The Things We're Most Thankful for in the NFL in 2017

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystNovember 22, 2017

The Things We're Most Thankful for in the NFL in 2017

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    On Thursday, Americans will gather from coast to coast to celebrate Thanksgiving. There will be turkey. Mashed potatoes. Stuffing.

    And pie. Lots and lots of pie.

    Thanksgiving is intended as just that—a feast in celebration of the gifts and blessings we receive each year. And dating all the way back to the NFL's inception in 1920, the league has been a part of that celebration, whether it's the Akron Pros, the Detroit Lions or the late games that joined the fray a few years ago.

    It's been (as it usually is) a wild first 11 weeks of the 2017 season, filled with thrills and excitement. For every thing that's happened that we expected (like the New England Patriots), there has been one thing we didn't (like the Los Angeles Rams).

    As we prepare to get together with friends and family to eat entirely too many yams (not my thing, but I don't judge), let's take a look at this season's happenings and identify that which we are most thankful for in the NFL in 2017.

    Pass the gravy, please.

NFC Turmoil

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    The NFC division leaders through 11 weeks are just who everyone predicted.

    And by everyone, I mean no one.

    In the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles are running away with the division. In fact, the Eagles have the best record in the entire NFL at 9-1. Winners of eight straight, the Eagles have an MVP candidate in quarterback Carson Wentz, a fearsome front seven, the NFL's second-ranked ground game and its top-ranked run defense.

    In the South, the New Orleans Saints, like the Eagles, have peeled off eight wins in a row. And while the latest victory came courtesy of the right arm of Drew Brees, the Saints aren't winning by throwing the ball 50-plus times a game. They're winning with defense and the two-headed ground attack of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.

    The Minnesota Vikings are pacing the NFC North in part because of a defense stacked with talent at all three levels. But what's truly remarkable is how well they've weathered injuries to their starting quarterback and tailback, with Case Keenum, Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray picking up the slack.

    And in the West, while the Los Angeles Rams suffered their worst defeat of the season in Week 11 at Minnesota, they still sit atop the division at 7-3 thanks to the passing of Jared Goff, the running of Todd Gurley II and a defense led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald.

    Sure, there are some "usual suspect" types waiting in the wings, like the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

    But right now at least, the NFC playoff bracket is filled with fresh faces. Loaded with new blood.

    And after the Panthers and Falcons did so the last two seasons, the idea of a new team repping the conference in Super Bowl LII has a certain appeal.

AFC Chalk

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Now, some may find the notion of the same old teams sitting atop the AFC after 11 weeks bothersome. Annoying, even.

    But given the topsy-turvy nature of the NFC, it's actually rather reassuring.

    There are teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and upstart Jacksonville Jaguars who would no doubt like to have a say in it, but the AFC Championship Game is shaping up to be a rematch of last year's contest.

    Which was a rematch of the 2004 AFC Championship Game. Which was a rematch of the 2001 AFC Championship Game.

    In the red corner, we have Ben Roethlisberger and the 8-2 Pittsburgh Steelers. In Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, Roethlisberger has arguably the best wideout-tailback one-two punch in the NFL.

    The Steelers have also rediscovered their Steel Curtain defensive roots. They rank fourth in the NFL in total defense, and only the Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens have been stingier against the pass.

    That defense is going to need to eat its Wheaties, though, because in the blue corner, we have Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The Pats appear to have patched their leaky early-season defense, and New England ranks about where you'd expect in total offense—second.

    These two teams will meet in Week 15 at Heinz Field in a game that will more likely than not determine home-field advantage in the AFC bracket. And while it's certainly possible that one of them could get upset early in the postseason, the Steelers and Patriots appear to be the class of the conference.

    That could set up a January reunion with a couple of old friends—who you don't especially like.

    In essence, it's just like the next month or so of your life.

The Greatness of Tom Brady

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    Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

    Yeah, yeah. I know. You're sick of hearing about how great Brady is. About how he's the only quarterback in the history of the National Football League to win five Super Bowls. About how he's risen from sixth-round afterthought to the apex of the sport.

