The Patriots had a 2-game lead over the Broncos for the #1 AFC playoff seed with 2 games to play but then inexplicably lost to both the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks 16 and 17. And that would come back to haunt them. You see, allowing the Broncos to get the top seed meant that in order for the Patriots to repeat as champions, they likely at some point were going to have to beat the Broncos in Denver. And, as any Patriots fan can tell you, Patriots' trips to Denver over the years have almost always resulted in defeat.
Since the AFL merged into the NFL back in 1970, the Patriots have compiled a 3-16 record vs. the Broncos in games played in Denver, including 0-3 in the playoffs and also including a 30-24 defeat in Week 12 this season. And now you can make that record 0-4 in the playoffs and 3-17 overall, as they fell to the Broncos once again, 20-18, in the AFC title game on Jan. 24 despite taking the field as a 3-point favorite. In the end it was Danny Trevathan savoring the Lamar Hunt Trophy alongside fellow LBs Von Miller and Brandon Marshall (photo above) as the Broncos won their 2nd AFC championship in the last 3 years.
Up until this season I always cheered for the Patriots whenever they faced the Broncos. But I'll tell you, when I heard that he had destroyed his cell phone in the middle of that Deflategate investigation during the 2015 offseason, I lost a lot of respect for Tom Brady. And when his 4-game suspension was overturned (for now) just before the season started - angering me even more - the Patriots replaced the Broncos (for this season, at least) as the AFC team I like the least. So when the Broncos recovered the Patriots' onside kickoff with 11 seconds to play, ending New England's hopes, it was one of the very few times you'll see me with a smile on my face after a Broncos' victory.
You probably noticed that in the dreads focus section of my Week 18 report I did not include the name of Patriots LB Jamie Collins. That's because I forgot to try to confirm if he had started growing dreads, which I first started suspecting after getting glimpses of him during the Patriots' playoff game against the Chiefs. It turns out he does now have dreads and he's had them since since just after Christmas. It's always great to be able to welcome someone new to the house, and especially if he's a really good player, as Collins is. But Collins wasn't a good enough player against the Broncos. Although the stats sheet shows that he had a fine game with a team-leading 8 tackles (6-2), 3 TFL, and 2 sacks, it doesn't show that he also got beat in coverage on both of the Broncos' touchdowns.
The Broncos still led by 8 after kicking a FG that made the score 20-12 with 10:02 remaining in the game. Now even those of you who may be mathematically challenged can figure out that when you're down 8, you're going to have to score at least 9 points to win the game. And you also know that in football 3 field goals = 9 points. Well, as it turned out the Patriots had three possessions in those final 10 minutes and drove into FG range on all three of them. And yet not one of them ended with a FG attempt. The final plays of the first two of those drives - a reception for a loss of 1 on 4th and 1 with 6:03 remaining and an incomplete pass in the end zone on 4th and 6 with 2:18 to play - were done in by good plays by the Broncos' two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib (although Talib did get away with a penalty on that 4th an 6). A FG on either one of those drives would have cut to Broncos' lead to 5, and FGs on both would have cut the lead to 2. Instead when the Patriots got the ball back at the 50-yard line with 1:52 on the clock, they still trailed by 8.
After wondering for a moment why in the world Roby was trying to return his INT, it finally occurred to me why: there were still 12 seconds left - enough time for the Patriots to recover an onside kickoff and get into FG range. So Roby was absolutely right to run it back - because if he had taken it all the way to the house, the Broncos would have led by 4 instead of 2, and the Patriots would have needed a TD instead of a FG. It turned out not to matter though because the Broncos recovered the onside kick to clinch the victory. I don't know; maybe you feel otherwise. But if I was I Patriots fans, I'd have been really disappointed that they didn't try a FG at least one of those two chances they had. The Patriots pride themselves on being a smart team. It just seems to me they would have won with some smarter decisions by their coaching staff.
