The One NFL Team You Don’t Want to See in January

Philip J. Pavely/USA Today

I’m going to start this article by posing a very simple question: who has the best point differential in the AFC?

Surely it has to be either the Patriots or the Steelers, the two owners of the conference’s best record at 12-3. Maybe it’s the Baltimore Ravens, who currently sit at 9-6 but have three shutouts to their name. Or it could be the Kansas City Chiefs, who struggled in the middle of the season but have responded with three straight victories, each by ten or more points.

If you guessed any one of those teams, you are a very reasonable person. You’re also wrong.

The best point differential in the AFC belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are currently 10-5 and locked into the third seed in the playoffs.

You may not take point differential all that seriously, as teams often score or give up points in garbage time that are completely meaningless to the outcome of the game. That being said, the Jaguars are second in the league in this category, and the winner of the Super Bowl in three of the last four seasons has also finished in the top two in the NFL in scoring margin. Following this logic, though, would mean that Jacksonville would go to the Super Bowl and play the Los Angeles Rams, in a scenario that may precede the apocalypse. But the Jaguars currently find themselves at the top of the conference in scoring margin right now and, perhaps more significantly, they own one of the league’s best defenses, which is particularly important when facing off against offenses like the Patriots and Steelers.

There are, as with any team without serious playoff experience, questions about how legitimate of a contender the Jaguars are. With Jacksonville, their concerns are exacerbated because their quarterback just so happens to be Blake Bortles, who, before this season, averaged 17 interceptions per year for each of his first three NFL seasons. Even when he does play well, he is perceived as not being good enough to lead his team to a championship or, worse, “trash”. While he does make some shockingly bad decisions and throws mind-numbing interceptions from time to time, he is having the best season of his career, as he has put up career highs in completion percentage, QBR, and passer rating, while also posting a career low for interceptions.

This is not to say that Bortles is necessarily a good NFL quarterback; after all, he is coming off a performance in which he threw three interceptions against the league’s 26th-best defense. However, NFL history has shown us that you can win a Super Bowl with less than stellar quarterback play, or quarterback play that starts the season slowly and comes alive at the right time. Here are just a few recent examples of teams winning the Super Bowl in spite of the man they had under center:

  • The 1970 Colts (Johnny Unitas/Earl Morrall)
  • The 1990 Giants (Jeff Hostetler)
  • The 2000 Ravens (Trent Dilfer)
  • The 2002 Buccaneers (Brad Johnson)
  • The 2015 Broncos (Peyton Manning, in his final season)

This shows that while having a great quarterback certainly helps your cause in trying to win a championship, it is hardly necessary for you to do so. What you do need, though, is a great defense. Luckily, the Jaguars have it.

Jacksonville currently owns the league’s third-best defense as measured by total yards allowed. The only teams who have fared better are the 12-3 Vikings and the Denver Broncos, who have started three different players at quarterback this season. The Jaguars also own the league’s best pass defense, and that is important considering the talent of quarterbacks the team could potentially face in the playoffs (Marcus Mariota, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, etc.). The weakness in Jacksonville’s defense is its ability to stop the run, as it ranks just 21st in the league in that category. But that run defense is not quite as much of a hindrance to their success because the team has defensive end Calais Campbell, who is second in the NFL in sacks with 14.5. Some have argued for Campbell as the league’s MVP, and that is a fairly ridiculous stretch, but the Jaguars’ front four is good enough to get to the quarterback on a regular basis.

Jacksonville’s secondary is also paramount to their success, as it has pulled down 21 interceptions to this point in the year, which is good for second in football. A.J. Bouye (who was signed in free agency from the Texans after last season), Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, and Jalen Ramsey each have at least four picks, and Bouye is second in the league with six. If you’re throwing against this secondary, you should really have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into.

Even though I’ve told you all this about how great the Jaguars are, you are still wary of their ability to beat the Patriots and/or the Steelers, the two best teams in the AFC. The good news is that they already have played one of those teams, and the results were promising.

In week five, Jacksonville traveled to Pittsburgh to face off against the Steelers. In that game, they forced Ben Roethlisberger into throwing five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The game was what you would expect and hope for on paper from the Jags: Bortles threw for under 100 yards, running back Leonard Fournette rushed for nearly 200, and the Jaguars forced five turnovers and only had one giveaway. While Bortles would need to play better than that if the Jaguars want to beat Pittsburgh a second time, the early-October contest shows that the Jaguars can win a difficult game on the road if necessary.

Just a side note on that game: many recall that afterwards, the media was taken on a roller coaster ride because Roethlisberger openly speculated that he was in decline and said, “Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.” This off-hand comment, likely intended as a joke, sparked fear and panic in Pittsburgh, as Roethlisberger, to that point in the year, had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Since then, however, the Steelers’ signal-caller has thrown 22 TDs and just seven picks while also completing nearly 66% of his passes. Everyone in Pittsburgh and around America has stopped wondering whether or not he still has it. He clearly does, and the chances of him throwing five interceptions against the same team twice in one season would appear to be low.

