NFL Shootaround: Jared Goff, Rams considered most surprising stoyline

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Who’s your MVP?

Dev Navani: It’s a two-horse race between Tom Brady and Philly’s finest – that’s Carson Wentz, not the cheesesteak. Record and narrative play a large part in these awards, so if the Eagles win 13 games or more, I’m going with Wentz. The second-year North Dakota State product has been electric this season, at times looking like Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers all rolled up into one. He leads the league with 29 passing touchdowns and has only thrown six interceptions.

Andrew Wild: Brady keeps chugging along, and after a start that had some fans panicking, the Patriots all of a sudden look like the world beaters we were expecting in August. I thought the loss of Julian Edelman might be devastating, but Brady has done a great job of integrating Brandin Cooks which, as evidenced by other speedsters coming to New England and disappearing, is harder than it seems.

Jesus Aceves: At the moment, I would have to elect Wentz as this year’s MVP. Wentz deserves to be considered not only because of his team’s success this year, but because of how he has improved with them. A year ago, both the Eagles and Wentz were turning heads at the beginning of the season, but after starting 3-0, the Eagles ended their season at 7-9 and did not win the NFC East title. A year later, the Eagles are tied for the best record in the NFL and Wentz has thrown for 3,005 yards with a passer rating of 102.0, which drastically improved from 2016’s 79.3.

Josh Yuen: Despite the rising stardom of Wentz and impressive consistency from 40-year-old Brady, there’s just too much star power on a different team to keep it out of this conversation. I’ll go with co-MVPs — Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The last time the NFL had co-MVPs was in 2004 with Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, but it’s unfair to single out a member of this dynamic duo leading the Steel City to a robust 10-2 record.

What team has exceeded expectations so far?

DN: Philadelphia, at 10-2, is likely to coast into the playoffs as the top seed with universal home-field advantage, something no one saw coming. The Eagles’ defensive line, led by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, is menacing and they have the best running back combo in the league in LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi.

All other NFC division leaders have been surprising as well. The wheels on the Case Keenum wagon have yet to fall off, as the Minnesota Vikings are 10-2. The unorthodox New Orleans Saints are 9-3 and have been relying on star rookie corner Marshon Lattimore and a top-10 defense, as opposed to riding and dying with Drew Brees’ arm. For the Los Angeles Rams, former Cal quarterback Jared Goff and new head coach Sean McVay have led the NFL’s highest scoring offense to 9-3.

AW: My Los Angeles Rams have been a pure joy to watch. The hiring of young princeling McVay could have gone wrong, but he has turned out to be a bona fide offensive genius. Along with Wade Phillips coaching an excellent young defensive core, this team is a true NFC contender. I knew Goff would be fine, but I didn’t think Todd Gurley, Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods could all have bounce-back years at once, and McVay gets an incredible amount of credit for that.

JA: The Los Angeles Rams have surprisingly exceeded my expectations and perhaps anyone else who follows them. The Rams drafted quarterback Goff in the 2016 draft, and boy were they beginning to regret it. Rams fans showed frustration with the first overall pick in his rookie season because he failed to live up to his sky-high expectations seven games into his career. Not only was the quarterback labeled a bust, the entire team as a whole was not performing well at all. Fast forward to 2017, and the Rams have improved from a 4-12 team to a 9-3 team that has recorded a shutout and a 50+ point game.

JY: The Minnesota Vikings. Keenum? Who the hell is Adam Thielen? Even with the season-ending injury to exciting rookie Dalvin Cook, the Vikings have found gold from the undrafted players bin. Sometimes the perfect plan isn’t as originally scripted, as Keenum, not Teddy Bridgewater or even Sam Bradford, has propelled Minnesota to the top of the NFC North. As for Thielen? He nearly worked in dentist equipment sales after his collegiate career at Minnesota State only to become a top-five receiver in the NFL this year. Did I mention that their defense is the best in the NFL in third-down percentage allowed? Props to Mike Zimmer, my second choice for Coach of the Year (behind McVay).

What team has failed to meet expectations?

DN: The New York Giants were supposed to be contending for the NFC East, but they are now 2-10 and looking for answers in Geno Smith. The defense has not been nearly as good as the last year’s elite unit, and the offense has floundered without the one-man show that is Odell Beckham Jr. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit at 4-8, and Jameis Winston has not been able to lead the offense, which added speedy wideout DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O. J.  Howard, to any kind of success. They rank a measly 22rd in points scored, and an underperforming defense has not helped either.

