2020 AFC East Preview: Winds of Change

When Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason the winds of change swept through the AFC East. The stranglehold Bill Belichick and Brady had was finally broken and teams began anew with dreams of storming the Patriots castle. Most notably the Buffalo Bills who were in the playoffs for the 2nd time in 3 years.

The Bills arrive with the NFL’s #3 ranked defense and added former Viking wideout Stefon Diggs to bolster the offense.  Josh Allen has the keys to the offense and RB Devin Singletary is the engine that powers this team forward. Will they emerge as division champions as many pundits believe?

2020 AFC East Predictions

  1. New England Patriots 11-5*
  2. Buffalo Bills 10-6**
  3. Miami Dolphins 6-10
  4. New York Jets 5-11

Not so fast as the Patriots will become a surprise division champion as Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will coax a turnaround season from Cam Newton. The former NFL MVP allows New England a solid weapon in the running game and will be able to work in a more traditional offense and some two tight ends. He has a spectacular young wideout in former ASU star N’Keal Harry and an underrated Jakobi Meyers. These two 2nd year players will benefit from Julian Edelman still in the slot to move the chains.

Singletary should have a 1,200 yard season in 2020.

In upstate New York the Bills have to get more out of Josh Allen as a downfield passer. He has to show the ability to get through his progressions and revert to running as a 3rd option in a make or break season. His fight or flight mechanics were highlighted in last year’s wild card loss. He has to get the ball into the endzone and not rely on field goals and get his defense a cushion.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, right, hands off the ball to Bills running back Zack Moss during an NFL football training camp in Orchard Park, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (James P. McCoy/The Buffalo News via AP, Pool)

One of the issues is the Bills didn’t step up and take one of the games against New England last year.  Each were in reach and they just couldn’t seize it. That came back to haunt them in why the Bills gave up a 16-0 lead in the wildcard game and couldn’t maintain it. They can’t assume they will win the division just because Brady is gone. The Bills have to learn to seize the opportunity and not expect to default into a division championship.

This team also lost a lot of leadership with the retirement of LB Lorenzo Alexander, RB Frank Gore, and DE Shaw Lawson. New leaders have to emerge for Buffalo to take that next step and why they will be in a wildcard slot again.

Aug 26, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) attempts a pass during training camp at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Dolphins are building on the momentum of their 3-2 finish which included a win in New England in the finale. The future looks bright with the drafting of QB Tua Tagovailoa.  The team has brought in RB Matt Breida, and RB Jordan Howard to keep Ryan Fitzpatrick upright as well. He just doesn’t have the tools to move the ball downfield. The team drafted mostly defense to be better prepared to have a defense minded team when Tagovailoa takes over later in the year. Its only a matter of time.

Never underestimate Belichick and the NFL’s #1 defense as he is the best teacher of situational football in league history. He will coax another division championship in New England and Cam will be NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

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2020 AFC North Preview: What will Lamar Jackson Do for an Encore

Last year we saw a transcendent performance at the quarterback position in Lamar Jackson. His 1,206 rushing yards was an NFL record while teaming with fellow 1,000 yard rusher in Mark Ingram. He threw for 36TDs as the Ravens did have defenses in a quandary over where the ball was. The read option was a weapon of epic proportions with Jackson’s ball handling & dazzling athleticism. 

However the Titans exposed Jackson’s weakness completing passes outside of his tight ends and outside the hashmarks in the playoffs. They also played disciplined gap control defense and made sure not to commit forcing Jackson into indecision handing off and in his pass options. He has to improve on his outside touch.

2019 AFC North Predictions

  1. Baltimore Ravens 13-3*
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6**
  3. Cleveland Browns 8-8
  4. Cincinnati Bengals 4-12

In the Steel City Big Ben stabilizes an offense that sputtered with Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges. Yet the defense drug the team to an 8-8 season as they emerged as a top ten defense (5th) and were solid against the pass (3rd) while leading the NFL with 54 sacks and 2nd in interceptions with 20. 

TJ Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 26 sacks were the modern version of Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd. Their disruptive pocket presence along with FS Minkah Fitzpatrick makes this the NFL’s best in defense. They will benefit with continuity and an emerging Devin Bush at inside linebacker.

