffalo

Linebackers: Navarro Bowman, Khalil Mack, Brandon Marshall and Dannell Ellerbe vs. Melvin Ingram, Luke Kuechly and Alex Okafor

An interesting setup here.  Luke Kuechly leads the league at LB (and DP overall) with his 19.3 PPG and is an absolute monster, tackling everything that moves.  Melvin Ingram is also a strong linebacker, though Alex Okafor is definitely a weak link as we range across two probowl defenses.  On the other end, Navorro Bowman has been averaging 15 ppg all year, Khalil Mack has averaged 16 ppg (higher if you throw out his first two starts of the year), and both Marshall and Ellerbe are excellent double digit linebackers.

Advantage: Buffalo (Kuechly’s dominance cancels out Mack and Bowman, but Ellerbe and Marshall hold a significant edge over Ingram and Okafor).

Secondary: Ricardo Allen, Leodis McKelvin, Deone Buccanon and Mike Adams vs. Patrick Peterson, Jason Verrett, Will Allen, Kurt Coleman, and Jerraud Powers

Both of these teams rely heavily on their safety play to bolster Cornerback Groups that are surprisingly mediocre for those defenses.  None of the 5 CBs (Allen, McKelvin, Peterson, Verrett and Powers) have reached double figure averages for the year, but all four of the safeties have.  Kurt Coleman and Will Allen have played surprisingly well for relatively unsung safeties, combined for 23 PPG, but it’s been Buffalo’s duo of Buccanon and Mike Adams who have provided a powerful old/young punch.  Both average over 14ppg and Adams has 5 picks while Buccanon is about to go over 100 tackles for the year.

Advantage: Buffalo

Special Teams: Steven Gostkowski and Jordan Berry vs. Chris Boswell and Brad Nortman

Remember when Josh Scobee was missing everything for the Steelers early this year?  Chris Boswell was the eventual solution, and what a solution he has been, making almost everything and making this a high profile kicking game.  The #1 and #2 kickers in RDFL from a PPG perspective?  You guessed it – Gostkowski and Boswell at 11ppg each.  The punters are a bit more nondescript, both finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack.  But even in the Special Teams part of the game, both of these two teams have been excellent.

Advantage: Tie

Overall Verdict: Carolina has been a silly good team.  Silly good.  They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, an outstanding well-rounded defensive, strong special teams, strong TE play, and an admirable consistency that makes the Panthers a historically good RDFL team.  They one three out of the top five scoring periods this year (including the highest), and have demonstrated that they have a VERY high floor and an even higher ceiling.  Even major injuries to key players don’t seem to be able to slow them down.  There’s every reason to believe that the Panthers have what it takes to hoist the RDFL Lombardi Trophy.

But this Buffalo team is arguably the best team in RDFL history.  They have held a wire to wire advantage in fantasy points scored all year long, they have the best defense in the league and, in all likelihood, in the history of the league, and their big name offense has not even really played to its potential yet.  Every positional group is outstanding and has serious star power, right down to the kicker.  Going through the position groups and looking player by player, it is very hard to find an area outside of QB where Buffalo doesn’t at least hold its own, and in most cases has a serious advantage – hard to do when compared to a team of Carolina’s caliber!

Carolina has thrived in the underdog role all year, and definitely has the chops to pull it off.  But on paper, there’s no way to look at this game and not see the Buffalo Bills as the favorites to bring home their first RDFL Super Bowl.

Prediction: Buffalo Bills 244, Carolina Panthers 227

Real Deal (Football) Report: Divisional Recap and Championship Preview

And then there were four.

Not a particularly competitive divisional round, as every game was decided by at least 28 points.  But a week of excellent fantasy football, as every team but one broke the 200 point barrier, and the sole exception scored 194.  Every winning team scored at least 228 points, and every team is projected to score over 200 points in the divisional championship round.

