The entirety of this article except for the last paragraph was written before the playoffs began.
The NFL season this year was full of surprises. The NFC, however, was full of more surprises than the AFC. There is only one team in the playoffs in the NFC that made the playoffs last year, the Atlanta Falcons, who made the Super Bowl. The five new teams in the playoffs this year are the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings. In the AFC, there are three new teams in the playoffs: the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. In the AFC, however, the top two of the conference, as predicted, were the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. It is expected that the Patriots and Steelers will meet in the AFC Championship game, which would be a rematch of last year’s conference title game. In the NFC, it is much more wide open. Ever since the season-ending injury to Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz which occured on December 10th, 2017, there isn’t a clear favorite to win the NFC, which makes the playoffs a lot more exciting and unpredictable. While some of these teams were locks to make the playoffs, other teams were not. Also, there are teams from the playoffs last year who we expected to make a return to the playoffs this year who completely underachieved for many reasons. Anyway, here are my underachievers and overachievers of the 2017-2018 NFL season.
Oakland Raiders: The Oakland Raiders were supposed to contend for the playoffs again this year after going 12-4 last year. However, this did not happen as the Raiders finished with a lowly 6-10 record. The Raiders won a lot of one score games last year, which is very hard to do in back to back seasons. However, this wasn’t the only reason for Oakland’s drop off. The defense, rated as the worst in terms of DVOA, couldn’t stop anybody this year. The Raiders ranked 25th in total yards allowed, giving up an astounding average of 350 yards per game. I could go on and on about the Raiders defensive statistics, as they ranked in the bottom fourth of every major statistical category on defense. The Raiders defense was poor last year as well, but the offense couldn’t cover for their mistakes this year. The offense never truly got going, even with the exciting offseason addition of running back Marshawn Lynch who came out of retirement just to join the Raiders. Oakland would have moments of brilliant offense, but they never truly connected the running attack and the passing attack together. Derek Carr is a really good up and coming quarterback and he will continue to grow at just 26 years old, but his yards per attempt worries me. He only averages 6.79 yards an attempt, which is very low. I think the Raiders offense need to get back to taking more deep shots down the field, which made their offense extremely dynamic last year.
Miami Dolphins: The Miami Dolphins were another disappointing team this season. Even with the preseason injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, I thought the Dolphins would be more than decent after Jay Cutler came out a short-lived retirement. However, this proved to be false. Ryan Tannehill averaged over a yard and a half more per attempt than Jay Cutler. Turnovers continued to be a problem this year, as Cutler threw 14 interceptions in 13 games he completed. He also gave up numerous fumbles, as ball security continues to be an issue in his game.. Also, Miami’s rushing attack was disappointing, as they averaged 0.6 yards less per attempt than they did the previous year. The Dolphins were consistently put in third and long situations in which they couldn’t convert. On the defensive side of the ball, the Dolphins had one of the worst secondaries in the league. The Dolphins were 5th worst in interceptions this year, only picking off opposing quarterbacks nine times the entire season. Miami also ranked bottom fourth in the league in total sacks. All in all, the Dolphins regressed in many key categories this year, leading them to miss the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs after finishing 9-7 last year. However, this season was a major disappointment as the Bucs slumped to a 5-11 finish. On offense, the Bucs were supposed to be explosive with the continued growth of quarterback Jameis Winston and the offseason addition of speed wide receiver Desean Jackson. The Bucs averaged 3.7 yards a carry this year, meaning they couldn’t establish the run game to full effect. Tampa Bay couldn’t find a consistent running back this year, as their leading rusher was Peyton Barber with only 423 yards. A lot of NFL teams have a running back who rushes for close or over 1,000 yards for the season. This shows how poor the Bucs running offense was this year. This put a lot of pressure on the passing attack, which failed on numerous occasions. Quarterback Jameis Winston took a lot of big hits this year, which led to him injuring his shoulder and spending a couple of games on the sidelines. However, Winston continues to turn the ball over too much, throwing 11 interceptions and fumbling 14 times. And while the offense didn’t meet expectations this year, the defense was absolutely atrocious. The defense couldn’t put any pressure on the oppositions quarterbacks, as they ranked dead last in sacks. Without a pass rush, their secondary was routinely exposed. The Bucs desperately need to find a pass rusher on the outside to support star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
New York Giants: Geez, where do I even start when talking about the New York Giants’ season? After going 10-6 and making the playoffs as a wild card last year, the Giants went 3-13 this year after starting the season 0-5. The Giants, like the Raiders, were very good at winning close games last year, which wasn’t going to happen this year. The offense averaged only 15.3 points a game this year. A lot of this had to do with a bad offensive line that couldn’t protect quarterback Eli Manning or open holes for the running game. Also, the season-ending injury to star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. hurt the Giants’ offense. The Giants defense also regressed this year, allowing opponents to score over 24 points a game on average. However, the main problem with the Giants this year was the dysfunction in the locker room. There were multiple suspensions, especially on defense due to the bad start they encountered. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was the first to be suspended after he left the sidelines during the game to go to the locker room, essentially quitting. Also, second year cornerback Eli Apple had several arguments with coaches and teammates, leading to several in game benchings and a suspension for the Week 17 tilt vs the Redskins. However, the moment of greatest dysfunction came when Head Coach Ben McAdoo and owners decided to bench Eli Manning. Well, it’s not that simple. The Giants would allow Manning to play the first half of games while sitting out the second half. In my opinion, this is one of the most disrespectful moves that I have seen in sports. Manning has been nothing but loyal to the Giants organization, and even led the team to two Super Bowl trophies as the starting quarterback. This decision, as long as the Giant’s product on the field, led to McAdoo’s firing.