    About how he's probably the best to ever play the position.

    The thing is, jaded though we may be by all the things Brady's done—by the Lombardi Trophies and MVP awards and hardware that would fill a dozen trophy cases—it's hard to not be impressed about what he's doing in 2017.

    At the age of 40, in his 18th NFL season, Brady is having one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career. He's completing 68.7 percent of his passes—the second-highest mark of his career. His passer rating of 110.9 is the fourth-best he's ever posted. Brady's on pace to pass for 5,033 yards, which would trail only the 5,235 yards he threw for in 2011.

    He isn't dinking and dunking, either. Per Ryan Hannable of WEEI, Brady has completed 43 passes of 20 yards or more this year. That puts him on pace for 69, which would be the second-most of his career.

    And most importantly, Brady has the Patriots barreling toward the Super Bowl again. If they reach Minneapolis, it would mark the eighth Super Bowl Brady has started.

    That's a record and then some.

    In Week 11, rookie Nathan Peterman threw as many interceptions in a half (five) as Brady has in the last year-and-a-half.

    That Brady's great is no surprise. That he's playing this well at his age?

    It's nothing short of amazing.

Young Guns at Quarterback

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    So long as Brady's playing at anything close to this level, there is no discussion about who the best signal-caller in the NFL is right now.

    It's Brady. Deal with it.

    However (brace yourselves, Pats fans), Brady isn't going to be around forever. He's nearing the end of the line.

    For a number of immensely talented young quarterbacks, though, the journey is only just beginning.

    In Houston, rookie Deshaun Watson took the NFL by storm, throwing 19 touchdown passes over the first half of the season and wowing fans with his fearlessness and athleticism.

    Had Watson not torn his ACL in practice a few weeks ago, the Offensive Rookie of the Year race would be over—and he's probably still going to get some votes.

    In Los Angeles, Goff has undergone a transformation that borders on miraculous. As a rookie, Goff looked lost. Like a bust in the making. A waste of the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft.

    In 2017, Goff looks like a superstar in the making. His numbers have skyrocketed across the board, and Goff's become the leader of a Rams offense that's torching opponents over the top with regularity.

    Then there's Wentz.

    In his second NFL season, he's emerged as a front-runner to be named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. He's leading the league with 25 touchdown passes, and among NFC quarterbacks, only Brees has a higher passer rating.

    Oh, and there's that whole 9-1 thing. I hear that's good.

    We have seen the future at quarterback in the NFL, and it is bright.

    That the Cleveland Browns passed on two of those signal-callers demonstrates just how much they aren't.

The Teal Curtain Defense

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    The Jaguars have already won more games in 2017 (seven) than they did in any full season since 2010. And with due respect to rookie tailback Leonard Fournette, the offense has had about as much to do with that success as I have.

    The engine that drives the Jaguars is a defense that's piling up nicknames as Jacksonville piles up victories.

    There's Sacksonville. The Jaguars have far and away the most sacks in the NFL with 40 and are led by Calais Campbell's 11.5. Campbell, in his first year with the team and his first playing in a four-man front as a pro, has already sailed past his career best in that category. If he keeps it up, the 31-year-old will need room on his mantle for more than Christmas stockings.

    He's going to win Defensive Player of the Year.

    There's The Teal Curtain. The Jacksonville front seven is much more than just Campbell. Ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. have added 15.5 more sacks to the pile. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson has clogged the middle and pitched in five sacks. And young linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are on pace to sail past 100 tackles apiece.

    Then there's my personal favorite: Pick-fil-A. Because no one is open on Sundays. The Jaguars secondary, led by cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, leads the NFL in pass defense (162 yards per game) and ranks third in interceptions (13).

    Add it all together, and you have the NFL's No. 1 defense overall.

    The Jaguars have invested a ton of both financial and draft capital in their defense over the past few years.

    That investment is paying off.

The Next Great Group of Running Backs

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The NFL is more pass-wacky than ever. But like those folks who prefer their green bean casserole made with canned green beans and Campbell's cream of mushroom soup (Fresh ingredients? What are we? Hippies?), some people are traditionalists.