Finish Reading: Real Deal (Football) Report: Divisional Recap and Championship Preview

Divisional Recaps:

Detroit Lions 237, Arizona Cardinals 209: Despite a strong Thursday night start by Michael Floyd (25 points) for Arizona , this game came down to Detroit’s offensive firepower.  Both teams scored 108 points on defense and were within 5 of each other on special teams, but Detroit outscored Arizona on offense by 30.  It was the youth movement too, with Todd Gurley justifying his first overall selection by coming up big in the playoffs with 32 points, and Tyler Lockett joining him for a 30 spot.  Arizona, on the other hand, was let down by its offensive big names, with Matt Ryan and CJ Spiller producing only 4 points apiece, and Richard Rodgers crashing back to earth after his Wild Card Hail Mary catch.  The Cardinals had a memorable and dominant run through the NFC West and as large a turn around from one year to the next as we’ve ever seen in RDFL, but underperformance by big players down the stretch doomed the Cardinals against the Detroit powerhouse.

Carolina Panthers 246, New York Giants 209: No Mark Ingram?  No problem for the Carolina Panthers who posted the second highest score of the week and nearly broke 250 against the Giants.  Cam and Willie Mays Snead both broke 20 points for the Panthers, but it was really a defensive and special teams story.  Chris Boswell posted 18 points for Carolina and 7 defenders scored in double digits (though not one scored more than 20) as the Panthers posted 126 defensive points.  Once again, the Panthers posted the sort of sustainable, workmanlike dominance that has kept them under the radar all season – not a single player scored more than 24 points, though 14/20 active players scored nine or more.  The Giants got a great game from Eli Manning (31) and a couple of standout defensive performances from Kawann Short (2 forced fumbles, a recovery and 3 sacks) and Trumaine Johnson (Pick six) to keep it respectable.  However, I wrote that the game would came down to whether Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins played like stars – and they did not – combining for a respectable but not worldbeating 28 points.  A disappointing finish for the Giants, who were the NFC’s dominant juggernaut for most of the year, but faded a little down the stretch.

Buffalo Bills 277, Oakland Raiders 204: Enter the team that has taken the mantle of juggernaut and Super Bowl favorite from the Giants – the Buffalo Bills.  Mercy.  Strong games from the Bills’ offensive stalwarts, with AJ Green and Alshon Jeffery combining for 58 parts on the way to 114 offensive points (if Antonio and DeAndre equal that, the Giants win), but it was the Mack Attack and the rest of the Bills defense that made this game such a blowout.  Mack led all defensive scorers with 32 points, but nobody else on the team scored less than six points as the Bills came very close to breaking the 150 point defensive barrier – a bit like Mach 3 in Real Deal.  This game was never really very close for all that Oakland played well behind a resurgent Eddie Lacy (24) and a sometimes dominant Lamarr Houston.  The Bills advance to the AFC Championship game with the well deserved favorite label, while the Raiders move to the off-season encouraged by their first RDFL playoff appearance and looking to add more offensive pieces to mount a true challenge next season.

Kansas City Chiefs 228, Pittsburgh Steelers 194: And down go the defending champions, in what had to be an extremely frustrating game for the Steelers, who simply had a collective bad game all at once.  It was reminiscent of the Steelers mid-season losing streak, where, for whatever reason, the whole team simply underachieved as a unit.  You kept waiting for the trademark Pittsburgh explosion… and it just never came.  By the time Jarvis Landry finally blew up for 33 points on Monday night, it was too little too late.  Big Ben scored just 9 points, only one defensive player scored over 11, and the daunting Steel Curtain defense didn’t break 100.  This team will be great again next year with the return of Le’Veon Bell and (hopefully) a full year of healthy Roethlisberger.  But this wasn’t the way they wanted their title defense to end.  For Kansas City, the Chiefs got huge games out of Jordan Reed (33) and D’Qwell Jackson (26) which covered up otherwise middling offensive and defensive performance.  The Chiefs, one of only two teams in RDFL (New Orleans is the other) to make the playoffs in every year of the league’s existence, face the Buffalo juggernaut as their reward.

Championship Game Predictions: I’m 7-1 so far, so trust me on what I’m about to say next…

Carolina Panthers over Detroit Lions: Why do I do it?  Every week I write about how impressive the Panthers have been.  Every week I note that they have flown under the radar due to a slow start to the season, a lack of flashy players, and owner Pedro Canteiro’s soft spoken style.  And every week I’m lulled to sleep by it myself and pick against them.  Not again.  Carolina has scored the most fantasy points in the NFC, ranks 3rd overall in RDFL in total offense and second overall in total defense.  They have 16 players who average double digit points per game (and that is not including anyone on IR), and Cam Newton is capable of dropping a 40 spot on any given night.  The Panthers have had some rough luck at RB with Ingram and Blount going down on consecutive weeks, and the roster looks nowhere near as good as Detroit’s when you just consider the eye test – but this is a solid football team that will quietly put up 240 again.  A machine.

