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NFL Season Update and Potential Playoff Picture

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The 2017 season has been full of twists and turns, from the entire kneeling saga, to the recent benching of New York Giants franchise quarterback Eli Manning, to the issues concerning head injuries. There was also the stellar play of rookie Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, whose season was tragically cut short by a torn ACL. Injuries have plagued the season as many stars have faced season ending injuries: Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, David Johnson, and Julian Edelman to name a few. Despite these ugly storylines, there has been a surplus of intrigue and entertainment that every NFL season provides.

Several teams have had shockingly fantastic seasons this year: the Eagles are 10-2, shattering my earlier prediction that Eagles fans should have somewhat reserved expectations for the year. The Minnesota Vikings are 10-2 as well, the Los Angeles Rams are 9-3, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are 8-4, three teams who have not had strong seasons in a while. Currently, the playoff picture is pretty surprising, for fans and NFL analysts alike. As many expected, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are at the moment the first and second seeds, respectively, in the AFC. However, the Baltimore Ravens are doing quite well at the sixth seed, and the Tennessee Titans are exceeding expectations at the third seed. The most surprising outcome so far are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who currently sit at the fifth seed in the AFC.  Despite being the laughingstock of the NFL along with the Cleveland Browns for the past five or six years, the Jags are sitting pretty at 8-4. This is 3 more wins than they have had in the past six seasons; the Jags went 5-11, 2-14, 4-12, 3-13, 5-11, and 3-13 from 2011 to 2016. This allowed them to consistently get high draft picks and develop a young, talented team. The Kansas City Chiefs round off the current AFC playoff picture at a meager 6-6, despite such a strong start to the season.

In the NFC, the playoff bracket is much stronger than the current teams in the AFC playoff picture. No team in the NFC bracket has less than eight wins. The Vikings and Eagles are currently the 1 and 2 seeds, respectively. The Rams have done well in their first season in Los Angeles at the 3 seed, the New Orleans Saints are a strong 4 seed, and the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks bring up the rear with 8-4 records. It is unlikely that in the remaining four weeks of the season that much of this bracket will change. Some teams may shift seeds, but I predict that the previously mentioned teams will all make the playoffs.

I used the ESPN 2017 NFL Playoff Machine Generator to make my predictions for the playoffs. I believe that all teams currently in the playoffs will make it, with the exception of the Kansas City Chiefs missing out, with the Los Angeles Chargers taking their place. In the AFC, I believe the Jaguars will defeat the Titans but will lose to the Patriots in the next round, and the Ravens will beat the Chargers, but lose to the Steelers in the following round. The Steelers will beat to the Patriots in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship and head to the Super Bowl. In the NFC, I believe that the Vikings will beat the Panthers, and the Eagles will reach the NFC championship. The Seahawks will beat the Rams but lose to the Saints, who will go on to defeat the Vikings in the NFC championship. The Saints will then lose to the Steelers, who will win their seventh Super Bowl. These are just my predictions, and obviously a lot can change in these next four weeks, but I believe these are the most likely scenarios. In my opinion, Pittsburgh fans should be very optimistic about their team’s chances in the playoffs this year.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the NFL season plays out. There have been so many great stories this year, like Carson Wentz’s quarterback play, the Saints surprising rushing attack, and the play of the Los Angeles Rams. The playoffs are the most exciting time of the year, and I’m sure it’ll be full of surprises, just like this season so far. Until then, all we can do is enjoy the drama in the remaining weeks.

The Eagles’ red-hot start exceeds expectations

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The Philadelphia Eagles have shocked the world with an 8-1 start to the 2017-18 NFL season. Even the most optimistic of fans would have never predicted a start like this which has placed the Eagles at the top of the league. After ending the 2016 season with another subpar record of 7-9 and finishing last in their conference, the Eagles had a lot to work on coming into 2017. But, with an impressive list of rookies and free agent additions, it became increasingly clear the Eagles were to exceed expectations come the start of the season.