Roethlisberger will get the Steelers back to the playoffs however the team will come up short of Baltimore without a true running back. James Conner is a ball carrier that can get the yards a play is designed for but nothing more. JuJu Smith Shuster is still trying to show he is a #1 receiver and has a chance with Ben back at the helm. Ben can will this team to 3 more wins with a pedestrian set of skill players with this defense. Good enough for a wildcard.

Its put up or shut up time in Cleveland for Baker Mayfield as the team brought in Case Keenum who is a stop gap veteran much in the way Tennessee picked up Tannehill last season. There is simply too much talent for this team to be 22nd in offense. 

Nick Chubb lead the NFL in rushing up until the final week of his sophomore season. He finished with 1,494 yards and 8 TDs and is the complete package. With former rushing champion Kareem Hunt backing him up they have insurance. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham are a solid set of receivers but they don’t seem to complement each other. They seem to be the same receiver however a good coordinator should able to get the ball to them. Can Mayfield improve with his 3rd offensive coordinator? 

The division is Baltimore’s for the taking and with the drafting of Ohio St’s JK Dobbins he has a stronger skillset than an aging Mark Ingram. The Ravens should repeat last year’s performance with a 1-2 punch. They’ve added DE Calais Campbell to fortify their defense also. The question is can the Ravens make it to Super Bowl LV.

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2020 AFC South Preview: Bound For a Championship Game Appearance

Well…well… well… it looks like we’re going to have an NFL season after all. So we’re here to rub the crystal ball and see what we think will happen this 2020 season. Amid the backdrop of empty stadiums the NFL plans on kicking off the 101st season amid the Covid pandemic.

With two teams that fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the playoffs, it’s not far fetched to assume a team from the AFC South will appear in this year’s AFC Championship Game. The Houston Texans melted after having a 24-0 lead in the divisional round before losing. Then the clock struck midnight on the cinderella Titans in the AFC Championshp after holding a 17-7 lead. Each come into the new season wondering what might have been. 

2020 AFC South Predictions

  1. Indianapolis Colts 11-5
  2. Tennessee Titans 9-7**
  3. Houston Texans 7-9
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12

The mantle of best offensive line shifts from the “Great Wall of Dallas II” to the Indianapolis front line. This group led a game managing Jacoby Brissett to a manageable 18TDs & 6 picks and serviceable Marlon Mack to 1,091 yards and 8 TDs.

This line led by All Pro G Quenton Nelson and LT Anthony Costanzo powered the NFL’s #3 rushing attack. Now they add 226lb north south runner Jonathan Taylor out of Wisonsin. He had multiple 2,000 yard seasons in the Big Ten and translates well in tandem with Mack. This is before speaking of the upgrade to Phillip Rivers who already knows Head Coach Frank Reich’s offense from their time together with the Chargers a few years back.

Rivers has signed a 1 year $25 million dollar deal and is playing for his legacy. Fellow 2004 draftees Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger each have 2 Super Bowl wins and Rivers has yet to appear in one. The Colts have a proven leader in this 16 year veteran who should be able to push the ball downfield better than the aforementioned Mr Brissett.

Down in Tennessee they hope to strike lightening twice with a good season out of Ryan Tannehill. Hard to coax from a retread quarterback the division now has film on. Keep in mind bruising defensive teams that rely on a bellcow running back like league leading rusher Derrick Henry rarely repeat close to the vest playoff runs. Last year the Titans were 3-1 in games decided by 3 points or less. The ball won’t bounce that way a 2nd straight year.

Rashaan Evans will become one of the NFL’s best linebackers this season.

Gone is 5 time pro bowl DT Jurrell Casey, former Patriot change of pace back Dion Lewis, TE Delanie Walker and LB Wesley Woodyard. This is a tremendous loss of veteran leadership and with Casey, playmaking ability.

Houston resigned Deshaun Watson to a megadeal and then traded his #1 weapon in DeAndre Hopkins. They traded him for underachieving RB David Johnson from the Cardinals. Johnson was on the bench and fallen completely out of favor with the Cardinals Coach. What Bill O’Brien saw in this move has yet to be understood by The Chancellor of Football. Or any other pundit for that matter.

Watson will be holding the ball more next year now the team doesn’t have a #1 receiver. He will regress from the 333 of 495 for 3,852 yards 26TDs and 12ints he tossed in 2019.