Detroit, on the other hand, is a wildcard of variability.  Todd Gurley can throw down 32 as he did last week against the Cardinals.  Or he can score 4.  The Matt Stafford to Calvin Johnson can produce 3 or 4 touchdown passes in a given week – or it can look like it did early in the season when the Lions were scuffling.  Tyler Lockett (30 or bust).  Zach Miller.  Ameer Abdullah.  Brandin Cooks.  The offense has a MASSIVE range of true outcomes on any given week.  The defense is vastly more stable, largely because few of Detroit’s defenders rely on the big play for their stats and points.  The Detroit defense is a tackling, pass-defending machine – but is only 10th overall on defense, well back of the Panthers.

Carolina wins if: Cam Newton has an enormous game, they get a serviceable performance from spot starting RB Tim Hightower, and/or the rest of the team can continue its inexorable consistency.

Detroit wins if: The offense blows up the way it is capable of doing.

 

Buffalo Bills over Kansas City Chiefs: I just keep looking at Buffalo’s roster and I just keep reciting the names on offense.  Tyrod Taylor, followed by AJ Green, Alshon Jeffery, Adrian Peterson, Rob Gronkowski and Devonta Freeman.  That is insane.  That’s a championship team in a standard ten team league.  In the 32 team Real Deal format, it is so far beyond absurd that it is barely comprehensible.  The Bills just posted 277 points in one of the best playoff performances ever (if not the best ever) and only got 114 from THAT group.  They got 147 from their defense.  It could be said that offensive group under-performed and they STILL hit 277.   The Bills are #1 in overall fantasy points (which they did WITHOUT Freeman and AP for most of the year) and #1 in overall defense by a wide margin.  They haven’t lost since week 4 (NYG) and haven’t come particularly close to doing so either.  Gronk is getting healthier by the day, and this team just has that look about it…

Kansas City has played second fiddle to the Bills throughout the season – much like one of those younger Gronkowski brothers who played in the NFL for half a second but whose first name you have totally forgotten right now.  Second in total RDFL fantasy points.  Second seed in the AFC.  Only loss since week #2 directly to Buffalo.  The Chiefs have a strong team on both offense and defense, but have enough holes (particularly in the running game, where Frank Gore and Gio Bernard are not Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman) that this one should not be terribly close.  Buffalo continues to play Mario, Kansas City stays as Luigi – and tries not to end up as Toad.

Buffalo Wins If: Yeah.  Not if.  We’ll just change this to Buffalo wins.

Kansas City Wins If: Buffalo forfeits.  Tavon Austin returns multiple kickoffs for touchdowns and Buffalo experiences Oakland Raider syndrome, with multiple in game injuries.

Good luck to everyone still in it!

Real Deal (Report): Wildcard Summary and Divisional Predictions

What a comeback.  What a finish.  At least I think it is finished.  It’s over, right?

In the best playoff game we’ve seen in this league in some time, maybe ever, the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints put on a show for the ages.  After Sunday night’s games, it looked to be New Orleans’ game, in control 231-190.  But Arizona put on a never say die comeback behind 16 points from Barry Church and 18 behind Chris Baker to eke out a 237-236 victory over the New Orleans Saints that was literally not  confirmed until midnight Wednesday when stat corrections locked.  Mercy.

To the recaps!

Finish Reading: Real Deal (Report): Wildcard Summary and Divisional Predictions

Arizona Cardinals 237, New Orleans Saints 236: Game of the week.  Game of the year.  Game of the playoffs.  Whatever you want to call it, this game had absolutely everything.  Both teams scored over 100 points on both offense and defense, both teams got a goose egg from a top defensive contributor (Calais Campbell and Anthony Barr), and both teams got a huge game on offense from an unsung hero (Darren Sproles and Richard Rodgers).  This game also had more swings than a barrel of monkeys.  It looks to be all ‘Zona after Richard Rodgers’ massive hail mary catch and 36 point game.  But then New Orleans stormed back behind Sproles 31 points and Malcolm Jenkins 99 yard pick six of Tom Brady on Sunday afternoon, putting them solidly in control of the game.  Arizona kept pace with 8/11 defensive players scoring in double digits and a big 21 point game from Malcolm Floyd.  But things still looked doubtful for the Cardinals until those big Monday night games gave them the win by the narrowest of margins.  Phew.

