Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns (a franchise record) against the Colts in the AFC divisional playoff, appears on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/20/14)—on newsstands NOW. Blount, who is in his first season with New England after spending three years with the Buccaneers, had his biggest play against Indiana on a 73-yard touchdown run with 13:08 left in the fourth quarter to put the Patriots up 36–22, before closing it out with a 43–22 and a spot in the conference championship game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. As NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “The Broncos’ run defense will face its own challenge in the 6-foot, 250-pound Blount, who has racked up 355 yards and six TDs in his last two games. Led by tackle Terrance Knighton, Denver stifled the white-hot Chargers last week, but Blount runs—plows, really—behind a man-blocking front that’s particularly mobile and voracious on the left side, where perennial Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and svelte tackle Nate Solder ply their trade.”
Then there’s the Patriots’ undersized and often undervalued wide receiver, Julian Edelman who, after re-signing with New England because no other team wanted him more, had a breakout 1,056 receiving yards season, including 110 yards and two touchdowns in a 34–31 win over the Broncos in Week 12. Writes SI senior writer Tim Layden in this week’s feature on Edelman, “These Patriots are the unlikeliest AFC finalists of the Bill Belichick era, a team that went 12–4 despite being steadily thinned by personnel losses (injuries and otherwise) from June into January. No position incurred deeper cuts than receiver, where quarterback Tom Brady lost his top five targets from 2012, including Wes Welker, the most productive slot man in NFL history. Into that void surged Edelman, 27, who caught 105 passes—fourth in the league, 50 more than any other Patriot and seven fewer than Welker’s average in New England. Edelman also finished fourth in the league in punt return yardage (374). It’s perilous to suggest that these Patriots wouldn’t have survived further attrition (Brady excepted), but it’s also difficult to imagine them in Denver without Edelman.”
Of course all of the hype surrounding the AFC Championship will focus on Brady vs. Manning, who will compete on an NFL field for the 15th time in their pro careers (Brady leads the series 10-4.) This weekend’s game, however, will come down to whether the Broncos’ defense can survive against New England’s dynamic Blount-Edelman duo.
SI’s prediction: Patriots 34, Broncos 28. | NFL analyst Andy Benoit
After stymieing the Saints for the second time this season, this time for a 23–15 win in the NFC divisional playoff and a spot in the conference championship game against the 49ers, Seahawks defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett appear on one of two regional covers of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/20/14)—on newsstands NOW. Against Seattle’s top-ranked D, New Orleans was only able to convert three of its 12 third-down attempts and one of its three fourth-down tries, while quarterback Drew Brees was held to just one touchdown. Although Seattle is known more for its 12th man and its read-option offense, its defense has become one of legend under coach Pete Carroll. The Seahawks spent a whopping 27% of their salary cap on defensive linemen in 2013, including the signing of Avril and Bennett, and led the NFL by pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 33% of their drop backs. SI senior writer Jim Trotter writes, “Last spring, following his third season in charge of the Seahawks, Carroll finally had a defense built to his specifications. There was size at every position, notably cornerback, where Brandon Browner (6′ 4″) and Richard Sherman (6′ 3″) formed the NFL’s tallest starting tandem. There was speed on every level, from ends Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons to strong side linebacker K.J. Wright to free safety Earl Thomas. And there was success: In 2012, Seattle’s defense led the league in points allowed and was fourth in yards ceded. Still, Carroll wasn’t satisfied. His motto is Always compete—another way of saying Never be complacent. So instead of waiting for the defense to improve with experience and familiarity, he and new coordinator Dan Quinn asked six of their 10 returning starters to line up at new positions or to play new roles.”
The reasoning for Carroll’s overhaul was threefold: 1) to amp up the pass rush; 2) to stiffen against the run; and 3) to fit the system to each player’s skills. Avril, who averaged just under 10 sacks his last three seasons with the Lions, would bring heat off the edge; and Bennett, coming off a career-best nine sacks with the Buccaneers, would provide interior disruption. Writes Trotter, “The results have been stunning. The 2013 Seahawks were No. 1 in takeaways (39) and interceptions (28); and in points (14.4 per game), passing yards (172.0) and total yards (273.6) allowed. Avril finished the season with eight sacks and five forced fumbles, while Bennett had 8.5 sacks. Much of the spotlight falls on the Legion of Boom secondary, but the front seven—or perhaps front eight, considering how frequently strong safety Kam Chancellor plays near the line—contributes just as much.”
Assuming the Seahawk’s D can stick to Carroll’s game plan and contain quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s scrambling, Seattle holds a slight edge.
