Monday, November 5, 2007

NFL mid-season report


Now that Super Bowl XLI1/2 is in the books and every NFL team — except Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who play tonight — has played at least eight games, it's time to assess the first two months of this 2007 season. It's time to place teams in categories — some good, some bad — and determine which teams still have a chance at Super Bowl XLII.

It's time to break things down like Ron Jaworski, to analyze things like John Madden. Ain't no joking in this column. Just well-thought-out answers.

The Top Tier
These two teams are miles above the rest of the NFL. There's a 90 percent chance they'll meet again in the AFC Championship Game.

1. New England (9-0) — The Patriots showed Sunday why they're the best team in the league, and one of the greatest regular season teams of all time. Tom Brady is the coolest customer in the candy shop, Randy Moss is the scariest receiver in the league, and when the offense struggles once in a blue moon, the defense picks it up.

2. Indianapolis (7-1) — The Colts are not far behind their rivals. Consider the fact that despite the absence of their No. 1 receiver, Marvin Harrison, their left tackle, Tony Ugoh, and their two starting outside linebackers, the Colts led 20-10 with under 10 minutes remaining. They came that close. Their defense is better than ever, as was the case for three quarters Sunday, and Joseph Addai has morphed into one of the league's top five running backs.

Second Tier Playoff Locks
These teams, barring a mega collapse, will be playing the first weekend in January.

1. Dallas (7-1) — How comfortable does Tony Romo look? Seriously. With a new contract and a happy T.O. running crisp routes, Romo couldn't be more relaxed if he were seated in a La-Z-Boy with a margarita in hand. The Cowboys offense isn't that far behind the Colts' and Patriots', but their defense still needs to toughen up and not give up so many big plays.

2. Green Bay (7-1) — Who would have thought? The Packers? Seven wins, one loss? Without even a pinch of a running game? This, folks, is why Green Bay fans should never let Brett Favre retire. It isn't every day that a player with Favre's competitiveness and will to win comes along. Favre is completing 66.3 percent of his passes and, more importantly, making the plays when his team needs them (such as on the first play of overtime last Monday against Denver). The Packers defense also is much stronger than people give it credit for.

3. Pittsburgh (5-2 ... play Baltimore tonight) — I expect the Steelers to take care of division foe Baltimore at home tonight, but even if they don't, I'm not moving them from this spot. Their defense is back to being steely, and Willie Parker has proven that last season wasn't a fluke. Add in Ben Roethlisberger playing his best football and new coach Mike Tomlin finding new ways to motivate a recent Super Bowl winner, and this team will make the playoffs ... only to eventually fall to Indy or New England.

Don't Pencil Them In ... Yet
These teams are in good position to make the playoffs, but there's still plenty of work to do.

1. Tennessee (6-2) — Could this team win any uglier? Vince Young personifies this rag-tag bunch perfectly, because he hasn't played very well, but he makes the plays when necessary. And the Titans find themselves just a game back of the Colts. But let's not kid ourselves. When the teams meet in the final week in Indy, the Colts will have the division locked up. But the Titans should have a playoff birth by then as well.

2. N.Y. Giants (6-2) — Another big surprise, the Giants have won six in a row and can tie the Cowboys for the division lead with a home win on Sunday. Maybe the most appealing thing about this team's run is we haven't heard any reports of players or coaches badmouthing each other. Instead, there have been reports of coach Tom Coughlin lightening up. Yeah, I know, it sounds surreal. But with a balanced offensive attack and an always-improving defense, there is reason to smile.

3. Detroit (6-2) — Here's the feel-good story of the first half. The worst franchise in all of professional sports the past five years has turned it all around in half a season. Absolutely stunning. And I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually think the Lions will make the playoffs. If Jon Kitna stays healthy. If Kevin Jones stays healthy. If the defense continues to play over its head (it scored two touchdowns Sunday against Denver!). Still can't believe it.

Bubble Teams ...
So far I've listed eight teams. And I believe all eight will make the playoffs. That leaves four open spots. The following bevy of teams will fight for those spots (two in each conference). I've ranked them in terms of their chances of making the playoffs.