Carolina Panthers 262, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 192: It’s really hard to beat a really good team like Carolina three times.  Especially when they mad about it, and determined to show the world that they ain’t no Wild Card team.  Tampa Bay played fine (192 is nothing to scoff at), but this was all about Carolina showing up and posting the best score of any playoff team.  Cam’s 40 was a huge performance, and Olsen’s 27 were nice, but every other performance was repeatable and sustainable.  This was not a fluke.  It was a well-balanced offensive and defensive showing and a rather systemic elimination of a league rival.  Sustainable.  For Tampa Bay, it was not even Gabbert’s fault, as the 9ers QB threw for 25 fantasy points.  Instead, it was enough zeros and threes and really low scores to keep them from being competitive.  Outstanding year.  But Carolina’s a juggernaut.

Pittsburgh Steelers 218, Cleveland Browns 182: Another game with multiple twists and turns, this game featured some pretty spectactular QB play on both sides.  The apparently invincible Ben Roethlisberger was on the field and chucking it everywhere on his way to 38 points.  Not to be outdone, though, Blake Bortles was just as impressive with a 36 point afternoon.  Pittsburgh’s running game was… hehehe “On fleek” against the Browns, with 28 from D-Willy and 23 from TJ Yeldon.  Le’Veon who?  But Cleveland also got nice games from their receiving core of Crabtree, Evans, and Jones.  At the end of the day, though, it was a defensive meltdown for the Browns who managed only 58 defensive points and saw only one guy hit double figures, compared to 94 for the Steelers.  A nice season for Cleveland that had the chance to go farther – and another game closer to defending the title for the Steelers.

Oakland Raiders 187, Tennessee Titans 159:  A workmanlike, unremarkable performance from the Raiders proved to be enough to overcome the fighting Odell Beckhams of Tennessee.  Carson Palmer chipped in 27 and they got enough decent outings from their supporting cast to win.  By contrast, the Titans got 35 from Odell and 23 from Stephone Anthony – but almost nothing from anyone else.  An unpredictable team this year, the Titans move to the off-season much as they entered the season – chalk full of young talent and just waiting for enough of it to crystallize to make a run.  Time to build on the post-season appearance.  For Oakland, the Raiders now advance to face the herculean task of slowing down Buffalo’s juggernaut.

Divisional Predictions:

New York Giants over Carolina Panthers: Ok, so I feel honor bound to stick with my original pick of the Giants in this game, but I am no longer anywhere near certain of that.  Despite a couple dips at the end of the regular season, Carolina looks to be in fine form and more than capable of putting up something in the mid-200s week in and week out.  The Giants, on the other hand, haven’t broken 200 since week 10 and appear to be scuffling a little bit.  They are still the #1 seed in the NFC and have the best record in RDFL for a reason – but they need that reason to show up this weekend.  The problem for New York has been a downtick in their defensive production, and I’m not sure I see that changing.  Antonio Brown can go off for 100 on any given night, and DeAndre Hopkins is in the same boat, but beyond that the Giants have a number of question marks.  The Panthers have a lot fewer question marks and appear more consistent, but the loss of Mark Ingram hurts big time and they simply don’t have the star power besides Cam to match NYG.  To me, this game is simple.  If Hopkins and Brown have huge games, the Giants advance.  If they don’t, it’s the Panthers.

Detroit Lions over Arizona Cardinals: It’s all chalk in the NFC.  Arizona put on an outstanding show to survive New Orleans, but needed a lot of players to go well above their seasonal averages to get it done.  Take away Richard Rodgers and his improbable hail mary and this team looks a lot more beatable (though, one could argue that JJ Watt might just pick up some of that slack)!  To me, though, the question marks in this game are less about Arizona and more about Detroit.  Todd Gurley.  Calvin Johnson.  Matthew Stafford.  Brandin Cooks.  If those guys go off, Detroit should win.  But all of them have had curiously down weeks at times, including a 4 point effort from Gurley in week 13 on Detroit’s bye.  We’ll see.  I think the stars come out to play just fine for Detroit this week, and that Arizona comes back to earth after an emotional victory.  But would I shocked to see it go the other way?  Nope.

