It's been a weird year in the NFL thus far. As Saints fans, we know that all too well. In an effort to try to distract myself from some concerns about our own team, I've let my vision out of the tunnel and allowed it to take a brief wander around the rest of the NFL house. While we need to clean up our Saints bedroom, some other residents have it much much worse. Okay, enough with the house analogy. What I'm getting at is that in a league that prides itself on parity, the NFL has really come through this season. While most seasons have a handful of weeks where teams that are generally considered to be awful grab some unlikely wins, and there always seems to be at least one team that more or less comes out of nowhere to make a playoff run, this year's version of the NFL really and truly seems like the "any given Sunday" sport that it's so often made out to be. After the jump are some observations about some NFL teams (in no particular order). Enjoy the brief distraction.
New Orleans Saints: After a promised diversion, I come right back to the Saints. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you feel cheated. Is it possible to "turn the corner" after a loss? Let's hope so. Maybe it'd be more fair to call it a wakeup call. In any case, we need our beloved Saints to bounce back from a tough loss. It was nice to see the offense open up a bit, but I'll be happy with a pretty version or a boring version as long as neither version makes a habit of turning the ball over. That needs to stop immediately. While haboring a little disappointment in him right this moment, in Bress I still trust. Clean it up, get healthy, and return to the man we all know and love, Drew. We'll all be waiting for you. Watching a QB sack and fumble turn into a touchdown was sickening to watch. Our defense played well for the most part, though, which was encouraging. Fitzgerald seemed like a problem all day, but when is he not? The D was put into too many tough situations by our offensive turnovers. The Saints are 3-2 and very much in the hunt for the division. A ton can happen between now and game 16, but as beat to hell as we are, we have to win the games we "should" win. There are far tougher opponents down the road. I still believe the Saints will get it all sorted out, and at the very least should perform better as people return to something vaguely resembling good health. Let's move on.
Atlanta Falcons: Steve Mariucci declared the Falcons the best team in the NFC on NFL network yesterday. That statement seems like a bit of a stretch to me this early in the season. Granted, they do currently look like the best team in the NFC South, but there's a long way to go before it's all said and done. With that said, I think we expected this team to be solid this year. What I find odd is that Falcons fans seemed to have really tempered expectations before the season began. They seemed warily optimistic, and most of the concerns I heard (I live about 2 hours north of the ATL, so there's a lot of Falcons fans and media coverage in my area) centered around the defense and the secondary in particular. The stats back that up; they are currently in the top half of the league in total yards allowed (10th) and rush yards allowed (8th) but in the bottom half in pass yards allowed, albeit not by much (19th). Where they are really shining is in points allowed (2nd). Their offense has been about what everyone expected lead by a really strong rushing attack. The next four games, two on either side of their bye, I think will determine whether their defense was underrated or if it's been playing above it's skill level. Their toughest remaining games all come at home. The Saints need to play better to have a chance at winning the division.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are 3-1. This is where things start to get crazy. The Bucs rank in the bottom half of the league in every important offensive and defensive stat except pass yards allowed (9th). Their offense hasn't featured a 100yd rusher or receiver over the course of 4 games. They've outscored their opponents by an average of 6.3 points in their 3 wins (with 2 wins coming by only 3 points), and they were outscored 38 to 13 in their loss to Pittsburg. The combined win/loss totals of the three teams they beat... 3 and 12. This team is headed in the right direction, albeit slowly, and their record is surprising. But I don't think their overall numbers can sustain success. They have heart and they play hard, I'll give them that. But clouds are looming, let's hope the decline starts this week with a loss to the Saints. It's disturbing that this team has every reason to play as hard as possible against us, though. That shouldn't be overlooked.
The Entire AFC South: Every team in the AFC South currently sports a 3 and 2 record, with the Colts and Titans being in 3rd and 4th place respectively thanks to division and conference losses. Uh, what? The Jags upset the Colts in their first meeting, but that has happened before. Beyond that, the team has looked fairly mediocre outside the emergence of Marcedes Lewis as a redzone threat. Sustained success from the Jags seems unlikely, but they're willing to play, and even remaining mediocre will maintain pressure on the rest of the division. Why? Because the 3 "good" teams in the division have been wildly inconsistent thus far. I have no idea what to make of the Colts, Titans, or Texans at this point. Are they really good? Are they willing to let teams they should beat rise up and punch them in the mouth? It seems to vary week to week and it doesn't seem to matter about the competition. This entire division seems schizophrenic. The Colts don't look like the well-oiled machine that we've become accustomed to. Maybe the Saints winning the superbowl made them look human. Running the ball at their D all day to keep Manning off the field didn't seem to work in the past. This year, it seems like a viable strategy. Freeny's patented spin move may've finally been exposed as a weakness in run defense. Hard to tackle a running back if you have your back turned to him. The Chiefs ran his way consistently last week, and it seemed to work every time. The Colts are still good, and their window is far from being closed. But they're going to have to work a lot harder for 13 wins this season than they have in years past. The Titans have Chris Johnson. He can keep them in any game. But without more of a threat of a consistent passing game or a defense that performs more like their 2007 version, the Titans will have a rough time getting anywhere. The Texans? When will they finally put it all together and be the team everyone wants them to be? Who knows. We've been waiting 3 years for them to arrive. Might be time to admit that even with a lights-out running game it's just not going to happen.