SI Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 20. | SI senior writer Jim Trotter
Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos’ star running back whose monstrous tears during the national anthem at Denver’s Dec. 1 game against the Chiefs shocked the world, is one of three regional covers for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. On the surface it would appear that Moreno wouldn’t have much to cry about in the Mile High City: 2013 was a breakout season in his five year NFL career. He ran for a career high 1,380 yards, including 224 yards on the road against the Patriots in Week 12, and ten touchdowns during the regular season. Still, Moreno’s super-sized tear ducts and over-the-top emotions were a sight to behold. Writes SI senior writer Tim Layden, “You saw those tears and you wondered, What makes a player cry like that before a game? Especially a player like Knowshon Moreno, who is finally thriving in the NFL. In addition to his rushing stats, he caught 60 passes for 548 yards, by far the best in his career, and three more TDs. And he did this for a team with 13 wins and home field for as long as it survives in the AFC playoffs—Denver will face the Chargers on Jan. 12—peaking- with a 37-carry, 224-yard game in the bitter cold against the -Patriots on Nov. 24. ‘He’s been our bell cow,’ says coach John Fox, evoking the bovine metaphor that coaches lovingly employ to describe the most reliable of running backs. Moreno has earned Manning’s trust and respect, and there is no more valuable currency in the Broncos’ locker room—or in any locker room west of Foxborough. ‘He’s a horse,’ says Manning, opting for the equine metaphor. ‘I love his passion. I love his intensity. I love having him standing next to me back there. It’s a very comfortable feeling.’” (Page 50)
The respect and admiration that coaches and teammates have for Moreno is unmistakable. Even guys he competes with for playing time praise his leadership and professionalism. So given all that, and the fact that a new contract is looming once the season is over, why the tears? “Not uncommon at all,” Moreno says. “It’s always been that way for me, all the way back to high school and college. During the anthem it’s always quiet and still, so I take in the moment and say a little prayer. Usually there’s no camera on me. I thank the Lord for letting me play the game. I thank Him for everything. I run through my whole life right there at that moment. Even the bad stuff.” (Page 50) | SI senior writer, Tim Layden
After overcoming a 28-point second-half deficit and continuing on to an improbable 45-44 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card game, quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts appear on one of three regional covers for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. Luck survived three interceptions to throw for 443 yards and four touchdowns, and rush seven times for 45 vital yards. He scored the touchdown that drew the Colts within three points in the fourth quarter on a heads-up-five-yard fumble recovery and return, and he put Indianapolis into the lead for the first time in the game with a 64-yard pass to a wide-open T.J. Hilton with 4:21 remaining. NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “While America has been captivated by the ‘revolutionary’ likes of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and RG3, Andrew Luck has quietly emerged as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Not best young quarterbacks; best quarterbacks, period. Luck’s -numbers—23 TDs in each of his two years, 81.5 passer -rating—aren’t staggering. But his 10 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT (including that gem against the Chiefs) and his 23 victories are.” (Page 23)
In 2012 the Colts selected Luck with the first pick in the draft to replace an injured Peyton Manning. Everyone knew Luck was an elite college QB, but that has fooled people before. Take Matt Leinart, for example. He won the Heisman and a national championship at USC. Or take Tim Tebow. He, too, won the Heisman and two championships at Florida. Neither did anything noteworthy at quarterback in the NFL and both are currently out of the league. So with Manning off to Denver and lingering doubt about whether drafting Luck was a sound investment, fans in Indianapolis waited with baited breath to see if Luck would be a boom or a bust.
As it turns out, boom might be an understatement. Writes Benoit, “Luck is at the heart of the Colts’ success. The NFL loves pocket passers; the 24-year-old is that and more. Not only can he cycle through manifold progressions to find receivers, but he can also work guys open with improvisation. Much like Ben Roethlisberger, Luck extends plays with strength and athleticism. While Roethlisberger flourishes as things break down, Luck flourishes by keeping things together. He has a gift for extending a play without compromising its structure. Even under heat, he keeps his eyes downfield and relies on sharp mechanics to make accurate throws from untenable positions.” (Page 23) Now the Colts are off to New England for a showdown with Tom Brady and the Patriots, where they hope to have more than just a little bit of Luck. | NFL analyst Andy Benoit
To see a gallery of photos of the NFL’s biggest comebacks by franchise go to:
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who led San Diego to a 27-10 upset of the Bengals in the AFC Wild Card, appears on one of three regional covers of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. Since throwing an interception in a 17-10 loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 1, (the last time San Diego was defeated), Rivers has thrown 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, completed 68.3 percent of his passes and had a passer rating of 104.0 or higher on four occasions. NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “People snickered when Mike McCoy said last May that Philip Rivers could connect on 70% of his passes in the Chargers’ new spread offense. Turns out the first-year coach was prophetic—almost. Rivers had an NFL-high 69.5% completion rate and 32 TDs (fourth in the NFL), earning his fifth Pro Bowl invitation and quieting speculation about his future in San Diego.” (Page 21)
Benoit believes that fans shouldn’t be so quick to write off the Chargers as they enter Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff at top-seeded Denver. While the Broncos are a 10-point favorite, there is some vulnerability there. The two teams split the season series with the Broncos winning in San Diego and the Chargers getting a 27–20 surprise victory in Denver on Dec. 12. In that game Rivers led the offense to points on five of its eight possessions, including two touchdowns. In making the case for the Chargers as a dark horse Benoit writes, “Few imagined that the Chargers, who on Dec. 1 were 5–7 and still had the Broncos and the Chiefs remaining on their schedule, would be among the NFL’s final eight. In fact, few had believed in the team when it opened camp with mostly the same roster that had stayed home the last three postseasons. The offense seemed particularly uninspired. Rivers had not been impressive since 2010, when he threw for 4,710 yards and 30 TDs; the running game had gained only 91.3 yards per outing in ’12 (27th in the NFL); and the O-line, revamped in three of five spots this season, was short on athleticism and experience. But the beauty of a spread system like McCoy’s is that it can dilute weaknesses. Athleticism and experience are less important along the line when the QB is getting rid of the ball on a three-step drop, which is the norm, as wider formations make passing lanes and defensive schemes easier to identify before the snap. Run blocking is less about moving an opponent than about neutralizing him just enough to maintain preexisting spacing. The spread can’t succeed with a terrible line, but it can with one whose best assets are undersized center Nick Hardwick and monstrous (if lead-footed) rookie tackle D.J. Fluker.” (Page 21) | NFL analyst Andy Benoit