1. Seattle (4-4) — I know this is sad. I really don't like these Seahawks very much. But consider the other teams in their division: Arizona (3-5, can't win on the road); San Francisco (2-6, six-game losing streak); St. Louis (0-8, no comment). It would take a major collapse for Seattle to not win the division. Mike Holmgren will save his job by getting back to the postseason.

2. San Diego (4-4) — Again, the Chargers should be thankful for the division they're in. Kansas City has overachieved to be 4-4. The Broncos (3-5) have been plagued by injuries and are lucky to have three wins. The Raiders (2-6) are the Raiders. There is simply too much talent and will (I think) on this team to miss out on the playoffs.

3. New Orleans (4-4) — The Saints are on a roll, having won four consecutive games after that shocking 0-4 start. And only one of their remaining opponents (5-4 Tampa Bay, which leads them by a half game in the NFC South) has a winning record. They should take over the division from the overachieving Bucs sooner rather than later.

4. Cleveland (5-3) — The surprise team of the AFC, the Browns have a favorable schedule to sneak in as a wild card. While their next two games — at Pittsburgh and at Baltimore — will test them, their final six games are against teams with losing records. With their balanced offensive attack, the Browns are in good position to make the playoffs.

5. Tampa Bay (5-4) — The fact that Jeff Garcia led the Eagles to the playoffs last year bodes well for these Bucs, who will likely need to win the division to get a playoff spot. With the exception of the game at New Orleans, the Bucs have an easy final seven games, with the only other winning team on their schedule the 5-3 Redskins.

6. Jacksonville (5-3) — The good news: Starting QB David Garrard is expected back in the lineup for Sunday's huge game at Tennessee. The bad news: The Jags' offense hasn't been the problem. Rather, the usually steady defense has allowed 29, 23 and 41 points the last three games. With San Diego, Indy and Pittsburgh left on the schedule, the defense better get its act together quickly.

7. Washington (5-3) — Consider how close this team is to being 2-6: two overtime victories (16-13 over Miami in Week 1 and 23-20 over the Jets on Sunday after trailing 17-3) and a 21-19 win over Arizona, which just missed a field goal at the end. But now, despite a difficult remaining schedule, they have a shot at the playoffs, and Clinton Portis' 196-yard effort Sunday had to be a huge relaxer for young QB Jason Campbell.

7. Baltimore (4-3 ... play at Pittsburgh tonight) — Obviously the Ravens' fortunes would improve dramatically with a win at Pittsburgh tonight, which would put them in a three-way tie for first with the Steelers and Browns, but I don't see that happening. And consider the remaining schedule. Home games against New England AND Indy AND Pittsburgh. This team will need to become twice as good in the second half if it wants to play in January.

8. Kansas City (4-4) — Finally, Larry Johnson is starting to earn his large contract. And veteran QB Damon Huard has been a pleasant surprise. Additionally, the Chiefs have the Chargers at home on Dec. 2, and a win in that game would give them the tiebreaker over San Diego. But I don't think they'll be able to keep overachieving, and a game at Indy in two weeks is a sure loss.

9. Arizona (3-5) — Five homes games — not to mention games against 0-8 St. Louis and 2-6 Atlanta, San Francisco and Cincinnati — give the Cardinals hope that they can catch the 4-4 Seahawks in the dismal NFC West. The fact that they beat Seattle in their first meeting means that an improbable win on the road in Seattle on Dec. 9 would give them the tiebreaker.

10. Buffalo (4-4) — With three consecutive wins, all of a sudden the Bills can't be counted out of the playoffs ... yet. J.P. Losman is back and healthy, and Lee Evans is the best receiver in the league no one talks about. But still the playoffs are a long shot. While two games against Miami will help, five road games — including three against winning teams — and home tilts with the Pats and Giants will dethrone these pesky Bills.

A Miracle Away
These teams can't be dismissed, but their fans are planning vacations for the first weekend in January.

