Two weeks after the ball dropped in Times Square, countless gym memberships and diet plans are concluding their brief life cycles. But as most Americans bid their lofty aspirations adieu, the pressure is greater than ever for four NFL teams to proclaim, “New year, new me.”
Going 9-7 in four consecutive seasons paints a certain picture of an organization. In the case of the Titans, that image is an amorphous blob, a roster with few weaknesses but fewer stars. Never out of the playoff hunt, yet hardly ever more than a divisional round challenger, Tennessee’s foremost flaw as of late has been a lack of identity.
That is, until running back Derrick Henry ushered in an offensive renaissance with 377 yards on 64 carries in two postseason outings. Paired with a boa constrictor of a defense, Henry has given the Titans a personality: a new age rushing attack that pummels its opposition into submission for sixty excruciating minutes.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ troop made the ageless Tom Brady show wrinkles and gave the unflappable Lamar Jackson a case of the yips.
In a league dominated by passing, the Titans’ mentality of attacking by land may sound passé. January provides an opportunity for Tennessee to find a niche where few have dared to look and defy the notion that the Lombardi trophy can not be claimed by sheer force.
Kansas City Chiefs
After quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 50-touchdown MVP campaign, it seemed simple providence that the Chiefs’ signal caller would eviscerate secondaries throughout 2019. Naturally, fans felt spurned when they saw an injury-addled Mahomes pop up more often in State Farm commercials than highlight reels.
Such is the fickle nature of a football audience for which statistics reign supreme. After all, no-look passes do not translate into fantasy points. Yet amid what some have naively deemed a sophomore slump, Mahomes and the Chiefs erupted with a 51-31 shellacking of the Texans on Sunday that stuffed even the most gluttonous lovers of scoring.
Sure, the 2019 CHiefs did not alwats own the numbers game, but they consistently found ways to come out on top. Tennessee’s defense may have a penchant to suffocate its opponents, but Kansas City’s offense has shown that it needs only a single atom of oxygen to ignite. To silence their skeptics, the Chiefs will rely on end zone frequent flyers like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill to prove that the only numbers of any real consequence are those on the scoreboard.
San Francisco 49ers
At long last, the hype train has arrived at the station. A year behind schedule, if you ask 49er faithfuls who cite quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as the second coming of Joe Montana. But the best things in life are worth waiting for, and San Francisco finally finds a wealth of skill on its depth chart instead of its injured reserve list.
Following a convincing triumph over the Vikings on Saturday, it is easy to overlook San Francisco’s uglier wins. Just one score spared the 49ers from defeat in five of their 13 victories.
This is all too common when a team has a growth spurt. Just because it starts winning, it does not necessarily fill out its broad shoulder pads. Even the white-hot Ravens were smothered by a more experienced, albeit less talented, adversary.
Great teams do not simply take care of business, they do so with a killer instinct. True, the Niners exercised nothing resembling mercy against their weaker foes such as the Bengals and Panthers, but until Garoppolo’s precision and tight end George Kittle’s reliability manifest in the box score, there will remain doubts as to whether or not the rush of 2020 is comprised of fool’s gold.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers of today are eerily similar to the most recent iteration of the Patriots: A group that is average by nearly every major metric that just so happens to have a superstar lining up under center.
While mimicking a dynasty that has claimed three Super Bowls in five seasons has its advantages, there is a reason Tom Brady is vacationing early this winter. What happens if quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a headache or wide receiver Davante Adams catches a cold? Look no further than early-season losses to the Chargers and Eagles for the answer.
Despite Rodgers wielding a cannon for an arm, Green Bay’s Achilles’ heel remains a lack of firepower. Still, the Packers have playmakers for whom production dwarfs jersey sales.
Wideout Allen Lazard has maintained his reputation as an overachiever from his time at Iowa State University, steadily evolving into one of the better receivers from the 2018 class despite going undrafted.
Though linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith may not quite fill the Clay Matthews-shaped hole in the hearts of Packer partisans, the duo is the foundation of Green Bay’s defense.
If these key pieces on both sides of the ball can take a stride toward stardom, the rest of the Packers will march in tow, straight to Hard Rock Stadium on Feb. 2.
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