DeMarco Murray is a given as the NFL’s rushing king, but who will be atop passing yards ... receiving touchdowns ... sacks? Handicapping those races, plus spotlighting the Week 17 player to watch and 10 things to look for on Sunday
The massively popular National Football League makes a big deal out of everything. A BIG DEAL. A VERY BIG DEAL. Except one thing: the players who are the best at what they do every year.
I mean it. I see these ridiculous lists and ranking of players in the offseason, the top 100 players on NFL Network that so few people care about. And I see the league promote so many causes and pastimes. But why won’t the NFL, the week after the regular season ends Monday, even acknowledge the best people at the biggest positions in the game?
Everyone, including those in the league office, is excited about the playoffs. Rightfully so. But the best players doing the most visible jobs should be acknowledged, and if the league won’t do it, I will. Entering the final Sunday of the season, here are the contenders for the biggest individual prizes:
DeMarco Murray (1,745) has a 404-yard lead on Le’Veon Bell (1,341 yards), and so the Cowboy will win his first rushing title. That’s not the oddest part of Murray winning. This is: He will be the sixth different rushing champ in the past six years. And with Murray being a free agent after this season, and with the specter of Adrian Peterson looming over the potential free-agent running back market, who knows if Murray will be a Cowboy in 2015.
Predicting the rushing champ: Murray. Easy.
Drew Brees (4,671 yards) has a 36-yard lead on Ben Roethlisberger (4,635), and Andrew Luck (4,601) is in contention too. It’ll be tough for Brees to keep it—not because he won’t have a big day against Tampa in the finale, but because both Roethlisberger and Luck are going to be throwing early and often in their final games.
Predicting the passing champ: Roethlisberger. The Bengals will sell out to stop Bell, and Big Ben will get rich as a result.
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This one’s going down to the wire. Peyton Manning 39, Luck 38, Aaron Rodgers 36. Weather could detour Rodgers at Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon. Decreased velocity and the increased Oakland pass-rush could detour Manning. That’s why Luck, at feeble Tennessee, could end up atop the touchdown chart in his third season in the league.
Predicting the touchdown champ: I’ll take Luck. Anyone facing the Titans, who’ve allowed 32 points a game in the past five weeks and surrendered 25 touchdown throws, should thrive in the final week of the season.
Antonio Brown (122 catches, 1,570 yards) of the Steelers is having one of the great under-reported seasons by a wide receiver in recent years. Brown leads Denver’s DeMaryius Thomas in receptions by 22, and he leads Julio Jones of the Falcons by 35 yards. It’ll be interesting to see how seriously the Broncos take the game against Oakland. Denver should win it handily, but remember the Raiders are going to be primed to put pressure on Peyton Manning in Tony Sparano’s last game as Raiders coach.
Predicting the receptions and receiving-yards champ: I’ll take Brown to do the double. The Steelers will need four quarters of big offense to beat the Bengals. I can see Brown reaching 130 catches and 1,700 yards, which would be one of the best seasons by a receiver, ever.
Justin Houston (18.0) needs five to beat Michael Strahan’s all-time record … and Houston probably needs two to ensure he holds off J.J. Watt of the Texans (17.5) and Elvis Dumervil (17).
Predicting the sack champ: Houston will be going against a beleaguered San Diego offensive line, starting its fifth center of the season. In the noise of Arrowhead, he could have a big day. But I see Watt winning. He faces the Jags, against whom he had three sacks earlier this year. Jacksonville has allowed a league-high 66 this year. From about 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday this will be the most interesting individual race to watch, as the fourth quarter of each game winds down.
Indy's Adam Vinatieri, who turns 42 Sunday—the conclusion of his 19th regular season in the NFL—is the only perfect kicker in the league this year. He is 28 of 28 on field goal attempts and hasn’t missed a kick since Week 16 last year.