1. Chicago (3-5) — I can't dismiss my preseason pick to play in the Super Bowl. If that defense can play up to its potential...

2. Minnesota (3-5) — Anytime you have the best new running back in the league, Adrian Peterson, who already broke the NFL record for rushing yards in a game (296), anything is possible — even with Brooks Bollinger at QB.

3. Carolina (4-4) — The good news is the Panthers are just a half game behind the 5-4 Bucs and they play Atlanta at home next weekend. The bad news is David Carr has proven he can't lead an NFL team, Steve Smith isn't unhappy (and neither is anyone else).

4. Denver (3-5) — Somehow, some way, the Broncos are just a game back in the morbid AFC West. But losses in five of their last six games and the fact that each of their wins has come on a last-second field goal by Jason Elam tells a different story. This team, which was embarrassed 44-7 by Detroit Sunday, could easily by 0-8.

5. Philly (3-5) — There are many players on this team who were on last year's squad, which won its final five games to sneak into the playoffs. But with games at New England, Dallas and New Orleans remaining, these Eagles need divine intervention.

6. Houston (4-5) — The Texans finally stopped the bleeding with a 24-17 win at Oakland Sunday, but the wound will likely reopen soon. Games at Cleveland, Tennessee and Indy will doom the Texans.

Stick A Fork In 'Em
These teams have no shot at making the playoffs and should start thinking about the '08 Draft (only five and a half months away).

1. Cincinnati (2-6) — As if things could get worse, Chad Johnson sustained a neck injury Sunday and had to be carted off the field. Even if Johnson returns, the Bengals have used up all their losses. Until they seriously address their defensive holes, they're not a team to take seriously.

2. Oakland (2-6) — The positive is they've been competitive, with their last three losses coming by a combined 13 points. But that means nothing in this league. All Raiders fans can look forward to is another top 10 pick in next year's NFL Draft.

3. San Francisco (2-6) — 49ers fans can't even remember the opening two wins after six demoralizng losses, four by 18 points or more. With Frank Gore And Alex Smith either hurt or not performing up to expectations, there really are no positives here.

4. Atlanta (2-6) — No surprise here after the Michael Vick saga derailed this franchise. Hey, at least the Falcons have a one-game winning streak.

5. N.Y. Jets (1-8) — After making the playoffs a year ago, I didn't imagine the Jets would be this bad. Inconsistency on both sides of the ball has plagued them. When they score a lot of points, they give up a lot of points. When their defense plays well, their offense enters hibernation. And the losses pile up.

The 0-fers
Two teams have yet to win a game. Can either go the entire season without a victory? Here's my take.

1. St. Louis (0-8) — The Rams will win a game — probably their home game against Atlanta on Dec. 2, or maybe even a road game at the 49ers in two weeks.

2. Miami (0-8) — While I give the Dolphins a better chance than the Rams of going 0-16, I tend to think they'll break up the streak as well. Home games against the Jets, Bengals and Bills (this next weekend coming off their bye week) give them ample opportunities to get in the win column.

The Bigger Question: Can New England go 16-0?
I'm not going to predict the playoffs until I see how matchups shake out, but I think the Patriots have a great chance to finish the regular season 16-0. The tough games remaining are at Baltimore, home against Pittsburgh and at the N.Y. Giants to close out the season.

One big factor is that if the Colts keep winning, the Pats will need to continue winning to secure home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But even if the Colts lose, I don't see New England letting up on the gas pedal. Bill Belichick is taking out his anger about the "Spygate" incident on the NFL by running up the score on every opponent the Patriots overwhelm. Expect him to play his top guns just enough the final week of the season — even if there's nothing to play for — in order to beat the Giants.

Yes, the Patriots will finish 16-0.


Neil Joshi said...

Nicely done, Jake. Who would have thought that Kitna's prediction might actually come true? Watching Detroit beat Denver by 30+ didn't seem real.

You were right about the Seahawks. I thought they would easily go 6-0 in their division, and win at least half of their reamining games to finish with 11 victories. Turns out, they can't even do that.

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