Three other Patriots with dreads besides Collins made tackles in the game. LBs Jabaal Sheard and Dont'a Hightower had identical totals of 6 tackles (5-1) and 1 TFL, with Hightower (photo below, pressuring Manning on a pass attempt on the opening drive) also recording 1 PBU. Rookie DE Malcom Brown finished with 1 tackle (1-0). For the Broncos Trevathan finished with 5 tackles (4-1) and 1 PBU and had his hands full trying to cover Gronkowski. Of the game's 580 total yards (336-244 in favor of New England), the only ones by anybody with dreads were the 41 by Bolden.
While the Patriots and Broncos have combined to take 16 of the last 40 AFC championships (8 each), over in the NFC the winner of the title game between the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers would be making only their 2nd trip to the Super Bowl. Much to my dismay the Cardinals, the team I picked to win the Super Bowl, laid an egg and were embarrassed by the Panthers 49-15 after taking the field as just a 3-point underdog. Although the first downs were even 21-21, the total yards most definitely were not. Thanks to several big plays Carolina racked up a 476-287 advantage in yards. But the biggest number on the stats sheet was the mind-boggling 7 turnovers by the Cardinals, with QB Carson Palmer responsible for 6 of them. Ain't no way you can win with 7 turnovers.
With the Panthers' penchant this season to build big leads in games and then lose them, I kept hoping the Cardinals would just weather the storm early. Just don't fall too far behind. But by the time the 1st quarter was over they were already further behind than the Seahawks were after one quarter on the same field one week earlier. Every time the Cardinals had a chance to weather the storm, either they couldn't make a play or couldn't keep the Panthers from making one.
Then came the first of four key moments in the game where the Cardinals had a chance to get some momentum and get back in the game, only to have the Panthers slam the door right in their face. After no plays had begun inside the Carolina 34-yard line for the first 13:12 of the game, the Cardinals finally had the Panthers pinned deep in their own territory with a punt to the 12-yard line. With a chance to hold the Panthers to a three-and-out, the Cardinals rushed 5 defenders on 3rd and 8. Well, they might as well have rushed no one because none of the five got anywhere near Newton, giving him all day to throw.
The second key play came with 4:45 to go until halftime, after the Cardinals had closed to within 17-7. This time their defense did get the three-and-out, and the Panthers elected to punt. But CB Patrick Peterson, an outstanding punt returner, muffed the punt while trying to catch it on the run, with the Panthers recovering at the Arizona 46. So instead of getting the ball in good field position, 5 plays and 46 yards later the Cardinals were down 24-7.
Not wanting a repeat of what happened a week earlier, the Panthers came out smoking in the 2nd half, going FG-TD on their first two drives, the same as in the 1st half; and it might have been TD-TD if not for a sack by DE Ed Stinson for an 11-yard loss on 2nd and goal after the Panthers had reached the 6-yard line - one of the few good plays by the Cardinals' D. After the FG made it 27-7 and the Cardinals went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, a 39-yard reception by Ginn accounted for half the yards on the 79-yard drive that made the score 34-7.
An 80-yard drive by the Cardinals made it 34-15, and they got the ball back after a three-and-out by Carolina. When you're down 19 with 12:58 to play, obviously you're in deep trouble. But you're not dead yet. There's still enough time to get three more possessions. But any slim hopes the Cardinals had for a miracle finish disappeared after the last of the four key, momentum-changing plays. After picking up a couple of 1st downs, they were at the Carolina 44. But once again - and on 1st down again - Palmer lofted a deep pass into double coverage that had almost no chance of being caught by intended WR John Brown and instead was easily intercepted by Coleman again. The Panthers then went 84 yards in 9 plays to make it 42-15 and officially started making plans for their trip to the west coast for the Super Bowl.
Boston, who also had a FR in the 1st half, and DE Ryan Delaire both finished with 1 tackle (1-0). LB Shaq Thompson had 5 tackles (3-2), most of which came in garbage time. Ginn came very close to making the dread stars list, with all of his 112 all-purpose yards (22 rushing, 52 receiving, 38 on punt returns) on 5 touches contributing to scoring drives.
