07 Dec Stromme’s Takes: Finding Flaws in Super Bowl Contenders Pt. 1
By: Mike Stromme
Contrary to popular belief, no team in today’s NFL is perfect. You could make a case for the ’72 Dolphins, their record sure says they were perfect. But I’m not here to argue for or against that notion. Maybe they were good, maybe they were just lucky. Hell, it’s probably a combination of the two. To quote Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, “You have to be good to be lucky.”
Any Super Bowl run (or championship run in any sport, for that matter), needs a little bit of luck come playoff time. Whether it’s players like David Tyree, Malcolm Butler or Mario Manningway coming up big, a Tuck Rule, a botched onside kick, a no-catch (that clearly was a catch, by the way), or facing a hobbled QB at the right time, each and every team needs a little luck to get the chance at hoisting the Lombardi trophy.
Every great team, no matter the league, sport or platform has flaws. It’s these flaws that create close games come January, leading to the downfall of great dynasties that never were. The 2007 Patriots ran into the New York Giants, a team that could put the unblemished Tom Brady on his back. The 2014 Miami Heat ran into a Spurs team that saw them before, knew how to keep the “Big Three” in-check one year after meeting their demise to the same crew. The list goes on and on.
The 11-1 Dallas Cowboys and the 9-2 New England Patriots are all but destined to meet in Super Bowl 51 in the eyes of many football fans. Despite both teams having third-string QBs starting games for each club, they both sit atop the standings in each of their respective conferences. While both teams currently look unbeatable to some, they both have flaws. I am here to expose the downfalls in each club, point out the exploitable weaknesses and show which team(s) can give each football team trouble down the stretch and into January.
Dallas Cowboys (11-1):
The Dallas Cowboys have been a revelation this season. The once unpredictable, helter-skelter club led by Tony Romo is now under Millennial control. Ironic, there’s probably more than one baby-boomer in the state of Texas bitching about how Millennials are ruining the world, but have no problem tuning into the Cowboys every Sunday (*Kermit sips*). But, I digress.
Anyways, the heartbeat of this squad is, without debate, Dak Presscott and Ezekiel Elliot. The rookie QB/RB tandem has been phenomenal all season while showing maturity beyond the date of birth on their driver’s licences. Zeke Elliott has been shattering expectations (and records) behind an offensive line for the ages. Hell, he has an outside shot of breaking 2,000 yards and is very much in the MVP conversation.We haven’t seen a rookie running back do something like this since… Well, David Johnson and Todd Gurley last season. But, that’s beside the point. Zeke is the tonic this franchise desperately needed.
If we mention one Cowboy rookie, we cannot forget Jerry’s other favourite son, Dak Prescott. Dak, in a word, has been incredible. He has size, speed, a cannon for an arm and the football IQ to back it up. To me, he’s Russell Wilson with size. Behind that offensive line, that’s a dangerous combo. A 67.9% completion percentage is nice, 2,974 passing yards are dandy and 19 touchdown passes are absolutely splendid. However, the fact that a rookie QB has thrown a mere 2 (TWO!) interceptions blows my mind-hole. Peyton Manning had 28 interceptions his rookie year, Brady had 12 in his first full season, even Joesph Clifford Montana Jr. had 12 in his rookie year. What Dak is doing right now is borderline unprecedented.
Behind these two rookies, the Cowboys have lost just once. To put things in perspective, if you bet the Cowboys against the spread from Weeks 1-11, you would not have lost a penny as they pushed their only loss of the season in Week 1 and covered every other game up until Thanksgiving. A strong rushing attack parlayed with limiting turnovers results in wins, who knew?
The flaws in this team lay with the defense. The Cowboys have done an outstanding job of keeping a defense that has allowed a 70.3 completion percentage to opposing QBs (31st), allowed the third-most passing yards (3,084), have only gotten to the QB on 4.4% of snaps (30th) and have allowed 161 first downs via the pass (29th). The key to stopping this team come January will lie in a team’s ability to stop the run. Thus, exposing a rather soft defensive
unit that a rushing attack for the ages has been masking for 13 weeks.
