Now in the second half of the NFL regular season, it’s a good time to take stock and see what we’ve learned as a result of the 120 games (not including preseason) played thus far.
There are two teams that have been obviously positive standouts: Kansas City and New Orleans. Both have benefited mightily from the offensive-minded head coaches now in charge of their operations.
Three teams have been about where they were expected: Denver, Seattle and Green Bay. While a couple more have been a positive surprise: Tennessee and Detroit.
The biggest disappointments have got to be the New York Giants and the Houston Texans, both of which have playoff-caliber talent but have played very poorly and been consistently outclassed. In this group you also have to include the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are lost without a consistent running game and now are all but lost from contention.
Then there’s the special case of the Atlanta Falcons, who keep blaming injuries (which hit everyone) but otherwise are a total mystery. Tony Gonzalez came back for this? Lastly, don’t forget the Minnesota Vikings, who have collapsed farther and faster than anyone thought possible.
Lamenting the Steelers’ fortunes brings up the general state of the AFC North, which early on was widely considered to be one of the strongest in the league, but nobody actually plays football on paper.
Cincinnati stands on top with a better than two game cushion, and they’ve been inconsistent and often downright lucky. Maybe their obliteration of the Jets last week means they’ve found their real identity, but we’ve been down this road with them before.
Whether it’s the NFC East or the AFC South (Indianapolis in the South, really?), the general balance of talent across the league is showing up week-to-week in the utter unpredictability of the games.
The ability to succeed through the middle of the schedule now often comes down to whether or not a key injury occurs, the timing of injuries to other players that aren’t so key, and the variation of talents among the front offices when it comes to scanning the waiver wire and other teams’ practice squads in order to fill short-term gaps.
Once again, everything seems designed to converge on that last two weeks in December when divisional games and records face the inevitable put-up-or-shut-up moment. If you’re a pro football fan, it would appear to be a good year to have saved some vacation time.
There’s a whirlwind of activity and an encyclopedia of information to keep up with, and that just plays havoc with anyone trying to accomplish so mundane a task as predicting the outcome of the games. I suppose that’s eleven paragraphs of a convoluted excuse for having a 70-50 record and a .583 winning percentage. Still, it could be worse.
Bengals at Dolphins - The textbook example of two teams going in opposite directions. Cincinnati has the much better defense, and that’s what it takes to win on the road. As long as Andy Dalton keeps finding his receivers more than the opponent’s defenders, things will work out fine along their road to the postseason.
But beware the unexpected and remember that Halloween night is a great time for spooky things to happen, especially on that unusual NFL Network channel.
Chiefs at Bills - Buffalo pulls a home shocker every year. This is about the time they give their fans just enough hope that something better is about to happen the rest of the season (only to then pull a “Lucy” and watch Charlie Brown land flat on his back). It would help if the temp drops below 30; but regardless, this is my upset pick of the week.
Falcons at Panthers - Atlanta’s defensive front is no longer stout enough to keep Cam Newton in the pocket. This will be one of those slash-and-dash affairs that Steve Smith has loved his whole career. This week Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium gets renamed The Last House on the Left.
Vikings at Cowboys - If Dallas winds up making a game out of this, Jerry Jones should fire himself. Only Adrian Peterson gives one any pause at all. Minnesota’s defense will get gashed to pieces. (And don’t you just love how “Halloweeny” this column’s getting?)
Saints at Jets - After getting taken apart by Andy Dalton and an emerging set of receivers, how much did New York learn and was it enough to handle Drew Brees? The likelihood is that Brees will use his superior mobility and accuracy on the run to thwart the Rex Ryan blitz packages. On the flipside, Geno Smith is not yet accurate enough on the move when he faces Rob Ryan’s occasionally mad schemes. Advantage New Orleans, but probably closer than you might think.
Titans at Rams - Thanks to the heroes of my youth (Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel, et.al.), there’s a soft spot in my head for the Rams. While their defense turned in a very impressive performance against Seattle Monday night, the spot in my head is not soft enough to think they can outpoint Tennessee with a backup QB - one the team had so much confidence in they inquired as to the availability of Brett Favre!
Add to that borderline insult the fact the Rams lack any semblance of a rushing attack so their ability to keep and move the ball, much less score, subsists more on hopes and dreams than on plans and schemes. It’s a team with big holes all over the offensive side, and Tennessee likely will not have to worry about scoring enough.
Chargers at Redskins - San Diego plays with more urgency, generates more yardage, and scores more points. So far, they also make fewer mistakes, but the season’s only half way there. Plenty of time for those still. AFC West teams making the journey east never seem to come home happy, so they better give Philip Rivers all the touches he wants. Close as Waterloo, but the visitors are riding better horses.