Best player with dreads: DeAndre Hopkins
Player with best dreads: Derek Newton
There was no clear choice for the player with the best dreads in the AFC South. I picked Derek Newton, who started all 16 games on the O-line, because his dreads certainly are long enough and he had them reduced less often than the other contenders ..... There was no doubt about the best player with dreads in the division. In three seasons in the league DeAndre Hopkins has become one of the best WRs in the league, finishing this season 3rd in the NFL with 1,521 yards receiving on 111 catches. Unfortunately Hopkins (celebrating the 3rd of his 11 TD catches with Newton in Week 3 in top photo on right), as I've mentioned several times before, has decided to go with fewer locks, keeping his dreads reduced all the time. But he's still one of my favorite players. And his dreads aren't reduced permanently yet, so there's still a chance he'll return them to normal in the future ..... After having his rookie season ruined by a knee injury, Jadeveon Clowney (bottom photo on right) - the 1st pick overall in the draft in 2014 - showed some flashes of becoming a good player. He had 4.5 sacks and 6 PBU in 13 games. Maybe next season those flashes will start happening more frequently and more consistently. Texans didn't pick him #1 to be mediocre ..... After his rookie season was ruined by injury, Lonnie Ballentine had his 2nd season ruined by injury also, going on IR after suffering torn ligaments in his knee (photo below) in Week 6 at Jacksonville ..... 3rd year player Justin Tuggle continues to play mostly on special teams, finishing with 13 tackles and 1 FR in 11 games ..... In his his 4th season with Texans, but his first with dreads, Jonathan Grimes had his best season so far, finishing with 282 yards rushing (5.0) and 173 yards receiving in a reserve role ..... The arrival of WR Cecil Shorts made Keshawn Martin expendable, and Martin was traded to New England after Week 1 ..... OT Edawn Coughman has great dreads, but it looks like he's just not quite a good enough player to make it in the NFL. He was released from the practice squad in mid-October ..... RB Daryl Richardson on practice squad a couple of times during first half of season until being let go for good after Week 8 ..... DE Steven Means on practice squad from mid-October until signing with Eagles in early December .....
S Lonnie Ballentine (IR)
LB JADEVEON CLOWNEY
RB Jonathan Grimes
WR DeANDRE HOPKINS
OT DEREK NEWTON
LB Justin Tuggle
Like Toler, Erik Walden (right photo above) also in the running for the best dreads in the division. He had 42 tackles, 8 TFL, and 3 sacks in 15 games in his 8th NFL season ..... Like Toler and Walden, Lance Louis (photo on right) also in the running for the best dreads in the division. But he keeps them reduced too often. A starting job was up for grabs on Colts' O-line, but unfortunately Louis didn't take it. He ended up starting 3 times in the 11 games he played ..... Nate Irving (#55 in right photo above) had very long dreads when he left college 5 years ago and should have had super long dreads by now but evidently isn't interested in letting them get really long. He had 13 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 PBU in 8 games before going on IR in early December ..... Clayton Geathers (#42 in photo below with Walden) had 28 tackles, 1 PBU, and 1 FR in 15 games mostly as a reserve in his rookie season ..... Rookie RB Josh Robinson rushed for 39 yards (2.3) in 5 games in his first season with dreads before being released and ending up on practice squad ..... After being released by Falcons after playing in 3 games for them, Dezmen Southward and his awesome dreads signed to practice squad after Week 9 but never made it to active roster. CB Brandon Dixon signed to practice squad after Week 1 then released 4 days later ..... DT Montori Hughes cut at end of training camp.
S Clayton Geathers
WR T.Y. HILTON
LB Nate Irving (IR)
G Lance Louis
S DWIGHT LOWERY
RB Josh Robinson (PS)
S Dezmen Southward (PS)
CB GREG TOLER
LB ERIK WALDEN
With Johnathan Cyprien and Sergio Brown on the roster, Jaguars could have had the sickest pair of safeties in the league. But Brown (right photo above) started only 4 games, and both he and Cyprien had their dreads reduced too often. Cyprien (left photo above) had 1 INT and finished with 107 tackles, while Brown had 36 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, and 2 PBU ..... Demetrius McCray had 21 tackles, 1 PBU, and 1 FR in 14 games, including 3 starts, in his 3rd season and is still looking for his 1st career INT ..... Jared Odrick (#75 in background in left photo above), in his 2nd season with dreads and his first with Jaguars, had 3 PBU, 1 FF, and led team with 5.5 sacks while starting all 16 games .....