The road to the Super Bowl out of the AFC currently appears to revolve around the Patriots and the Steelers. But the Jacksonville Jaguars are perhaps better prepared to navigate that road than anyone, and they have put every team in the AFC, and the NFL, on notice.

The Steelers found out the hard way that the Jaguars are capable of beating anyone in the league on any given day. We’ll see if any other teams have to learn that lesson the hard way before the NFL playoffs are complete.

Oh, My: Saluting a Broadcasting Legend

Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune

A sports broadcasting legend has left us.

Yesterday, former NBC, CBS, ESPN, and San Diego Padres announcer Dick Enberg passed away at the age of 82. Multiple reports have stated that his family believes Enberg died of a heart attack in his California home late Thursday night. He retired as the television voice of the Padres at the end of last season, something you probably missed because Dodgers legend Vin Scully was leaving the business at the exact same time.

However, it is tremendously important that we recall what an important voice Enberg was throughout his career. He called some of the biggest events in sports over the course of his broadcasting career, which spanned nearly 60 years. Here is a list of just some of the games and tournaments he was on the microphone for in his illustrious career:

  • 10 Final Fours (with UCLA; this includes the 1968 “Game of the Century” between Houston and UCLA)
    • 6 Final Fours (with NBC)
  • 8 Super Bowls (with NBC)
  • 9 Rose Bowls (NBC)
  • 28 Wimbledons (ESPN and NBC)
  • 13 U.S. Opens (CBS)
  • The 1982 World Series (NBC)

This list likely omits several other significant assignments Enberg covered as a broadcaster. Just for some context on that list: the first Final Four Enberg called for UCLA was in 1967, and that year’s Most Outstanding Player was Lew Alcindor, who later became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His final NCAA Tournament game behind the microphone was in 2010 for CBS, and it featured young Kentucky stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. That means Enberg stuck around long enough for college basketball to progress from playing without a shot clock to becoming a one-year pit stop for many of the country’s best 18 and 19-year-olds.

Additionally, his first Super Bowl, the fifteenth in NFL history, featured quarterbacks Jim Plunkett and Ron Jaworski. Super Bowl XXXII, the last Super Bowl Enberg worked, featured quarterbacks Brett Favre and John Elway.

There are not may broadcasters who can say they have witnessed the history Enberg did. And while he worked in a golden era of sports broadcasting (one that gave us legends such as Vin Scully, Al Michaels, Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, and countless others), it is important to remember how good Enberg really was and just how many important events he lent his voice to over the past 50 years.

I would write more here, but it would come at the risk of repeating things that have already been written and said. So I’ll just close with Dick Enberg’s catchphrase, a two-word ditty that aptly describes his career and accomplishments:

Oh, my!

Rest in peace, Dick Enberg.

Just How Far Can the Houston Rockets Go?

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.

Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.

Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
Net Net Net Net
Lineup MP FG% 3P% eFG% PTS
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | C. Paul | P. Tucker 17:18 -.059 -.071 -.012 +12.1
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | C. Capela | E. Gordon | C. Paul 16:43 +.208 +.292 +.279 +29.9
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul 13:44 +.167 +.389 +.326 +49.8
R. Anderson | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul | P. Tucker 13:26 -.035 +.063 +.019 +16.1
E. Gordon | N. Hilario | L. Mbah a Moute | C. Paul | P. Tucker 12:51 +.257 +.083 +.300 +59.4
Player Average 471:37 +.044 +.071 +.094 +18.1
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/21/2017.

Holy hell, Batman.

In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.

All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.

Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?

For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.

Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.

There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.

I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.

But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.

If I Ruled the NFL….

Don Wright/Associated Press

Two weeks ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell officially signed a five-year, $200 million (!) extension which will make him the league’s commissioner until, at the earliest, 2023. Despite Goodell’s profitable extension, the league has plenty of issues on its hands, between declining ratingshorrific injuries, and controversial refereeing decisions.

But let’s go to an imaginary world where Roger Goodell doesn’t exist and everything else is the same, except yours truly is the league’s new commissioner. My confidence in myself is very low on this one, but here are a few things I’d do to fix some of the NFL’s biggest problems.

Ban Thursday Night Football

Believe it or not, there are actually fewer injuries on Thursday night than there are on Sunday or Monday, but the moral of this story is that there are too many injuries in general. However, if injuries are not a good enough excuse for getting rid of Thursday Night Football, then its quality of play certainly is.

Of the 26 teams that have played on TNF this season (this excludes Thanksgiving and the first game of the season), exactly nine of them would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Last year, the league went an astounding 9-for-28 in scheduling playoff teams for Thursday night. If you’re keeping track at home, just one-third of all teams that have played on Thursday Night Football in the past two seasons have made the playoffs. If you want a little more context on that, here you go: while the league picked just 33% of its best teams to play on Thursday nights, Houston Astros star Jose Altuve got a base hit in 34.1% of his at-bats in the last two seasons. Getting hits on the best pitchers in the world shouldn’t be easier than picking good teams to play in prime-time. But keep this in mind: the league often uses Thursday Night Football as a way to get every team on prime-time television at least once; Goodell even copped to that in 2012, when the TNF schedule expanded to what it is now.