AW: I’m so disappointed in the Chiefs. Andy Reid is one of my favorite coaches in the league, but he had to go so far as to take away play-calling duties from himself, and things are plain depressing in Kansas City right now. I thought that Alex Smith might respond to the drafting of Patrick Mahomes II by showing he deserves to be the man, and although that was the case for two weeks, he’s never looked more benchable than right now.

JA: The Giants have failed to meet expectations this year. They have arguably the worst decline from the 2016 season, when they went 11-5 overall and were projected to be in the top 10 at the start of the 2017 season. The Giants are currently ranked No. 30 with a dismal 2-10 record. They lost key players at the beginning of the season, and now they have made one of the worst decisions by benching their two-time Super Bowl quarterback, Eli Manning, after 210 consecutive starts. Not only has the team lost some of their best players, but their fans and players seem to have lost all hope.

JY: Shoutout to every team in the NFC East not named the Eagles, but I’m calling out John Elway and the Denver Broncos on this one. After a 3-1 promising start, eight straight losses and three different starting quarterbacks have derailed the inaugural season of head coach Vance Joseph at the helm. Given how talented the Denver defense is, it’s a shame that the post-Peyton Manning era has devolved into this mess of a team.

Who do you see in the playoffs

DN: AFC: New England, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Baltimore. New England and Pittsburgh will most likely square off the the AFC Championship, and you have to give the edge to Brady and Bill Belichick based on the history. Tennessee, Baltimore and the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars aren’t scaring anyone, but if the Chargers make the playoffs they could potentially shake things up.

NFC: Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta.

The NFC is infinitely more interesting. Any two of the Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Panthers, Falcons, Rams and Seahawks could feature in the NFC championship. I’ll take Philadelphia and New Orleans.

Don’t count the Packers out just yet — Rodgers should be back for the last three games of the year, and they could run the table to go 10-6. Green Bay making the playoffs is still unlikely even in that scenario, but if they do, the top NFC teams should be afraid.

AW: Jaguars, Steelers, Patriots and Chargers win their division, and the Titans and the Ravens take the two wild card spots. I think both of the wild-card teams basically suck, but the whole AFC stinks frankly, and I don’t think Buffalo or Cincinnati is much of a threat to steal a spot. I’ve never been much of a Philip Rivers fan, but the Chargers are clearly clicking and the Chiefs are a full-blown dumpster fire.

JA: AFC: Steelers, Patriots, Titans and Chargers will win their respective divisions, leaving the Ravens and the Jaguars with the wild card spots. NFC: Vikings, Eagles, Saints and Seahawks will earn the top spots in their divisions, while the Panthers and the Rams will take the wild card spots.

In the AFC, Pittsburgh and New England are the top contenders without a doubt, but Los Angeles has been performing well on both sides of the ball thanks to key players which should help them win the rest of their remaining games. Tennessee has proven that they can beat even the better contenders in the playoff race including the Jags, Seahawks and Ravens. In the NFC, Minnesota and Philadelphia have undoubtedly proven to be the best. New Orleans has enough talent to take on the rest of their schedule and will beat Carolina over and over again despite Cam Newton’s athleticism. Speaking of athleticism, Jared Goff and the Rams have drastically improved since last year, but I’m going with Russell Wilson as the more reliable quarterback who will lead the 12th man into the playoffs.

JY: AFC Division Champs: Patriots, Steelers, Titans, Raiders. WC: Chiefs, Jaguars.

NFC Division Champs: Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Rams. WC: Seahawks, Falcons.

With the North and East division playoff spots of both conferences are all but locked up, the focus shifts to the South and West. I trust Tennessee’s duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to do just enough to overcome the mediocre play of Marcus Mariota, but beware of Jacksonville down the stretch of the season. Unless the Chiefs rediscover their early-season magic, I predict that the week 17 outing between Los Angeles and Oakland will determine the AFC West. The Panthers and Falcons also play each other on the final day of the regular season, likely determining who I think will join New Orleans in postseason play, with the last wild card spot going to either the Rams or Seahawks — whichever doesn’t win the NFC West.

 

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