If Sen'Derrick Marks (upper photo on right) was looking to do something with his dreads as unique as his first name, he succeeded; but if he was going for a look that I like? Well, not so much. I wonder how he got his dreads in all those little sections like that. It was a lost season for Marks, who missed the first 5 games while still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 17 in 2014 and played in only 4 games - finishing with 2 TFL and 3 PBU - before going on IR for the final 7 weeks with a torn triceps ..... You could say Denard Robinson was either smart or he was a scaredy-cat. Either way I say he was disappointing this season. Apparently afraid that somebody was going to tackle his dreads, he had them reduced whenever he knew he was going to be starting (which was in 3 games) and only had them flowing fully - as he did in Week 17 (lower photo on right) - when he figured he wasn't going to play much. Jaguars drafted a real RB this season, so Robinson touched the ball only 88 times on offense, recording 430 total yards, 18 first downs, 3 fumbles, and only 1 TD ..... Rookie A.J. Cann (photo below) wasn't in the starting lineup on opening day; but after replacing the injured Brandon Linder in Week 4, he remained a starter for the rest of the season - and hopefully next 10 seasons (and wouldn't it be something if he still had dreads then!) ..... Nic Jacobs, one of the few tight ends with dreads in the league, caught 1 pass in 11 games, with most of his action coming on special teams ..... After being released by Vikings, rookie OT Tyrus Thompson signed to practice squad and spent 6 weeks there before being let go (and landing in Detroit) ..... WR Greg Jenkins, S Matt Daniels, and OT Brennan Williams - all with sick dreads - all unfortunately were injured during training camp and released ..... Rookie DE Nordly "Cap" Capi also released at end of training camp.
S Sergio Brown
S JOHNATHAN CYPRIEN
G A.J. CANN
CB DAVON HOUSE
TE Nic Jacobs
DT SEN'DERICK MARKS
CB Demetrius McCray
DE JARED ODRICK
RB Denard Robinson
LB Jason Ankrah (PS)
S MICHAEL GRIFFIN
RB Dexter McCluster
CB Shaquille Richardson (PS)
S DA'NORRIS SEARCY
S Daimion Stafford
CB B.W. Webb
Best player with dreads: C.J. Mosley
Player with best dreads: Reggie Nelson
5.5 sacks in 15 games
..... Anybody who saw Kaelin Clay returns kicks in college (Utah) wouldn't at all be surprised that his 1st NFL TD came on a punt return (at Cleveland in Week 12). After being drafted and released by Buccaneers and then spending time on Lions' practice squad, Clay (bottom photo on right) signed with Ravens and averaged 24.5 and 10.6 on kickoff and punt returns in 7 games ..... Rookie Terrence Magee, who spent season going back and forth between practice squad and active roster, ending up playing in only 3 games, finishing with 2 carries for 5 yards and 1 kickoff return for 28 yards ..... Marlon Brown's dreads were spectacular on opening day at Denver (photo below); but that was only a tease, as he kept them reduced for most of the other games he played. After a good rookie season in 2013, Brown is going in the wrong direction, combining for just 38 receptions and 0 TD in the last two seasons. Marlon went on IR with a back injury for the final week of the season, joining ..... Breshad Perriman, the other WR with sick dreads on the team. Drafted in the 1st round to provide the deep threat needed after Torrey Smith left as a free agent, Perriman instead missed the whole season after suffering a knee injury in training camp that just refused to heal. Details of Breshad's ordeal in this article from the Ravens' website in November, after they put him on IR: http://www.baltimoreravens.com/news/article-1/Breshad-Perriman-Placed-On-Injured-Reserve/46b36cdb-3ab6-4748-8a26-f4949c23ddb9
..... Rookie Leon Brown, another Alabama alum, cut at end of training camp and not signed to practice squad until Week 17 ..... Nordly Capi and Chuck Jacobs also signed to practice squad earlier in December ..... DE Steven Means cut at end of training camp.