All this, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that teams cannot possibly create an adequate game plan in three days and the league’s over-saturation on television, which Thursday Night Football has heavily contributed to, is a big reason why its ratings have begun to hit the skids over the past couple of seasons.

So while there may not be more injuries on Thursday Night Football, the weekly fixture’s terrible quality of play and lackluster matchups would, in an ideal world, be enough to scrap the idea completely.

Decide What a Catch Is or Is Not

What is your definition of a catch? Unfortunately, it depends on who you ask.

For example: is this a catch? What about this? Or this? Don’t feel any pressure to answer these questions correctly, because no matter how you answer them, you will have the same understanding of an NFL referee as to what a catch actually is.

Just to show how confusing the catch rule is to some people, I put out a Twitter poll earlier today asking my followers if they thought Steelers tight end Jesse James made a legal, NFL catch at the end of yesterday’s bonkers, off-the-wall Patriots-Steelers game (a contest that drew a 17.0 rating, the highest of the NFL season to date). I was expecting at least something approaching a clear consensus, and while we’re still waiting on Alaska and Hawaii, that’s not exactly what I got:

If you show 30 people something and you ask them if what they just saw was a catch or not, it shouldn’t finish in an 18-12 vote. While I didn’t think James completed the process of the catch, the league should be as clear and concise as possible in the future with this rule. The other thing the league should do is throw out whatever precedent it has set in recent years, because this one is as bad as it gets.

Seriously Examine Other Alternatives to Painkillers

We’ve all heard stories about NFL players becoming addicted to painkillers, and according to court documents revealed in March, the league violated federal law in distributing these medications to its players. The solution to this problem is simple: stop distributing these addictive drugs and find a viable solution for them.

This includes doing serious research into alternative, non-opiate remedies that can help players heal quickly. One of them, kava, was recently the subject of an article on, while another, medical marijuana, has been recommended by multiple retired players as a better alternative to pain pills. The NFL should probably listen to these people because they very well may be on to something.

Get Rid of Grass Fields

If you play in one of these 19 NFL stadiums, your risk of injury on any particular day may depend on the weather and be significantly higher than it would be otherwise (NOTE: the team that plays its home games in each stadium is in parentheses):

  1. Arrowhead Stadium (Chiefs)
  2. Bank of America Stadium (Panthers)
  3. EverBank Field (Jaguars)
  4. FedEx Field (Redskins)
  5. FirstEnergy Stadium (Browns)
  6. Hard Rock Stadium (Dolphins)
  7. Heinz Field (Steelers)
  8. Lambeau Field (Packers)
  9. Levi’s Stadium (49ers)
  10. Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles)
  11. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Rams)
  12. M&T Bank Stadium (Ravens)
  13. Nissan Stadium (Titans)
  14. Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (Raiders)
  15. Raymond James Stadium (Buccaneers)
  16. Soldier Field (Bears)
  17. Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Broncos)
  18. StubHub Center (Chargers)
  19. University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals)

And about that thing I mentioned regarding the temperature of the field:

A 2016 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that the incidence rate of concussions and ankle injuries on grass surfaces was nearly two times as likely in games with an outdoor temperature of 50°F or cooler than if the game was played on a natural grass surface at 70°F or warmer. Translated: if you’re playing in one of those 19 stadiums and the temperature is below 50°, you’re in serious trouble.

That same study found that at any given time, an NFL player is 1.36 times more likely to suffer a shoulder injury on natural grass than he would have been on artificial turf. Of course, many athletes object to playing on a synthetic turf because of fears about the long-term health of their knees (take, for example, FIFA’s much-maligned decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf). That being said, football does not require as much running as soccer and another one of the main concerns with the latter (turf burns) does not often apply to football.

Starting in December, your choice as an NFL player is simple: play on a surface where you may have slightly more risk of a knee injury or play on a grass surface, upon which you definitely have more risk for a shoulder, ankle, or head injury. I would go with the former.

Guarantee Players’ Contracts and Don’t Pay the Commissioner $40 Million 

This one is self-explanatory.

Matthew Stafford is the NFL’s highest-paid player, and he makes $27 million per year. However, even though he signed a contract for five years and $135 million, only 68% of the contract ($92 million) is guaranteed. Therefore, Stafford will be making, with the league’s richest contract, around $18.4 million of guaranteed money per year. Is your humble new commissioner more than twice as valuable as the league’s best quarterback? Somehow, I doubt that. It’s time for the NFL to adopt guaranteed, no-cut contracts. It’s not like the league is about to reach $14 billion in yearly revenue, or anything.

Of course, I could likely never be an NFL commissioner and I obviously respect the work that all sports commissioners do on a regular basis. But the NFL has serious problems that need serious solutions. And if Roger Goodell is looking for a successor after this deal is up, I have ready-made fixes for issues he likely won’t tackle anytime soon.