Predicting the kicking champ: Vinatieri, the very strong contender to join Jan Stenerud in Canton.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Travis Swanson, center, Detroit (number 64). Dominic Raiola, the longest-tenured Lion—he's played 14 seasons with Detroit—has waited his entire career for a game of this magnitude, a de facto NFL North championship game at Lambeau Field. He’ll sit it out, though, after being suspended one game for stomping on the lower leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson last Sunday. In comes Swanson, a rookie third-round pick, who started three games at guard this season but none at center. The kid’s from Texas, went to college at Arkansas, and will step into a 17-degree wind chill afternoon at Lambeau, with the noise and the emotion of the rivalry, and the pressure of the Lions having lost 20 straight games inside that stadium. Good luck, kid.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, explaining why Cardinals third-stringer Ryan Lindley was hopeless on Sunday night:
"We're the best defense ever to play football, so when we play the way we're capable of playing, I don't think... whatever he did doesn't really matter. When we line up and play the way we're capable of playing, I don't think anybody can play with us."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“It's a great thing. This is how you want to go into it. If you look at past experiences, sitting a bunch of players, they're so different than the last four games before that. The fact that we're playing a playoff-type game is exactly how you want to go into the playoffs. I know that's the way I'd prefer.’’
—Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, on playing Detroit for the NFC North title Sunday afternoon. The memories from 2011 linger. That’s when the Pack, 15-1 in the regular season, coasted into the playoffs four games up on the division field, came into the postseason stale and got spanked by the Giants 37-20.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Who gets the last two slots. Ten teams have playoff spots locked. The Chargers would get the 11th, the final AFC playoff berth, with a win at Kansas City early Sunday afternoon. The winner of Carolina-Atlanta, late Sunday afternoon in the Georgia Dome, gets the last spot in the NFC—and the fourth seed and a home playoff game on wild-card weekend.
2. The rest of the playoff story. Pretty simple in the AFC: As I said, San Diego gets the final spot with a win. Baltimore is in with a win over Cleveland and a San Diego loss. Kansas City is in with a win and losses by Baltimore and Houston (versus Jacksonville, at home). Houston is in with a win, and losses by Baltimore and San Diego. Got it? Quiz Sunday at noon.
3. Dubiousness. Impress your friends with these bits of NFC South trivia about the playoff-deciding game in Atlanta: If the Falcons win the game, they will enter the playoffs with a 1-9 record in games outside one of the worst divisions in NFL history … If the Panthers win, they will have the distinction of going the longest period of time—62 days, from Oct. 5 to Dec. 7—without a victory of any division-winner in NFL history.
4. A cheating peek at wild-card weekend. Okay … if form holds and favorites win (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston, and Seattle), check out these matchups in the wild-card games: Detroit at Dallas, Arizona at Atlanta, Cincinnati at Indianapolis, and (drumroll please) Baltimore at Pittsburgh. I see Baltimore-Pittsburgh in one of the late windows—either Saturday night or late Sunday.
5. Just one quick note, pining for a Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchup on wild-card weekend. In 2012, they split: Baltimore by three, Pittsburgh by three. In 2013, they split: Pittsburgh by three, Baltimore by two. In 2014, they split, Baltimore by 20 (at Baltimore), Pittsburgh by 20 (at Pittsburgh). Last 14 meetings: even-steven.
6. Jim Harbaugh’s fate. Oakland or Ann Arbor. Your call, coach. And yours, [agent] David Dunn.
7. The Kevorka. (The Lure of the Animal, according to the Latvian Orthodox episode of “Seinfeld,” when Kramer held such an attraction over women that they couldn’t resist him.) Now, does the impact of Bo Schembechler on Harbaugh (his onetime quarterback) and on the Harbaugh family really push him back to college—where, I am told, he really had no intention of going after he got accustomed to the rhythm of the NFL calendar and realized he really didn’t like recruiting very much? The first few days of next week will be very interesting as we follow Harbaugh’s decision-making process. How much of it is influenced by his past?
8. What ails Peyton Manning? He said this week he’s healthy. (Well, he wouldn’t say if he wasn’t.) So, let’s go by what we see. His throws seem to lack the velocity of September, but only slightly. What I think is as much at fault: His line is as leaky as it was late last season, and security-blanket Julius Thomas simply is not whole. Since Thomas injured his ankle six weeks ago, the standout tight end has played very sparingly, with just six catches for 69 yards in those six games; in that 4-2 stretch Manning has thrown 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. It’s not a coincidence, Manning’s slump and Thomas’ injury.
9. How the Patriots play Buffalo. Bill Belichick could give whatever stalwarts who need it a 20-day break between the last meaningful game (Jets, last Sunday) and the next one (divisional game in two weeks), but that doesn’t often work. Makes guys more stale than anything else. He’s likely to play all his guys straight up against the Bills.
10. The coaching carousel. We know the usual suspects—Rex Ryan, Tony Sparano, Jim Harbaugh—to be near the end. But what of Marc Trestman and Mike Smith? And who’s the surprise firing going to be? There’s always one.
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