G Leon Brown (PS)
WR Marlon Brown (IR)
LB Nordly Capi (PS)
WR Kaelin Clay
WR Chuck Jacobs (PS)
S KENDRICK LEWIS
RB Terrence Magee
LB C.J. MOSLEY
WR Breshad Perriman (IR)
LB Za'Darius Smith
LB COURTNEY UPSHAW
awestruck when they see his dreads hanging all the way down to his waist. So they go to Google to find out more. Reggie's dreads are impressive enough even when they're reduced. In fact, it's hard to tell that they're reduced until you see them when they're going at full blast (top two photos on right) and you say, "Holy Smokes!" It's those games that he has them flowing freely that are really fun to watch. Several players in the league have been around long enough that they could have their dreads as long as Reggie's - if they would just not stifle them. But most of those players for some reason don't want their dreads to be that long. If they're worried about their
LB VONTAZE BURFICT
DE Will Clarke
LB Jayson DiManche (PS)
CB ADAM JONES
CB DRE KIRKPATRICK
LB Emmanuel Lamur (IR)
LB REY MAUALUGA
S REGGIE NELSON
CB Josh Shaw
DT Pat Sims
..... Well, well, well. I could hardly believe it. After having his hair in braids for all 8 of his seasons in Kansas City, Dwayne Bowe finally converted to dreads after signing with Browns as a free agent. Unfortunately his first season with dreads was a total disaster on the field. He was injured early and then couldn't get on the field after he got healthy - because he simply wasn't playing well enough to. He ended up with a microscopic total of 5 catches all year (on 13 targets) for 53 yards, meaning he got paid $900,000 for each catch. Another season like that and his career will be coming to an end sooner rather than later ..... Browns' offense featured TE Gary Barnidge this season, so there wasn't much playing time for the other tight ends. But at least undrafted rookie E.J. Bibbs (#88 in bottom photo on right, consoling Bowe after the Week 9 loss at Cincinnati) made the team and played in 7 games, finishing with 1 catch for 7 yards ..... Only dreads on defense belong to Tramon Williams (photo below), who came over as a free agent after playing 8 seasons in Green Bay. From what I saw Williams had a rough time of it (What did he expect? The Browns stink.), finishing with 8 PBU and only 1 INT ..... LB Jayson DiManche bounced back and forth between the active roster and practice squad, appearing in only 1 game before being released on New Year's Eve (and ending up back with Bengals) ..... Daryl Richardson added to practice squad at end of December ..... RB Timothy Flanders, TE Manasseh Garner, and DT Jacobbi McDaniel all cut at or near end of training camp.
WR TRAVIS BENJAMIN
TE E.J. Bibbs
WR Dwayne Bowe
RB ISAIAH CROWELL
RB Daryl Richardson (PS)
CB TRAMON WILLIAMS
In the category of best dreads in the AFC North other than Reggie Nelson, one of the top nominees would be Jarvis Jones (right photo below). But unfortunately so far his play on the field hasn't come close to the quality of his dreads. Jones has recorded 1, 2, and 2 sacks in his first 3 NFL seasons - not exactly what Steelers had in mind when they picked him in the 1st round of the draft in 2013 ..... Heck, Bud Dupree (left photo below) almost has that many sacks in just one season. Dupree, this season's #1 pick, played all 16 games with 5 starts and finished with 26 tackles, including 4 sacks, in his rookie season and appears to be on his way to an outstanding career.
Sean Spence and run-stuffing D-lineman Steve McLendon (#90, second photo from top on right), both of whom had 1 sack, apparently didn't play well enough, as Steelers have let both of them leave as free agents for next season ..... DeAngelo Williams was one of the house of dread's most pleasant surprises of 2015. With Le'Veon Bell, one of the best RBs in the league, on the team, Williams didn't figure to play much. But when Bell was injured in Week 8, DeAngelo showed that although he's nowhere near as good as Bell, he can still get the job done at age 32. He went from 0 TD last season in his 9th year with Panthers to 11 TD this season, finishing with 907 yards rushing (4.5), 367 yards receiving, and 66 first downs. The touches of pink in his dreads (#34, third photo from top on right) are to raise awareness of breast cancer - something he takes seriously, as his mother died of breast cancer in the 2014 offseason .....