The key to success for the Eagles began in the offseason where they successfully filled holes with a handful of blockbuster trades and key signings in the free agency period. Supplementing the Eagles’ receiving core was an area of emphasis that executive Howie Roseman, owner Jeff Lurie, and head coach Doug Pederson wanted to key in on. The team started their offseason strong by signing San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Eagles then picked up Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery from the struggling 3-13 Chicago Bears. Jeffrey, now in his fifth year, is a freakishly explosive athlete with big play capabilities that he has consistently shown in his time in Chicago, as well as this season so far. He is undoubtedly a top-10 wide receiver in the NFL whose ceiling is sky high. Additionally, the Eagles signed LeGarrette Blount from the 2016-17 Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, who boasted a league-leading 19 rushing touchdowns in the Patriots’ title-winning season. This signing diversified the Eagles run game with Blount’s hardnose physical running style supplementing the speed of Darren Sproles. These key additions, along with the signing of DE Chris Long, DT Timmy Jernigan, CB Sidney Jones, and CB Rasul Douglas, gave the Eagles a great advantage coming into the 2017 season.

So what sparked this extraordinary start for the Eagles? To begin, Carson Wentz, now in his second season in the NFL, has exceeded all expectations every time he has stepped on the field. He’s been an extremely efficient passer and runner of the ball so far. This, in addition to an impressive touchdown to interception ratio (23-5), has made Wentz the clear favorite for MVP of the NFL, something that no NFL fan expected just two years ago when Wentz was drafted out of North Dakota State University. Wentz has received praise and admiration for his play from coaches and players across the league, including analyst Jon Gruden. “He’s throwing the ball at a high level. He’s seeing the field well. He’s making changes at the line of scrimmage. And he’s making plays – and making plays in critical situations, third down. When you’re No. 1 in the NFL on third down, that says a lot. So he is making a rapid ascent, no question.” said Gruden on a Monday Night Football broadcast.  It is amazing to see Wentz leading his team to victory after victory at such a young age. Wentz has formed great chemistry with tight end Zach Ertz, and they have become one of the best tight end/quarterback duos in the NFL. Ertz has snagged six touchdowns so far this season and continues to impress in his 5th NFL season. This duo, along with many other influential players, are the reason the Eagles’ offense ranks so highly across the board. The Eagles, offensive line, led by Lane Johnson, have been performing above expectations after future hall-of-famer Jason Peters tore his ACL and MCL against the Redskins in week 7.

While the Eagles’ offense has been outstanding this season, the defensive side of the ball is where the Eagles’ have especially excelled. The Eagles defense ranks sixth for most sacks, fourth for interceptions, and first in stopping third down conversions. This defensive success starts with the defensive line, where Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Vinny Curry have been terrorizing quarterbacks and running backs alike all season. The linebacker corps took a hit when young star Jordan Hicks tore his achilles against the Redskins, but the duo of Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham have been able to successfully manage since. Cornerback Ronald Darby will return after the bye week which will help bolster the Eagles’ secondary.  

With such promising play on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, is it too early to start talking about the playoffs? The Eagles’ next game is against conference rival Cowboys, who have been struggling so far this season and now look even weaker with linebacker Sean Lee expected to be out. The Eagles are sitting comfortably in first place in their division and are now working towards a first round bye in the playoffs. Although there are still many games left to be played, Philadelphia is in peak form and will look to push deep into the playoffs later this season. It is not too wild to think that the Eagles are well on the path to their first super bowl; their potential is limitless.

Ezekiel Elliott and Domestic Violence: Athletes as Role Models

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Ezekiel Elliott is well-known to anyone who follows professional sports. An All-American star running back at Ohio State, he was drafted fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 NFL Draft. He burst into the league by rushing for the third-most rushing yards by a rookie in NFL history. However, a ruling by the NFL put his play this season in jeopardy after he was suspended for the first six games of the season due to allegations of domestic violence by an ex-girlfriend in 2015. Elliott was never criminally charged for the incident. A federal judge later overturned the NFL’s ban, but the case is still proceeding in court. So while Ezekiel Elliott may be an exceptional athlete on the field, his character off the field has been called into question. Admittedly, the allegations against Elliott were deemed to be unfounded in a criminal investigation which called into question the fairness of the NFL’s investigation and subsequent punishment. But even if the NFL’s punishment is found to be unjustified, to the public eye it seems to part of a seemingly growing trend of highly negative off-field behavior expressed by professional athletes.

