Lawrence: Annual Checkup

One year can make quite a difference, which is why the NFL is the best reality show on television

Amy Lawrence
November 19, 2019 - 9:17 pm
Aaron Rodgers Packers

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What a difference a year makes.
 
Peering around the NFL, it's impossible not to gawk at the number of teams, nearly half the league, whose Week 11 position and prospects are so wildly divergent from a year ago at this time. No wonder we see ratings and revenue climb; from week to week, year to year, the NFL is the best reality show on television.
 
Tops on this wacky list might be the Los Angeles Chargers. They were lauded for the way they handled the move from San Diego to their temporary home in a soccer stadium. Week 11 last fall represented their only defeat in a stretch of 11 games as they battled the Chiefs for the AFC West crown. Philip Rivers enjoyed a resurgent season with 32 touchdown passes versus a dozen interceptions. The offense finished among the league leaders in points per game and yards per play; most importantly, the Chargers had a positive turnover ratio. A year later, they find themselves a disappointing 4-7 with their loss to Kansas City in Mexico. Rivers has already thrown 14 picks this season, including seven in the last two outings. The biggest change? The Chargers are currently bottom five in the NFL in turnover ratio with nine more giveaways than takeaways.
 
Another franchise in a drastically different place is the one the Chargers beat on Wild Card weekend in January: the Baltimore Ravens. Week 11 represents exactly a year since Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as starting quarterback. What HASN'T changed for the Ravens since then?? He made his debut with 119 rushing and 150 passing yards. The Ravens won to get back to even. They triumphed in six of their last seven to leapfrog over the stumbling Steelers and capture the division crown. Lamar became the youngest QB to start a playoff game, and Baltimore traded Flacco to Denver in the spring. Now the Ravens are riding their longest streak since 2000. They use ball control to wear down defenses and frustrate their foes. They are unintimidated on the road. Expectations are sky-high, and the fan base is reinvigorated. Lamar is a legitimate MVP candidate with his weekly highlight reels; and if you have any questions, running back Mark Ingram will set you straight. Speedy, elusive, athletic, mature and poised under pressure—Lamar Jackson has flipped the franchise on its head.
 
As Baltimore began its steady rise, Pittsburgh started sinking. A year ago, the Steelers had just polished off their sixth consecutive victory. They were a couple games clear of the Ravens in the North. But it all changed in the final month-and-a-half of the season. They dropped all four contests against the AFC West and missed the playoffs. Behind the scenes, Antonio Brown's beef with Ben Roethlisberger got the best of him, and the receiver went AWOL in the days leading up to their finale. Within weeks, he and the organization agreed it was time to part ways. While the locker room was ready to put the drama in the rearview mirror, losing Ben to elbow surgery in September forced another major shift in perspective. With so many critical injuries to offensive playmakers, the responsibility falls on the revamped Steelers defense to keep them in the hunt.
 
After facing a tsunami of criticism for trading away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, the Raiders were floundering in Jon Gruden's first season. A year ago, they were on their way to a 4-12 record in the basement of the AFC West. What a dramatic turnaround! Now football fans remember how Gruden led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl in 2003. His relationship with quarterback Derek Carr has blossomed; Carr is completing more than 70% of his throws with a passer rating above 100 for the first time in his career. Rookie rusher Josh Jacobs is closing in on 1,000 yards, while tight end Darren Waller is a revelation. Most importantly, team chemistry is evident, and the Raiders are challenging for a playoff berth. The Buffalo Bills are in the same boat, flying under the radar with a stingy defense ranked third in the NFL in points (17.0) and yards allowed (304.1) per game. Josh Allen is making smarter decisions, and the franchise continues to build a winning culture.
 
In the NFC, the North barely resembles the division it was a year ago. The Green Bay Packers were two weeks away from firing longtime head coach Mike McCarthy. Despite flashy numbers from Aaron Rodgers, his relationship with McCarthy faced nonstop scrutiny. Worse, the Pack couldn't win on the road, and the defense was a glaring weakness. Fast forward to Matt LaFleur's inaugural campaign, the Packers are tied with the league's second-best record, while the opportunistic D spearheads a +9 turnover ratio. Minnesota is nipping at Green Bay's heels with a healthy Dalvin Cook (11 TDs and more than 1,000 yards rushing); a confident Kirk Cousins; and a typical Mike Zimmer defense committed to stuffing the run. That leaves the Chicago Bears as the team going the wrong way. The vaunted defense is a tick off from last fall, but the majority of the blame rests with the offense—among the worst in the NFL in points and yards per game.
 
With a physical, smash-mouth defense and a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers share the league's best record with the Patriots a year after going 4-12. Everything is finally coming together for Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. In Charlotte, the owner of the Panthers won't comment on the job security of his GM or head coach, Ron Rivera, and he definitely isn't talking about the future of Cam Newton who's on the shelf with his foot injury. Hard to believe Carolina was 6-2 to start November a year ago; but with Cam's shoulder issues, they fell off a cliff, losing seven straight. For now, it's Kyle Allen's team, but the Panthers are mired in mediocrity. The Redskins can empathize with QB problems. It was a year ago this week when Alex Smith suffered a gruesome broken leg, changing his life and the direction of the franchise. The jury's still out on rookie Dwayne Haskins, thrown into the fire much too soon. The awesome news is that Smith is making incredible progress in his rehab and recovery, shared by his wife Liz in her Instagram video to mark the anniversary of his injury. Thankfully, what a difference a year can make.
 
From surprising surges to unmet expectations, from worst to first and back again, for better or worse—this is the NFL.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.

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