Sadly though I won't get the chance to complain about his dreads being reduced next season. With his career starting to blast off, Bryant instead will be grounded for the entire season, suspended after again failing a drug test .....
Sammie Coates (#14,photo below), drafted in the 3rd round, didn't give Steelers much in his rookie season. It's just a fact of NFL life that some players develop faster than others; and whatever the reason Coates was unable to get on the field much. But as we all saw in the playoff loss to Denver, the talent certainly is there for him to be the same big-time playmaker he was in college (Auburn). Hopefully it won't take until Week 19 next season before he starts making some plays. With Bryant gone, Steelers will be counting on him much more ..... S Shamarko Thomas cut off his dreads a couple of days before the season opener, and then RB Dri Archer cut off his a week later ..... Rajion Neal signed to practice squad at beginning of December ..... Rookie WR Kenzel Doe, rookie LB Niko Davis, and CB B.W. Webb all released at end of training camp.
WR Martavis Bryant
WR Sammie Coates
LB Bud Dupree
LB JARVIS JONES
DT STEVE McLENDON
RB Rajion Neal (PS)
LB Sean Spence
WR MARKUS WHEATON
RB DeANGELO WILLIAMS
Btw, Sheard, who apparently doesn't need to see no stinkin' photos, finished with 6 tackles (5-1), including 1 TFL.
Of the Patriots' 77 snaps on offense, 17 of them were running plays, with Bolden carrying 5 times for 12 yards. He also had 2 receptions for 29 yards.
Martin was on the field for 59 snaps and had only one pass thrown to him (incomplete) all day. He also had 1 kickoff return for 19 yards.
Trevathan finished the afternoon with 5 tackles (4-1) and 1 PBU.
15. On the 2-point conversion after Patriots scored a TD with 12 seconds to play Bradley Roby gets the interception after the pass intended for WR Julian Edelman is deflected by CB Aqib Talib (#21). Assigned to cover WR Keshawn Martin (#82, on right in photo on right) in the back of the end zone, Roby breaks on the ball after the deflection and catches it in stride 2 yards deep in the end zone, and .....
Hightower finished with 6 tackles (5-1), 1 TFL, and 1 PBU.
Swearinger, btw, was on the field for 11 plays - mostly on special teams - and did not record any stats.
Golden finished the night with 7 tackles (2-5), one of which was a TFL.
25. After Cardinals' 4th turnover of the 2nd quarter on an INT by Kurt Coleman in the end zone, his teammates - including LB Shaq Thompson (#54) and Tre Boston (#33) - join in on the celebration with 49 seconds to play until halftime. It was a key play in the game, as Cardinals had taken possession of the ball at the Carolina 22-yard line one play earlier after Panthers' only turnover of the game. Coleman's pick gave the momentum right back to Panthers and kept their lead at 24-7 going into the locker room for halftime.
Here is the video of the play: http://www.panthers.com/media-vault/videos/Tre-Boston-interception/0ddf4360-7853-4528-a9d6-c5409400f2f3
It was the 4th INT and 7th takeaway for the Panthers' D, as Panthers finished the night +6 in turnover margin. And it was like deja vu for Boston, who also had a 4th quarter pick in Panthers' playoff victory over Cardinals last season. In addition to his 1 tackle and 1 INT Boston also got credit for a FR back in 2nd quarter.
For the 2nd straight year Cardinals' season ends with a playoff loss in Charlotte; while it's on to the Super Bowl for the Panthers, after winning their 2nd NFC championship ever with the 49-15 demolition of the Cardinals.
I'm going to try to find some time to a do preview of the 2016 NFL draft, which is coming up next week. But even if I do, it'll be more of a mini-preview than anything.