This will be Bill O’Brien’s last season as the Houston Texans head coach. However this division will have the Colts make the AFC Championship Game. 

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Legendary Days: Doug Martin Hits The Oakland Raiders With a Record 251 Yard 4 TD Performance

If we take you back to the beginning of this decade we didnt have the college football playoff and there was an argument for teams that were the equivalent of college basketball’s mid majors. Did the Boise St Broncos and TCUs of the world belong with college football’s elite??

The Chancellor of Football was wrapped up in the same argument and touted Boise St belonged. It was an argument for their team, competition they faced and the players themselves. SEC loyalists would scoff their players were better and how Boise didn’t belong even though they were 6-0 against top ten competition between 2007-2010.

Going into the 2011 season the argument got even louder as Taylor Blitz Times and The Chancellor produced this article: 2011 Heisman Campaign – Doug Martin of Boise St. The argument took off on Facebook & Twitter where Doug Martin would be a better pro running back than Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson then starring at Alabama. Or at least from this historian/talent evaluator’s view.

Martin didnt fulfill his promise with an injury filled senior season and Ingram also struggled rushing for 474 yards 5 TDs as a rookie. Yet 2012 would be different. Ingram would be versed in the pro game and start to make his move and Martin was healthy headed for the draft.  Once Mike Mayock of NFL Network came out and stated Martin was the most NFL ready back a lot of talk died down.

Hadn’t The Chancellor of Football proclaimed that more than a year earlier??

The Buccanneers learned to entrust Doug Martin with the football in his hands as the lead horse.

Once Martin became the 1st round selection of the Bucs and in the same division as Ingram the stage was set. However Martin’s rooke season began with fits and starts. A flash here and there but hadn’t put a whole game together and then came week 8.

In a national televised Thursday night contest Martin put it together with a 29 car. for 135 yards and 1 TD performance. He also had to 3 receptions for 79 yards and another score. The 2-4 Bucs upset the 5-2 Vikings and the league took notice of Martin.

Those that doubted his ability to play on this level had all shut their collective mouths for this was a strong performance. We hadn’t seen anything yet as the Oakland Raiders and their 12th ranked run defense was the recipe for a historic performance:

Once the dust settled, Martin had set the Bucs all time single game rushing record with 251 yards and 4 TDs. He scored on runs of 45, 67, 70, and 1 yards all in the 2nd half. Yikes! Had Adrian Peterson not broken the NFL’s All Time rookie single game yardage mark with 296 in 2007, Martin would have broke it with this 2012 performance.

If you include his 1st carry of the 4th quarter, the 70 yard TD, Martin had 10 carries 213 yards and 3 TDs in 16:00 of football. He was staring the NFL’s single game rushing record (296 yards) in the face with 14:00 left in the game. Highlights on NFL Redzone and cut ins around the country showed Martin just destroying the Raiders.

As for that original argument The Chancellor had waged with SEC loyalists backing Ingram ended that afternoon loudly. Martin would go on to a Pro Bowl season with a career best 1,451 yards 11TDs. Ingram finished with 602 yards and 5 TDs.

After a few injury filled seasons Martin bounced back with a 1,402 yard season in 2015 when he finished 2nd in the NFL in rushing… again to?? Adrian Peterson. His signature game in that season was a 27 carry 235 yard performance against the Eagles in 2015.

martin.rankd33in2016He had injuries during his career but the flashes he showed were some of the best in NFL history. The game against Oakland was the signature game of his career. If he could have avoided the injury bug…

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Legends of The Fall: When Auburn Running Backs Ruled the NFL

In the annals of college football there was a time where USC had earned the moniker “Tailback U”. Then in the late 80s Oklahoma St churned out back to back Pro Football Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Yet go back another decade and you’ll have a hard time topping the talent Auburn sent to the NFL over a 10 year period.

From 1979 -1989 William Andrews, Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel “Litte Train” James, and Bo Jackson took the NFL by storm. While each touched a level of greatness during this era none would make it to the hallowed halls of Canton. Although injuries derailed 2 of these promising careers right at their zenith.

Of this list most think of Bo Jackson as the leading ground gainer who lost his prime to an injury. Not true the 1st of our super backs who had their career cut short was the punishing William Andrews. He’s the man that began this era of excellence unexpectedly as a 3rd round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the ’79 draft.

