NFL Teams Finding Their Identities at the Perfect Time
There is something to be said about peaking at the right time.
Granted, we're not quite there yet—teams that hit their apex in January tend to be the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February—but they don't want to back into the playoffs either.
Several teams are hitting their stride at an excellent time, as they battle for a playoff spot or jockey for position. Click through to find out which ones.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco began its season with a bang, an early statement win over the Packers that saw quarterback Colin Kaepernick throw for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
The Kaepernick doubters were foiled. It seemed the 49ers would feel no hangover from their narrow Super Bowl loss. Then reality hit.
Seattle humiliated the 49ers at home, exposing an offense bereft of weapons and woefully inefficient at times this season. They reeled off five straight wins after back-to-back embarrassments following opening week, but another pair of tough losses to Carolina and New Orleans had some alarms blaring in the San Francisco bay area.
Something seemed off with Kaepernick. He had just one 200-yard passing game and eight passing touchdowns from Weeks 2 through 11.
But things have slowly improved for offensive coordinator Greg Roman's unit over the past several weeks.
Receiver Michael Crabtree returned from his Achilles injury, and Kaepernick is now playing with confidence.
Perhaps more importantly, the defense has righted the ship, allowing just 12.5 points per game during the team's four-game winning streak. That streak includes a narrow victory over the rival Seahawks, a measure of revenge for the shellacking at CenturyLink Field earlier this season.
If the offense continues to improve and the defense keeps this up, the 49ers will be a force to reckon with in the playoffs yet again.
The Dolphins weren't supposed to be in this position.
With two weeks to go, Miami controls its own fate. With Baltimore and Cincinnati squaring off in Week 17, the Dolphins are assured a playoff spot with two wins.
How did a team mired in an ugly controversy just weeks ago pull itself out of a nosedive? Head coach Joe Philbin might have the answer to that. Heck, he probably is the answer. The even-keeled leader has steered his team through the turbulent waters tackle Jonathan Martin and guard Richie Incognito stirred up earlier this season.
The Dolphins handed the Buccaneers their first win of the season in the first game after the scandal broke, triggering speculation that Philbin and perhaps general manager Jeff Ireland would eventually be fired.
Miami is 4-1 since then, however, including a last-second loss to Carolina. The Dolphins allowed just 17.4 points per game in that span.
Perhaps the biggest reason for their recent surge has been the rise of Ryan Tannehill.
The second-year quarterback has thrown for 1,421 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past five games, most recently out-dueling Tom Brady and leading Miami to a late victory.
Things are looking up in South Florida with a healthy defensive end, Cameron Wake, spearheading an increasingly formidable pass rush on defense and Tannehill playing like a franchise quarterback on offense.
Baltimore's offseason wasn't pretty on paper.
The wizardry of general manager Ozzie Newsome was called into question—it looked like he had lost his magic touch. Linebacker Ray Lewis retired, safety Ed Reed moved on, receiver Anquan Boldin was traded for peanuts, quarterback Joe Flacco signed a maligned monster of a contract and the Ravens were bleeding free agents.
All the skepticism about Baltimore's chances seemed vindicated when the Ravens were obliterated by the Broncos on the first Thursday of the season.
Head coach John Harbaugh's squad stumbled to a 3-5 start, well behind the 6-2 Bengals and seemingly knocked out of contention.
But don't count Newsome and Harbaugh out—or Flacco, for that matter.
Newsome had some sly tricks up his sleeve, including signing linebacker Daryl Smith—who has played better this season than Lewis played last year—and safety James Ihedigbo, key contributors on a quietly solid defense.
More importantly, Flacco has shown some late-game mettle recently, leading the Ravens to last-second victories in consecutive weeks to keep them in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.
Baltimore has won its past three by a combined seven points and its past four games overall. Are the Ravens on the verge of regaining their championship form just in time?
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers exorcised head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith last offseason, handing the keys for the reclamation project to Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco. But things haven't turned out as expected in San Diego.
McCoy has worked his quarterback magic once again, reviving Philip Rivers like Indiana Jones' holy grail. Rivers has been one of the league's best quarterbacks, throwing for over 4,000 yard and 28 touchdowns to buoy a surprising offense.
San Diego isn't a playoff team right now, but not because of the way they have been playing.
The Chargers have the bubble playoff teams in their sights thanks to a 3-1 run that has seen them beat the vaunted Chiefs and Broncos on the road. The once-porous defense allowed just 20 points to Peyton Manning last week.
It'll take some doing to get San Diego into the playoffs. Both games being at home will help, but there are a couple of teams ahead of them for that last playoff spot. If the Chargers keep playing this well, they will take care of their part.
Kansas City Chiefs
Alright, so saying the Chiefs are finding their identity at the perfect time might seem misleading given their 9-0 start. But a three-game slide that followed had the naysayers thumping their chests.
Kansas City has responded well to the adversity.
While the Chiefs aren't quite playing that elite brand of defense that was holding opponents under 13 points per game during that undefeated start, they may have found something more important: an offense.
After all, for all their defensive might, the Chiefs were simply not able to keep up with the Broncos—or the Chargers, for that matter—on offense.
It's as if the Chiefs and Broncos have changed places in recent weeks. Kansas City has scored 101 points in the past two games alone, a number that took four games to reach at the beginning of the season.
Of course, Washington and Oakland don't exactly have great defenses. But the Chiefs have been scoring well for several weeks, including 38 and 28 points in losses to the Chargers and Broncos, respectively, before their recent bounce-back.
If that defense can get healthy and regain its early-season form, the Chiefs will be rolling into the playoffs.
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