Rookie wideouts living up to hype

When Cardinals wide receiver John Brown reeled in a 48-yard, fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown strike last Sunday against St. Louis, his third fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown this season, he served one more reminder of the mark that he and his fellow rookie receivers are making.

It is like none before.

Before May's draft, NFL talent evaluators praised this group as one of the deepest collections of wide receiver talent they had scouted.

Yet what this year's rookie wide receiver class is doing may be unprecedented in terms of impact and production. The only obvious rookie class comparison is the famed quarterback Class of 1983, which wound up sending John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino to stardom and to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's way too early to know whether any of this year's rookie wide receivers, as good as they have been, will end up in Canton. But there's no disputing this: This season's rookie wide receivers are turning heads, beating defenses, making plays, compiling stats, winning games, exceeding expectations and recording history.

Already, seven rookie wide receivers have five or more touchdown catches, the most for a season in NFL history. The past two weeks, Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. has a league-leading 264 receiving yards and Buccaneers rookie Mike Evans is second with 249.

The group has been so good that it's fair to wonder whether Buffalo would have been better off holding on to its first-round pick, staying at No. 9 and drafting a wide receiver there rather than trading two first-round picks to move up to get Sammy Watkins. Then again, Watkins is an ethereal talent, as are some of the other receivers in this year's group.

A glance at the group reveals how deep the talent and production runs.

• Buffalo's Watkins, fourth overall pick: Watkins' production has been a major factor in predicting the Bills' success. In the four games in which Watkins has had 30 or fewer receiving yards, the Bills are 0-4. In the five games in which Watkins has had more than 30 receiving yards, the Bills are 5-0. Buffalo needs Watkins, who is battling a strained groin, to step up down the stretch.

• Tampa Bay's Evans, seventh pick: In his past two games, Evans has recorded 14 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns. Now the Washington Redskins will have to slow the player morphing into Tampa's biggest offensive threat.

• The New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr., 12th pick: After watching Beckham catch seven passes for 108 yards in Week 10, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said, "They've got a great one in that kid." His comments harked back to those uttered one year ago by an NFC personnel director, who said he believed the two best wide receivers in the country might be at LSU. The first was Beckham, the other was Jarvis Landry, another rookie wide receiver now shining in Miami.

• New Orleans' Brandin Cooks, 20th pick: Cooks has adapted well to the Saints' style, transforming into a monster in the Superdome. In his four home games this season, Cooks has caught 28 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns. The good news for the Saints is their next two games are at home against the Bengals and Ravens.

• Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, 28th pick: Benjamin has developed into Cam Newton's security blanket, a player he can target in the red zone and in key situations. It shows. Benjamin already has seven touchdowns.

• Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews, 42nd pick (second round): In Mark Sanchez's first start with the Eagles on Monday night, he felt most comfortable throwing to Matthews, who racked up seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Sanchez trusts Matthews, whom Eagles coach Chip Kelly viewed as a first-round talent.

• Arizona's Brown, 91st pick (third round): The Cardinals have talked him up since training camp, and they were spot on. Brown has made more of an impact this season in Arizona than either Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd, two former first-round picks.

• Pittsburgh's Martavis Bryant, 118th pick (fourth round): Since the Steelers activated him four games ago, he has changed the look and feel of Pittsburgh's offense. Bryant has set an NFL record with six touchdown catches in his first four NFL games.

Let's put it this way: Had anyone playing fantasy football this year drafted solely rookies for his or her wide receivers, that person would be winning his or her league. And as good as this rookie wide receiver class is, it's not as if it's alone.

It now feels like colleges are pumping out productive wide receivers on an annual basis, with one draft class being better than the next.

The Class of 2010, also dominant this year, produced four of the NFL's best wide receivers in Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Emmanuel Sanders, not to mention Brandon LaFell.

The Class of 2011 gave the NFL A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Randall Cobb, Torrey Smith and Andre Holmes.

But like the 1983 quarterback class, this year's wide receiver class has the makings of an all-timer.

Potential playoff role reversal: Start turning back the clocks. It's looking like a flip-flopped version of 2010 all over again.

Back then, the New Orleans Saints were the defending Super Bowl champions and owners of an 11-5 regular-season record, yet they had to open the wild-card round of the playoffs in Seattle, against the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks.

People complained how unfair it was, yet in the game that launched the legend of "Beast Mode," Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch ran over New Orleans' defense and recorded arguably the most memorable single run in postseason history, a play that literally shook Seattle.

Now, New Orleans is 4-5 and the favorite to win the NFC South. More and more, it's looking like the winner of the South could have a .500 or worse record on the way to hosting a wild-card game.

With 6-3 Seattle two games behind Arizona and one game ahead of San Francisco, it would hardly be a surprise if the defending Super Bowl champions wound up finishing the season with at least 10 wins -- and a road trip to the NFC's No. 4 seed, quite possibly New Orleans.

Though the playoffs are just under two months away, it is easy to envision the Saints holding on to win the South, the Seahawks grabbing a wild-card spot in the West and New Orleans hosting a Seattle team that finished the regular season with a better record.

At the very least, these Saints better figure out a way to win close games, something they've failed miserably at this season.

They've lost 37-34 to the Falcons in overtime, 26-24 to the Browns, 24-23 to the Lions and 27-24 to the 49ers in overtime. Heading into Sunday's game in New Orleans versus the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints have only one loss by more than three points (38-17 to Dallas).

It all has them on a collision course with the defending Super Bowl champions, just as it happened in 2010. Only this time they would be trading places.

Costly success: Midway through the season, Arizona has the NFL's best record and a chance to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. But there is a downside.

If Arizona were fortunate enough to advance to Super Bowl XLIX, it could cost the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona upward of $16 million in lost revenues, according to Rob Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College.

Baade cautioned that the figures are not exact because there's no precedent for this: No city hosting a Super Bowl has had its team play in it. But in this case, Arizona's lost revenue would come from the absence of fans who would have traveled to Phoenix had another team won the NFC championship.

Fewer fans traveling means fewer hotel rooms and rental cars booked and less money spent in the city.

So if Arizona wins big, it loses big, too.


Player of the Week: Chiefs QB Alex Smith -- Kansas City has been waiting for its chance against the defending Super Bowl champions.

Game of the Week: Patriots at Colts -- One of the greatest quarterbacks ever versus one of the greatest to-be quarterbacks in what could be an AFC Championship Game preview.

Upset of the Week: Houston over Cleveland -- In his first start with the Texans, Ryan Mallett beats his former Patriots teammate Brian Hoyer in the Brady Backup Bowl.