Buffalo Bills over Oakland Raiders: Every year in college basketball, announcers start the year talking about how “there is no great team this year.”  Then, come March, somebody death marches through the NCAA tournament, takes the crown, and suddenly there is a great team.  I tend to think that team in RDFL this year is Buffalo.  While not always blowing people out flashily like Carolina, NYG, or even Detroit, the Bills have systematically made the 200 point marker their floor, quietly blown all comers away, and traded for Adrian Peterson coming down the stretch.  The Bills are starting Tyrod Taylor, Adrian Peterson, AJ Green, Devonta Freeman, Rob Gronkowski, Alshon Jeffery, and Kenbrell Thompkins (which one of these is not like the others?!) against Carson Palmer, Late Eddie Lacy, Old James Jones, Hit or Miss Jordan Matthews, young Davante Adams, Ben “Elementary my Dear” Watson, and Brandon No Nickname Coleman.  That second lineup isn’t bad.  But it’s a bit like the JV team vs. the pros.  It’s been a tough, resilient year for the Raiders, who have overcome a lot of adversity to make a playoff run and reach this spot.  But this game goes to the Bills.  And it’s not going to be close.

Pittsburgh Steelers over Kansas City Chiefs: Same as it ever was in the AFC.  The truth is that these two teams are pretty evenly matched.  But Pittsburgh has recovered from its slump, found its stride, and has a healthy starting QB and a healthy, productive running back tandem doing serious damage.  They also lost their regular season matchup to the Chiefs and are hungry for revenge.  On the flip side, the Chiefs face the game with a slumping Pierre Garcon and potentially without both defensive leader Justin Houston and cornerback William Gay – and may be forced to start a 2-3 point CB in a divisional matchup.  These two teams are evenly matched – but all the intangibles point to a Pittsburgh explosion – and a Pittsburgh / Buffalo rematch in the AFC title game – though, of course, maybe I’m just writing that to give my guys bulletin board material…

Good luck to all those still in it, and congratulations on a great season to New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Cleveland.

Real Deal (Football) Report: Week 12 Recap and Playoff Predictions

This week, at the conclusion of the regular season, we take this time to honor three teams.  Three teams who deserved to be in the playoffs, but to whom we must now bid adieu.

The Chicago Bears finished the season 11-5 and ended the season on an eight game winning streak.  They did everything within their power to decide their fate – including a 220 point week 12 performance and wins over both Tampa Bay and Green Bay.  They traded for Ronnie Hillman down the stretch to bolster their chances and finished with the 10th best record in RDFL, second in the NFC North.  However, the Bears miss the playoffs on a points tie-breaker to the equally scorching New Orleans Saints.

Finish Reading: Real Deal (Football) Report: Week 12 Recap and Playoff Predictions

The New England Patriots finish the year 9-7, losing a tie-breaker to the Cleveland Browns on points for the 6th and final wild card spot in the AFC.  However, the Patriots lost two games to forfeit that they had won due to a practice squad violation and would ostensibly have finished 11-5 – the top wild card in the AFC.

The Baltimore Ravens began the year 8-3 and found themselves in control of the AFC East.  However, a devastating injury to Keenan Allen combined with a couple of tight losses and a concussion to Joe Flacco down the stretch proved too much to overcome, as the Ravens lost their last five games – including a week 12 loss to eventual Wild Card winner Cleveland by 2.5 points.  Yes, that’s right.  The Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs by 2.5 points – with both their best WR and starting QB out with injuries.

Fantasy football isn’t fair.  And only the winners advance, regardless of the reason.  But before we move into playoff predictions, it seemed fitting to mention three teams that missed the playoffs – but who have every reason to deserve a spot.  We honor you, Chicago, New England, and Baltimore.

Game of the Week: Buffalo Bills 258, Kansas City Chiefs 235 – Interestingly, the game of the week had nothing to do with making the playoffs.  But Buffalo and Kansas City came into the game as the top two teams in the AFC and with the top two point totals.  This game did not disappoint.  AP went off for 39.  So Jeremy Maclin went off for 40.  Back and forth it went, until the defense of the Bills came through with six players in double figures and edged out the Chiefs for the #1 seed in the AFC.

