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The NFL: Looking Backwards and Forwards

- In a season filled with record-setting quarterback performances, old-school NFL fans had to love how both conference championship games and the Super Bowl were low-scoring and that the Super Bowl champion was the team with the best combination of elite QB play and pass rush.  In fact, unlike the offense-only Packers and Saints, who broke many offensive records but suffered disappointing playoff exits, three of the final four teams were defense-oriented (Giants, 49ers, Ravens).  What's particularly interesting about the Giants is that their secondary was injury-riddled (and, frankly, not very good) most of the year, but an elite front four and constantly dropping seven guys into coverage allowed them to give up 2, 20, 17, and 17 points over four playoff victories.  The NFL is a copycat league, so expect teams to try to duplicate this formula, starting with the 2012 draft, where pass rushers should be at a premium. 
- I'll always wonder what how the 2011 season would have played out if Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub didn't get hurt.  A Bears/Texans Super Bowl was certainly in the cards, and both teams may be under-valued heading into next season.  Make sure you keep a close eye on the 2013 Super Bowl odds for both teams all offseason - I'd jump at the Bears at 25:1 and the Texans at 20:1. 
- People criticized the Patriots defense all season, but in the playoffs, they gave up 10, 20, and 21 points over three games.  The cold reality for Tom Brady is that he has now lost two Super Bowls because his offense couldn't score in the mid 20s.  Of course, it's certainly not all Brady's fault - Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco wouldn't sniff the field for teams like the Packers and Saints, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't likely to get much interest in free agency.  
- In a season where Tim Tebow dominated headlines and created fervent debates about his skill (or lack thereof, depending on which side of the debate you fall), Tebow-ing, and the role, if any, of faith/religion in sports, isn't it interesting how the Super Bowl ended with a Hail Mary?  Factor in the pre-game discussions about Myra Kraft and Gisele's prayer email and it makes this thought even more interesting.  
To be clear, I'm not engaging (another) religious debate.  Instead, look at it this way ... isn't it fascinating that the NFL season came down to the split-second that followed this photo?  And if you just woke up from a coma, and saw that photo, what would your guess be as to what happened?  Don't Welker and Gronk appear to be in perfect position to catch the rebound (completely unguarded by any defenders)?  Fascinating stuff. 
- Has anyone in sports history ever dominated headlines - without playing at all - as much as Peyton Manning did in 2011?  His brother won the Super Bowl MVP, defeating Tom Brady, his long-time nemesis, in his home stadium, and his Colts were so bad without him they'll draft first overall in 2012.  Yes, somehow, the NFL revolved around Manning without him being on the field.  And with the offseason upon us, the biggest story will be which team signs Manning after his seemingly inevitable split from the Colts.  There are so many fascinating possibilities here.  For instance, even though the 49ers and Texans have a QB, wouldn't Manning give those teams a better chance at winning a title?  I'd argue yes, but expect both teams to stand pat with the current, "safer" options in place.  More realistic possibilities include the Dolphins, Cardinals, Jets, and Redskins.  In my view, Peyton will realize, as I did, below, that the elite QBs play in the NFC, so his best path to a title lies in the AFC.  As a result, I think we're looking at one of the Jets, Dolphins, or Titans.  Don't discount Tennessee - Peyton went to the University of Tennessee, is beloved in the area, and would likely relish a chance to beat the Colts twice a year, and undoubtedly realizes the AFC South may be the weakest division in football. 
- No matter the sport, no matter the situation, never expect much from a professional athlete two weeks after a high ankle sprain. 
- An early look at my first round for fantasy drafts in 2012:  Arian Foster, Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ray Rice, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Wes Welker.  If you're still adamant about early-round running backs, look at all of the RBs who emerged in the late rounds in 2011 - Bonzi Wells, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, Michael Bush, Reggie Bush, Willis McGahee, Darren Sproles, and Marshawn Lynch, among others.  Since an similar number of early-round RBs flopped, it will be more important than ever in 2012 to get safe, established studs, irrespective of position and to gamble for upside later. 
- With so many tight ends emerging in 2011, it may be time for all fantasy leagues to start two tight ends per team.  Having them at flex is good, but starting two tight ends would best maximize the talent pool.  Plus, the deeper the fantasy roster, the more fantasy results are based on skill. 
- Suddenly, the NFL is very top-heavy in the NFC.  It's a quarterback league, so just look at where the elite QBs play - Rodgers, Brees, Eli Manning, Stafford, Cutler, and, to a lesser extent, Vick, Romo, Ryan, and Newton all reside in the NFC.  The AFC, meanwhile, has Big Ben (with a team that may be past its prime), Philip Rivers (with a coach that constantly underperforms), Tom Brady, and, to a lesser extent, Matt Schaub and maybe Andy Dalton.  You can't even count Peyton Manning any more, as he won't reside in Indy much longer (and may well go to an NFC team, but more on that below).  Joe Flacco emerged a bit in the playoffs, and he would have been viewed very differently had Lee Evans held onto that pass, but much like the Steelers, the window for the team around him is closing.  Add it all up and if you're looking for a sleeper team for 2013, I'd look in the AFC.  It's going to be really tough for any of the dregs in the NFC to rebound any time soon.  With that in mind, let's take an early look at the current 2013 Super Bowl odds:
New England Patriots    5-1
Green Bay Packers      11-2
Pittsburgh Steelers     6-1
Philadelphia Eagles     6-1
New York Giants         8-1
New Orleans Saints     10-1
San Francisco 49ers    10-1
San Diego Chargers     12-1
Houston Texans         12-1
Chicago Bears          17-1
Detroit Lions          18-1
Atlanta Falcons        18-1
Dallas Cowboys         20-1
Baltimore Ravens       20-1
New York Jets          20-1
Indianapolis Colts     25-1
Tennessee Titans       30-1
Cincinnati Bengals     30-1
Buffalo Bills          50-1
Kansas City Chiefs     50-1
Seattle Seahawks       50-1
Denver Broncos         50-1
Carolina Panthers      50-1
Miami Dolphins         50-1
St. Louis Rams         50-1
Oakland Raiders        60-1
Minnesota Vikings      60-1
Arizona Cardinals      60-1
Cleveland Browns       75-1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers  100-1
Washington Redskins   125-1
Jacksonville Jaguars  150-1
Given what I've said about the elite QBs in the NFC, it's hard for me to see much value in any of the NFC teams except perhaps Arizona and Washington, which will look like good value if Manning ends up there.  The values, as I see it, are in the AFC.  The Dolphins would look nice at 50:1 with Manning under center, and the Jets and Ravens are both perennial contenders in the weaker conference yet, at 20:1, are under the other favorites.  Also, call me a homer, but recent news that Ryan Fitzpatrick was playing with cracked ribs after Week 8 (before which Fitz had 14 TDs and 7 INTs and the Bills were 5-2 but after which Fitz had 10 TDs and 16 INTs and the Bills went 1-8) gives me optimism the Bills could duplicate their hot start from 2011 over a full season, making 50:1 a nice value.  Ahhh, the NFL offseason - dare to dream.