To offer some context consider Andrews was the powerful fullback blocking for the shifty and elusive Joe Cribbs and James Brooks. In ’78 Cribbs led the Tigers with 1,278 yards while Brooks spelled him gaining 514 more. Andrews was the 3rd choice with the fewest carries at 72.

He exploded onto the NFL scene rushing for 1,023 yards in his rookie campaign in ’79. Then followed it up with back to back 1,300 yards seasons in ’80 & ’81 yet came to be known as the running back who once knocked out Hall of Fame hitter Ronnie Lott. We don’t have that hit but we do have one encounter on a Monday Night fans everywhere remember during that era…

By 1983 Andrews had supplanted Hall of Fame Member Earl Campbell as the NFL’s premier power back. His ’83 rushing total of 1,567 yards stood as a team record until Jamal Anderson broke it in 1998. He was 2nd in the league in rushing to another Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. It was the 2nd time Andrews gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 3 years. Yet he was derailed with a knee injury that shortened a potential trip to Canton.

Take a look at how lethal he was both running and receiving from 79-83.

  • 79 – 239 car. 1,023 yds 3TDs / 39 rec. 309 yds 2TDs
  • 80 – 265 car. 1,308 yds 4TDs / 51 rec. 456yds 1TD
  • 81 – 287 car. 1,301 yds 10TDs / 81 rec. 735 yds 2 TDs
  • 82 – 139 car. 573 yds 2TDs (strike shortened year)
  • 83 – 331 car. 1,562 yds 7 TDs / 59 rec. 609 yds 4TDs

Andrews was either 1st or 2nd team All Pro 4 straight years and was in the Pro Bowl as well from 80-83. Guess who joined him in Hawaii for 3 of those Pro Bowls in ’80, ’81 and ’83?? Former “War Eagle” backfield mate Joe Cribbs. Do you realize in 1980 these former backfield mates wound up the #4 (Andrews 1,308 yds) and #6 (Cribbs 1,185 yds) rushers in the NFL??

In ’80 Cribbs blossomed into the AFC’s Rookie of the Year as he was the sparkplug in the Bills 1st division championship dating back to 1966. Cribbs juked his way to 1,185 yards rushing 11 TDs while gaining another 415 yards on 52 receptions. Quite simply he was Thurman Thomas before Thurman Thomas as he was a threat out of the backfield. He tortured linebackers trying to cover him.

Check out the move on the 1st vid at the 2:32 mark when he rushes for a 16 yard TD against New England. He makes 4 unblocked Patriots miss in a phone booth… just sick…

While being a Bills fan up close, it’s hard to choose between his rookie year or his 2nd year as his best. Both years the Bills were in the playoffs and in ’81 he rushed for 1,097 yards and only 3 TDs but made up for it with 7 TD receptions and another 603 yards on 40 receptions. He flashed on big play after big play as a the Bills rose to prominence challenging the NFL’s elite.

Amazingly Cribbs and Andrews were rarely used as receivers at Auburn and they’re game fully maturing on the NFL level is what elevated both. Auburn in ’78 completed just 5 passes a game in a run heavy offense.

Ironically this was the role James Brooks also found himself as the 3rd down back in his rookie season with “Air Coryell” in ’81. Chuck Muncie was the feature back and he scored an NFL record 19TDs rushing. Brooks was the change of pace scatback who recorded 46 receptions for 329 yards and 3 TDs and had to fit in where he could. He only ran the ball 109 times for 525 yards but had a whopping 4.8 yard average.

He was the AFC’s leading punt returner in 1981 and led the NFL in kickoff return yardage in 1982… so of course you’re asking “How is that dominant at the pro level?”

With a potential contract dispute looming, he was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. His 2nd season in the Queen City saw him improve with 929 yards rushing and 7 TDs. Out of the backfield he caught 55 aerials for 576 yards and crossed the goal line 5 more times.

Over the next 5 seasons Brooks would make the Pro Bowl as a runner 4 times while being selcted All Pro in the same seasons. He had 3 1,000 yard season and in 1988 finished with 931 yards. Had he gained another 69 he and Ickey Woods (1,066) would have been just the 4th set of 1,000 yard rushers in the same backfield in a season. Brooks and Woods powered the #1 offense to Super Bowl XXIII that year.