Seattle Seahawks: I know, the Seahawks went 9-7 and just missed out on the playoffs. However, the Seahawks were supposed to make the playoffs at the very least this year. The Seahawks had many problems this year, including many key injuries on defense. Safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman are two of the bigger names who missed significant time this year. The Seattle defense was ravaged by injuries this year and wasn’t at the level it was in years past, but it was really the Seattle offense that was disappointing this year. Another year for the Seattle Seahawks, another year of not being able to run the football. The Seahawks tried as many as seven guys at the running back position, some dealt with injuries while others were just ineffective. Quarterback Russell Wilson led the team in rushing yards by a considerable margin, which shouldn’t happen. Despite Wilson’s ability to elude defenders, the Seahawks gave up 43 sacks this year. Seattle needs to rebuild the offensive line, but it will be difficult with a lack of cap space. The title window is closing fast for Seattle, if hasn’t already. However, the hawks can never be counted out if Wilson is under center.
Buffalo Bills: Many people expected the Buffalo Bills to not only miss the playoffs for an 18th straight year. In addition, many expected Buffalo to be one of the worst teams in the league, especially after trading several of their star players such as defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. However, the Bills defied all odds, making the playoffs by beating the Miami Dolphins in the final game of the season and receiving some help from the Cincinnati Bengals, as they beat the Baltimore Ravens in dramatic fashion, knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs. The Bills made the playoffs behind a great running offense and an opportunistic defense. The Bills ranked sixth in rushing this year behind star running back Lesean McCoy. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor made just enough plays in the passing attack to keep opponents honest. The Bills lost a lot of their games by double digits, but they won the games that they had to, which is something they haven’t done in a very long time. They finished the year with a 9-7 record. However, after their first round loss to Jacksonville in the playoffs, there are a lot of questions about how the team will look for the following season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Again, nobody expected the Jacksonville Jaguars to make the playoffs. Sure, their defense was supposed to be one of the best units this season, but this defensive unit reached new levels this year. The Jags ranked first in total sacks and second in yards allowed. Some of these numbers are skewed from playing weak teams such as the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, but they performed well against good offenses as well, such as in Week 5 vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. On offense, many people wrote off quarterback Blake Bortles. However, he had a better year than people expected. He still is not an elite quarterback, but when he has a running game to lean on, he can be effective in the play action passing game. The Jaguars leaned heavily on running back Leonard Fournette, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards this year. Jacksonville was 8-0 when Bortles didn’t throw an interception this season. The Jaguars defense is young, so the defense should be the stable of this team for years to come. However, whether Blake Bortles is the answer at quarterback, is a question the Jags must answer going forward.
Minnesota Vikings: The Minnesota Vikings came out of nowhere to win 13 games out of 16 this season. The Vikings have a good all around roster, but there were questions about the quarterback position. The Week 1 starter was Sam Bradford, but after he was injured early in the season, journeyman Case Keenum would lead the Vikings to 13 wins. Keenum also had his best year statistically as a pro, throwing 22 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions while throwing for over 3,500 yards. The Vikings also got great contributions from running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, who led a steady running attack all year. The receiving core was led by wide receiver Adam Thielen, who had 1,276 receiving yards. The defense was spectacular all year for Minnesota. The defensive line was led by defensive end Everson Griffen, who had 13 sacks on the year. The secondary was also fantastic, led by safety Harrison Smith and corner Xavier Rhodes. This Minnesota team is setup really well for the future.
New Orleans Saints: The New Orleans Saints were a team that a lot of analysts predicted would place in the bottom spot of the NFC South. The Saints would end up winning the division with an 11-5 record. Quarterback Drew Brees had another fantastic year, completing 72% of his passes. However, Brees through the ball less than he had in the previous five years. This is because New Orleans had an established running game this year. The running attack was led by backs Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Kamara was one of the more explosive players in the NFL this year as he was great running the ball and even better at catching out of the back field. Wide receiver Michael Thomas continued to be Brees’ favorite target, as he had over 1,000 yards receiving for the second consecutive season. And while the offense was great for the Saints, it was the defense that stepped up after years of embarrassment. The Saints ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of stopping the run, but they were great at defending the pass. Rookie Marshon Lattimore was huge in improving the secondary, as he had five interceptions this year. It was nice to see the defense step up this year after years of not being able to stop anybody.
Los Angeles Rams: The Los Angeles Rams in my opinion were the surprise team of the year. The Rams are the first team in NFL history to finish last in total scoring the previous year, and then to finish first in total scoring the next year. The Rams were the top scoring offense this year. First year Head coach Sean McVay turned out to be the offensive mastermind that people hoped he would be. Quarterback Jared Goff was often called a bust last year, but McVay revamped the offense which allowed Goff to succeed this year. Another player who benefitted from McVay was star running back Todd Gurley, who had over 2,000 yards combined rushing and receiving this season. The Rams defense, led by star defensive tackle, ranked 12th in passing yards allowed per game. However, one weakness for LA was their run defense, which ranked 28th in the league. The Rams are a young team that could dominate the NFC West for years to come. If only Rams fans would go to the games in LA! At least it’s not as embarrassing as when the Chargers play at home. Yikes.
Also, I know I did not do a prediction for the conference championship games, I will be predicting the Super Bowl. It is hard to pick against the Patriots, but the Eagles looked really sharp yesterday even with backup quarterback Nick Foles! I will be posting that article the Friday of Super Bowl week for betting purposes. Anyways, thank you for reading my article and stay tuned for more!
Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer Joe Kim.