    Those traditionalists are in luck—because there's no shortage of talented running backs in the NFL ready to carry on the tradition of ground-and-pound.

    And most of them haven't even hit their prime yet.

    Of the top seven tailbacks in the NFL in rushing yards, four are in their first or second season. It's not going to stay that way (Ezekiel Elliott's suspension will knock him down the list), but many of those young backs will be in the hunt for the rushing title right up until the end.

    For much of the first half of the season, Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs led the NFL in rushing yards, and he's only a handful of yards behind Le'Veon Bell now. Hunt's numbers have tailed off in recent weeks, but as the Chiefs try to halt their skid, it's a safe bet Hunt will be heavily involved in the offense.

    Just behind Hunt is the Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard, who for all intents and purposes is the Chicago offense. His ascension has been overlooked a bit because he plays for a bad team, but Howard's the poster child for waiting to draft a running back—a fifth-round pick on pace to top 1,300 yards for the second time in as many years.

    The elder statesmen of these young lions is Gurley of the Rams, who's in his third NFL season. After exploding onto the scene as a rookie in 2015, Gurley fell off a cliff in 2016, averaging just 3.2 yards a carry.

    That average is up a full yard this season, and Gurley's back to being a dynamic offensive threat—and now for a first-place team.

    And we haven't even mentioned Fournette, who joined Elliott as the second top-five draft pick in as many years.

    It's also an incomplete list. But whether you're a fantasy football enthusiast or just enjoy old-school power football, it's a list to be thankful for.

Better Thursday Night Matchups

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    Let's be clear. Players are probably never going to like Thursday Night Football. NFL players are creatures of habit. The short turnaround gives them less time to heal and throws them off their routine.

    The league, however, isn't about to get rid of Thursday Night Football, which has added hundreds of millions of dollars to the NFL's coffers. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman probably put it best in a video on the Players' Tribune (via SI.com) after he tore his Achilles tendon against the Arizona Cardinals on a Thursday night in Week 10.

    "Obviously, the league isn't gonna change it," he said. "And people don't wanna see it changed. So, it's here to stay. [I] think guys do need more than four days to get ready for a game, but, hey, it's the guys who don't play the game who make the rules, which is the way it's supposed to be, I guess."

    Whether you love the extra night of football or hate it, there's one thing that cannot be argued.

    In 2017 especially, the matchups (and games) have been much better.

    The first several seasons of Thursday Night Football featured a litany of sloppily played games by bad teams that only the most diehard football junkies would get any enjoyment from. Even once CBS began its partnership with NFL Network in 2014, more often than not Thursday nights featured battles between bottom-feeders.

    Since NBC joined the mix in 2016, however, the matchups have improved. And this season there have been some genuinely great games.

    In Week 3, the Rams and San Francisco 49ers locked horns in a wild, high-scoring affair. Weeks 5 and 6 featured Super Bowl contenders (Patriots-Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Eagles-Panthers) in games that went down to the wire. The Week 7 tilt between the Chiefs and Oakland Raiders had a finish you had to see to believe, with Oakland scoring the winning touchdown on an untimed final play.

    It doesn't always work out. Last week's contest between two first-place teams (the Tennessee Titans and Steelers) was a blowout.

    But with a game between two desperate NFC East teams (the Washington Redskins and Cowboys) and an NFC South showdown (Saints at Falcons) coming up over the next few weeks, we likely haven't seen the last great Thursday nighter of the year.

    Now if we can just do something about the color rush uniforms.

Tony Romo's Analysis

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    Over his 14-year NFL career, Tony Romo was a polarizing player. Some hailed him as an accurate and athletic quarterback. Others belittled him for a lack of postseason success.

    There's been much less difference of opinion regarding Romo's first year in the booth for CBS.

    In fact, if there's been a prevailing criticism of Romo's work with Jim Nantz in 2017, it's that he's been too good. Some, including former play-by-play man Brent Musburger (via CBS DFW), haven't been fans of Romo's uncanny knack for predicting play calls and defensive strategies.