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Cleveland Browns: Karma.  At long last.  The cursed franchise benefits from the curse.  Despite getting no points from the Running Back position, the Browns got a monster performance from Blake Bortles and a big day from Gary Barnidge when it mattered most.  Even more important, Karlos Dansby’s pick six on Monday Night Football, coupled with major injuries to the Ravens, saved Cleveland’s season in a 184-182 win.  Mercy.  The Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs, as Jeff Hemlick has now taken two franchises to the postseason.

Tennessee Titans: How do you get into the playoffs in the AFC South?  Act like you want to be there.  After a tepid period, the Tennessee Titans came out with a 204 point performance, led by 34 from CJ Anderson and 38 from the already immortal Odell Beckham Jr.  That was enough to edge Oakland 204-203 (the poor Raiders, despite their playoff spot and 10-6 record, could THIS easily have been 14-2) and more importantly, bounce Houston 204-159.  Couple with Indianapolis losses, the Titans move into the playoffs at a semi-respectable 8-8 – and get another shot at the self-same Raiders.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Talk about making a statement, the Steelers were having none of this whole “Wild Card” nonsense, and threw down 273 points behind 35 from Big Ben and 46 from Jarvis Landry.  The rest of the league is on notice that the Steelers long losing streak is officially history – and the defending champions are back and ready for the playoffs. Like some of LeBron’s old Heat teams, the regular season got a little boring for these guys… but they are now in the playoffs and ready to defend their title against all comers.

Wild Card Round Predictions:

Onto what happens next!

Carolina Panthers (5) over Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4): It is extremely hard to beat a team three times in a season.  It’s even harder to beat a team three times in the same season when they are the third ranked team by points and outscored you 3500-3150 (more than 20 points per game).  It’s especially hard to do so when your starting QB for the matchup is Blaine Gabbert.  Tampa Bay deserves major props for winning the best division in Real Deal, finishing 12-4, and capturing the three seed in the playoffs.  But Carolina is due for a win here, and unless either the Muscle Hamster goes crazy or the defense makes some huge plays, it’s Carolina’s turn for a win.  Blaine Gabbert just ain’t going to get it done.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3) over Cleveland Browns (6): This one feels like the classic case of a savvy, veteran team on a mission vs. a team that is just happy to be here.  With all props to the Browns for surviving to make the playoffs, Blake Bortles won’t score 25 every night, Karlos Williams may not play, and while Ben Roethlisberger may well be out too, the Steelers are still capable of posting a monster night – particularly as their offensive players get almost universally favorable matchups against porous defenses.  The curse on the Cuyahoga is broken, but it will take a complete reversal of fortune to get the Browns to the second round.

Arizona Cardinals (3) over New Orleans Saints (6): In all honesty, this was by far the toughest game of the four to pick, and I went back and forth several times.  The Saints have been better than the Cardinals recently (though the Cardinals have been a little better overall) and last week’s struggles were particularly concerning for Arizona.  Drew Brees and the Saints offense has more spark in them than they did early in the season as well, though last week’s slump was disconcerting.  At the end of the day, though, my gut is that Arizona has their fluke performances out of the way – they can’t get that few points again from the likes of Matt Ryan, Danny Woodhead, and Michael Floyd – can they?  And at the same time, the Saints have won so many consecutive games that they are due for a dud – I think it happens this week and the Cardinals move on.

Oakland Raiders (5) over Tennessee Titans (4): We don’t do Pythagoreans here in RDFL, but if I was to look at the entire league, I can’t think of a team that is more underseeded than Oakland – and I can’t think of a team that is more overseeded than Tennessee.  The Titans sneak into the playoffs at 8-8 over multiple teams with better records, barely made it to 8-8, and needed spectacular performances of 35+ points from multiple players to do it.  The Raiders finished comfortably at 10-6, could EASILY have been 14-2, and scored the 8th most points in RDFL despite significant injuries to Eddie Lacy and Davante Adams.  More to the point, they have everyone back healthy, Eddie Lacy is finally looking something like an NFL running back again, and they want revenge on the Titans for last week’s two point defeat.  Oakland can make the Super Bowl in the AFC, they are that good.  And I don’t think Tennessee stands in their way.

Good luck in the playoffs everyone who is still alive!