There are two contending teams that come to mind that may or may not give the Cowboys trouble down the stretch, one of which has already beaten them this season. Not only do the pass-first New York Giants have the tools to expose this defence, they now have the run-D to back it up. Through 12 weeks, the 8-3 New York Giants (who NOBODY is talking about, by the way) have allowed just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt this season. Eli Manning has had the best completion percentage since 2009 at 63.2%; he finished 2009 completing passes at 63.3%. This is a team within the division that has, and could continue, to give the Cowboys fits. They matchup next week on Sunday Night Football, to quote former Cowboy Terrell Owens “y’all better get yo popcorn ready!”.
The other team that could stop the Cowboys from reaching their first Super Bowl in 20 years is the Seattle Seahawks. They’re a team with an extended track record of stopping the run, and have a QB who can make the necessary throws. The key to stopping Russell Wilson is by putting him on his back, the Cowboys can’t do that either. Luckily for them, the only way these teams face each other will be in January.
The remainder of the Dallas schedule contains the Giants, Buccaneers, Lions and Eagles; four teams that, as of this publish date, all still have playoff aspirations. No cupcakes left on the schedule for this squad, things should get interesting down the stretch.
New England Patriots (9-2):
I’ve said this for the majority of my brief career, “you do not get rich betting against Brady and/or Belichick.” Even when Brady was sidelined through the first quarter of the season, they still looked dominant for three of the four games. As long as this team has Belichick, Brady or a combination of the two, they will remain contenders. However, there are a few factors that could hinder this team from reaching the big game in February.
The first factor is the health of the skill players surrounding the QB position. Yes, we’ve seen Brady turn chicken you-know-what into chicken salad before, but even he has his limits. Just look back to last season, this team was a shoe-in for Super Bowl 50 until the team lost Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Gronkowski and multiple offensive lineman. And hey, Gronk is already out for the year (he might be healthy enough for the Super Bowl if the Patriots get that far). Lewis just came back from injury, Edelman has been on weekly injury reports in addition to missing 12 games in three seasons and even Gronk’s other tight end buddy Martellus Bennett hasn’t been an iron man this season. Even LeGarrette Blount’s not bullet proof, we saw that last season. His balls-to-the-wall running style is just as much a hazard to his health as it is the men who try to tackle him. The Patriots might be +270 favourites to win it all, but anything can happen between now and then, including a key injury here and there.
They also haven’t been the greatest defensively. Have they been deplorable? No, but mediocre might be a stretch. They’re currently 24th in defensive sack percentage, sacking opposing QBs just 22 times in 11 games. They only have five interceptions all season and are middle of the pack in stopping both the pass and run.
A Belichick staple has always been that his offenses look after the football. Last season, they lost just seven fumbles all season. In 2016, they’re already at that number with five games to play.
They’ve also had the 4th-easiest schedule according to Pro Football Reference’s SRS (simple rating system). The Patriots’ biggest tests this season came against the Steelers and Seahawks. The Steelers didn’t have Roethlisberger and the Seahawks walked into Foxboro and won. Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, the Jets and Miami remain on the schedule. All four teams (excluding Los Angeles), have historically given the Patriots fits over the years, things should get interesting down the stretch.
A team that could rub this team the wrong way come January are teams that will get a shot at the current AFC kings in the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos. The Ravens are a team that were doubted by many (myself included) to stay healthy given how many ageing players were on this squad. However, it’s December and they’re not only healthy, but leading the AFC North with just one month to go. Guys like Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco and Steve Smith Sr. have seen the Patriots in the playoffs before, they know what this team’s all about. John Harbaugh has been both a victim and an aggressor of playoff punishment involving the Patriots. The Broncos beat the Patriots not once, but twice last season with a very similar defense and QB situation to this year’s team. To dismiss their upset potential would be a mistake.
Anything can happen between now and Feb. 5, 2017. Things change, nothing in this crazy-ass league named the National Football League is a lock. Every team has a weakness, it’s just a matter of who can properly exploit it at the right time.