His 1989 season of 1,239 yards rushing was the most in Bengals history up to that point. Corey Dillon broke it in 2000. Try this vignette:

So if you’re keeping score, between 1980 and 1990, these 3 running backs accounted for 11 Pro Bowls, 11 All Pro selections, a Super Bowl appearance (Brooks XXIII) and 10 – 1,000 yard campaigns. Each saw success as the Bills and Falcons twice made it to the divisional round of the playoffs and 1 trip to the AFC Championship Game with Brooks in ’81.

While these men were killing it on the NFL level, Bo Jackson and Lionel “train” James were the new set of Auburn backs to make names for themselves. James was thought of to be too small for the NFL standing at 5’6 and 171 lbs soaking wet. Yet he would have to make a name on special teams and spot duty in the backfield.

As a rookie in ’84 James led the NFL in kick returns (49) and kick return yards (949) to prove he belonged. Of course you’re asking “How is that dominating in the NFL?” Well…then came 1985…

In a season where Roger Craig became the first 1,000/1,000 yard performer both rushing and receiving & led the NFL with 92 receptions out of the backfield. Guess who was 3rd with 86 receptions 1,027 yards and 6 TDs? “Little Train” James. He actually outgained the more celebrated Craig in yardage 1,027 – 1,016. This was an NFL record for receiving yards out of the backfield.

However by the time you add James 516 yds on 105 carries & 949 yards on 43 kickoffs, he set an NFL All Purpose Yardage record with 2,535 yards. This didn’t count another 205 yards on punt returns!

His reception yardage record didn’t fall until 1999 when Marshall Faulk broke it with 1,048. His all purpose yardage mark stood until 2000 when Derrick Mason of the Titans broke it. Do you realize James’ ’85 season still ranks 4th in history?? He’s been gone from the NFL 31 years. His last season with the Chargers was 1988.

His best game ever?? His 345 yard performance against the LA Raiders where he won it in overtime:

By the way… that was the 2nd most all purpose yardage in a game in NFL/AFL history. In a brief 5 year career… James could fly. His 1985 was so dominant that it changed the Pro Bowl voting as the following year special team kick returner was added to the vote. In 1986 Bobby Joe Edmonds of Seattle became the 1st voted in but we know who’s play created that spot. Lionel James!

Bo powering past perennial all pro Cornelius Bennett of Buffalo.

Then we finish with the Heisman winning Bo Jackson. He was so great that 30 years later we’re still watching Bo Knows in a 30 for 30 documentary of what could have been. He shocked the world when he didn’t play for Tampa who drafted him in ’85 and we know of his baseball and football exploits. When he came back to “take on another hobby” in ’87 with the Raiders, it didnt sit well with a young Chancellor. It seemed arrogant and then we saw what happened on the Monday Night in Seattle:

Yikes! Bo can do whatever the hell he wants. To watch him just dust Hall of Famer Kenny Easley who had the angle on him… I was done. Apparently so was the rest of America. For the next 4 years every football season began with “When is Bo coming over from baseball?” He had other great games but not as electric as that Monday Night.

In 1990 Bo Jackson became the 1st backup to ever make the Pro Bowl as he ran for just 698 yards and 5 TDs. League wide respect poured out over what he could do if he turned to football full time. He was an adonis with sprinter speed that made the best athletes in the world view his exploits in awe.

But alas … we never saw Bo get to full potential as he went out with a fractured and dislocated hip in a 1990 AFC divisional playoff against Cincinnati. He never played again.

“Little Train” James had knee injries slow a once promising career that lasted just 5 seasons.

None of these men will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame but each left an indelible mark on the NFL of the 1980s. They arrived on the scene and turned lesser than franchises into teams that contended for championships. What was remarkable was how complete these backs were catching the ball out of the backfield when they rarely exhibited this in college.

This was one of the great runs from one school in NFL history. Even USC’s best was really OJ Simpson and Marcus Allen. Two Hall of Famers that came out 12 years apart in ’68 and ’81 respectively. Not a series of game changing backs.

To think that 3 players out of the same ’78 Auburn Tiger backfield, Andrews, Brooks, & Cribbs would go on to produce 27,771 yards from scimmage and 162 TDs in the NFL is nothing short of brilliant. Especially with Andrews and Cribbs having brief careers.

An era of dominance to be remembered for all time.

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