    Musburger said on his Vegas Stats and Information Network:

    "Tony, get off it, OK? First of all, you're intruding on your play-by-play man, Jim Nantz, who's just trying to give us the scene. We like to watch the game, OK? And you're not gonna be—here's a memo, to all of you people, 'Oh, this is great!' Uh-uh. It's not gonna happen. And ... the more years you spend away from the league, you're gonna know less and less about the personnel that's out on the field. So I'm blowing a 'stop the hype,' OK? Right now."

    Musburger then called Romo a whippersnapper and told him to get off his lawn.

    Not wanting Romo to share his insights because you don't want the surprise of an upcoming play ruined is silly. He's not spoiling anything. Romo's adding to the enjoyment of watching football by explaining what's going to happen (and why) in a way we've never really seen before.

    As Cris Collinsworth, who is probably the gold standard among analysts, told Kevin Draper of the New York Times, "It's pretty remarkable, really, that he's come in and really added a new dimension with some of his abilities to predict plays."

    Perhaps he was the gold standard.

    Romo does a better job analyzing NFL action live and passing that information along to fans than anyone in the business.

Group Celebrations

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Through the years, the NFL developed a well-deserved reputation as the No Fun League by progressively cracking down on player celebrations in the name of sportsmanship.

    Autograph a football with a Sharpie from your sock? Flag.

    Pull a cellphone from the goal post to call your agent after a touchdown? Flag.

    Join with your teammates in a little group party? Flag.

    Smile too widely? Flag.

    Those first two will still get you 15 yards (and they should, even if they were glorious). And that last one may have been sarcasm. But as for the third entry, the NFL actually loosened up a little in 2017, easing back on celebrations that involve multiple players.

    The results have been phenomenal.

    We've seen a number of touchdown celebrations this season that were as funny as they were creative. In Detroit, wide receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr. played ping-pong after one score. In Philadelphia, wideout Torrey Smith went with baseball and hit a home run.

    But the Vikings took the cake. On a Monday night in October, after tight end Kyle Rudolph scored against the Bears, several Vikings players gathered in the end zone and played duck, duck, goose.

    And no, it is most assuredly is not called duck, duck, gray duck because no one outside Minnesota has any idea what that is.

    Every time a player scores now, fans scoot closer to see if there's going to be another can't-miss celebration. It has added some humor and enjoyment to the game, no matter the score.

    And it might just be the single best thing that's happened in the league this year.

What's Still to Come

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    There's been much to be thankful for this season.

    And we're only just getting started.

    On Thanksgiving Day, the Lions will try to tighten up the NFC North when they play host to the Vikings in a game that could all but sew up the division for the Purple and Gold.

    Sunday brings a battle of NFC powers and high-octane offenses when the future meets the present in Goff and the Rams vs. Brees and the Saints in Los Angeles.

    Week 13 features a trio of big NFC matchups—the Vikings and Falcons in Atlanta, Panthers and Saints in New Orleans, and Eagles and Seahawks in Seattle.

    Skip ahead one week, and the Saints continue their gauntlet when they visit the Falcons. Also in Week 14, the Seahawks will travel to Jacksonville for a cross-conference battle with the Jaguars. The Panthers will host the Vikings. The Eagles will travel to meet the Rams. And the Ravens and Steelers will renew their blood feud.

    In Week 15, the game of the year in the AFC takes place, with the Patriots heading to Pittsburgh. The Rams and the Seahawks will duke it out for NFC West supremacy.

    In Week 16, the Falcons and Saints will meet for the second time in three games.

    And the AFC South and NFC South could come down to intradivision games on the final weekend of the regular season.

    And that's all just to get us to the postseason—where things will really get wild.

    So, as you're basking in the warming glow of a full belly on Thanksgiving and watching the end of Vikings-Lions before lapsing into a turkey-induced coma, feel safe in the knowledge that the fun isn't close to being over.

    There will be plenty more to be thankful for before all is said and done.

    Have a great holiday, everyone!