The case of Joe Mixon springs to mind, who was caught on a security camera punching a woman in the face during in the altercation, breaking bones in her face and requiring the woman to undergo surgery. He was later drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 2017 draft and was, at least initially, held to pretty intense scrutiny by the media and the general public. Yet much of that dissipated in the ensuing months. Joe Mixon is now just a celebrated professional football talent. Adrian Peterson, currently a running back for the New Orleans Saints, is almost certainly a Hall of Fame-caliber talent. In 2014, he was suspended for the NFL season after he was charged with, and later convicted of, child abuse for beating his son. Yet few media outlets, especially ESPN, seem to remember or do anything more than give a passing thought to that less than illustrious moment of his career.

These don’t appear to just be isolated incidents. Although overall arrest rates for NFL players are below the national average, the same cannot be said for violent crime arrest rates, which are statistically significantly higher than the national average according to a 2015 UT Dallas study. These same athletes that kids look up to as heroes commit more violent crimes than the average American.

Kids try to emulate their heroes. A 2000 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 73 percent of US children considered professional athletes to be some of the most influential people in their lives. About 50 percent of kids believed that yelling at officials and taunting and taking cheap shots at opponents were all common in youth sports. One-quarter of kids and teens surveyed also believed that athletes don’t have to try as hard in school while a similar number of teens believed that sexual promiscuity was a privilege of being a professional athlete. Clearly the negatives of professional athletics are seeping down to kids, with the help of  media that focuses on the negative incidents associated with professional sports.

A lot of kids care about professional sports. A lot of adults do too. Every Little League player dreams of one day making it to the MLB. It inspires in them a drive to be the best they can possibly be. Professional sports are unique in that they collect the greatest talents in a particular “industry” and give them a stage. A child watching TV doesn’t know who the leading scientists or doctors in the world are. But they know Tom Brady and LeBron James. There’s a reason Fortune 500 companies choose athletes as the face of their brands; people care. Athlete endorsements sell, especially to kids.

There are surely many good lessons that kids can learn from watching professional athletes. These are men and women who have dedicated incredible amounts of hard work to their careers. They have great tenacity and work ethic, traits that can be applied to any area of future pursuit. Many of these athletes turn around and do incredible things for their communities. J.J. Watt, a star defensive end for the Houston Texans, recently helped raise $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. Countless athletes maintain their own foundations, often targeted specifically at giving kids the opportunity to participate in athletic activities.

“I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the court,” Charles Barkley once said.

He assumed he had a choice. It’s because he wreaks havoc on the court that he is a hero for so many, and that’s what makes a role model. People emulate their heroes. That’s not to say he did his job well. But whether he wanted them to or not, there were throngs who wanted to be exactly like him, to live exactly like him, to fulfill the dream of being a rich, famous, professional athlete.

So that brings up the question of how society and professional sports leagues can better respond to criminal incidents to ensure that people seeing the conduct of athletes don’t come to see misconduct as a normal part of professional athletics. One possibility would be to increase suspensions.The suspensions the NFL has handed down for domestic violence have ranged from one game to 10. Perhaps full-season suspensions would more effectively send the message that domestic violence is not acceptable. It is also imperative that parents, siblings, and others have a similar influence on kids. It is possible to separate the bad eggs on the athletic fields from those who are working to make the world a better place, the kinds of people who should indeed be considered role models. It’s important that kids are taught that these individuals who do commit crimes or are bad husbands and parents do not reflect the true nature of professional athletics, despite what media coverage might indicate.

Just as there are bad individuals in every walk of life, there are certainly those in professional sports. Because of the unique platform that professional sports has in the United States, those individuals who make harmful decisions often have the public eye thrust upon them. It is important that society makes a distinction between those who should serve as role models, who perform with honor on and off the field, and those who shouldn’t be looked to as inspiration.

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