Detroit Lions: The Lions are averaging 25.2 points per game. They have managed to look vaguely respectable on offense versus the likes of the Philly, Minnesota, Green Bay, and Bears defenses. Their record is still 1 and 4 and they're dead last in their division, but if they weren't operating without their starting quarterback, is it possible that their offense could perform well enough to steal some wins in spite of their truly atrocious defense? Don't rush to judgement. The average number of points the Lions lost by in their four defeats? Less than a touchdown. As weird as things look across the NFL landscape right now, just imagine if the Lions had a winning record at this point in the season versus the opponents listed above.
The Minnesota Vikings: Favre's past few contracts have all been short, but it's pretty obvious that his deal with the devil was only for last season. Injuries have hurt this team, and the addition of Randy Moss will surely help the offense, but it feels like they're not going anywhere. Poor AP is just spinning his wheels (5.5 ypc). Favre's body is breaking down from top to bottom, and now parts of it we shouldn't be hearing about are dominating the media. Despite Peterson's stats, the o-line in Minnesota seems a little problematic and part of the overall passing game issue. It just seems like the magic is gone for Favre and the offense. Major injuries across the rest of the division leaves the opportunity for the Vikes to bounce back, but how many game-losing INTs can one team handle?
Green Bay Packers: I think Packer fans feel our pain. They have a 3-2 team that has been in way too many close games, they have been decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball, and they find themselves in an unexpected dogfight for their division. As long as Rogers can bounce back from his concussion without missing too many games they should still win this division. But their complete lack of a dependable runner and the unexpected instance of the Bears atop their division along with the presence some other dangerous (and now desperate) teams is going to make it an uphill battle. Again, sounds kind of familiar.
The Chicago Bears: The Giants ended the Bears' Cinderella story with a deafening thud. Mike Martz will keep this team throwing downfield and Forte looking like the second coming of Marshall Faulk, but he's also going to continue to get QBs wrecked, especially behind a shaky line. While the offense has garnered the most attention, it's the defense that has earned the Bears their surprising record. Time will tell if the offense can continue to survive long enough to continue to score enough points to win and if the defense can hold long enough to keep from losing.
The New York Giants: On the flip side, the Giants are a team excited to be 3-2. I saw this coming, but it comes as a surprise to most folks. This team, with basically this roster, won a Superbowl not too long ago. It stood to reason that they would bounce back eventually. In a division that seems incredibly chaotic, is it unrealistic to think the Giants could make the playoffs with a defense that's no longer underperforming (1st in total yards allowed, 1st in pass yards allowed, 9th in rush yards allowed), a playmaker in the receiving corps emerging (top ten offensive passing rank as a team), and a reinvigorated flip-the-script running game (130 ypg, good for 11th best in the league)? Told ya so.
The Dallas Cowboys: In a season that's been pulling my emotions every which way as a Saints fan, I have to look no further than the Cowboys to put a smile on my face and warm my battle-weary heart. They rank in the top half of the league in most categories, but this team just looks like it's in disarray. Maybe more time spent in the offseason practicing and less time catering to the media would've made a difference. Let's just give Jerry Jones a reality TV show already and stop pretending this is a football team. Dallas fans can live forever in their glory years with Emmitt, Aikman, and Irvin. And it's starting to look like they may have to.
The Philadelphia Eagles: Speaking of reality shows... It's not going to matter who they start at QB if neither one can stay healthy. A young team going through growing pains that can no longer rely on their defense to cover up mistakes and a rotating door at QB doesn't come across as a playoff contender.
The Entire AFC West: KC is young, fast, and play with reckless abandon. Watching the Chiefs is actually kind of fun. With a better QB, I'd feel comfortable picking them to win this division. Look no further than last week's Chargers/Raiders game to see the state of the rest of the division. The Broncos might be good if McDaniels hadn't traded away 90% of their talent. How good would Orton be if he were still throwing to Marshall and Scheffler? The teams in this division will likely continue to beat the hell out of one another but see little success against the better teams in the rest of the league. It's kind of sad that one of these teams is going to get a playoff spot.
The New York Jets: Never underestimate what a change of scenery can do for what most people thought was a washed-up runningback. With Santonio Holmes coming back maybe the passing game can improve. They were a surprise last year, but this year they look as expected: a great defense and running game that can carry the rest of the team to the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers: The defense is even better than people thought it would be and carried them to a fairly surprising 3-1 record. I was never a Big Ben fan even before all the most recent nonsense, but with the threat of a real passing game, this team will be extremely dangerous. If Roethlisberger can knock off the rust fairly quickly the Steelers will be scary.
The Baltimore Ravens: After a slightly bumpy start of the season on offense, the Ravens seem to have gotten it together. More importantly, their secondary has been much better than expected (2nd in pass yards allowed). It'll be interesting to see them duke it out with the Steelers for the rest of the way as the disappointing Bengals fade back into obscurity and Carson Palmer's career bottoms out despite all the weapons provided him.
The Saint Louis Rams: They already won two games! The loss of Clayton for the year is really going to hurt them, but, while extremely unlikely, with the 49ers imploding there's a chance this team could win this division. All they need is Steven Jackson to get over his end zone allergy. Out west, in both conferences, there's not one team I'd be willing to call "good" at this point. That's just sad.