Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NFL Week 5: Byes begin

Miami and St. Louis have much-needed weeks off, but lose ground to Indianapolis in the chase for the top pick. Cleveland is at .500 and in dead last in the AFC North. Washington and Baltimore keep their first-place positions, and Tony Romo fails to lead the Cowboys to victory yet again.
  • Monday Night Football returned to Detroit as this time a national audience got to see the Lions' third consecutive comeback from a halftime deficit. In this case, though, there wasn't much to fear. The defense didn't force any turnovers, but they gave up just one touchdown, and after a third-quarter sequence of Chicago punt, Detroit TD, Chicago punt, Detroit TD, the game was effectively over. The Lions haven't looked as solid in the last three games as they did in the first two, but there's no shame in being the second-best undefeated team in the league. The running game still isn't there, and Stafford has cooled off a bit, but the defense is still solid, and if Nick Fairley can make contributions on the defensive line, the offense may not have to get better.
  • Jay Cutler did a masterful job of staying alive against the Lions, getting sacked only three times and not turning the ball over once. He's doing the best he can in a horrible situation. Martz doesn't appear capable of making adjustments to his scheme, and Chicago continues to demonstrate that they don't have the personnel (aside from the QB and Forte) to run that kind of offense. Add that to Lovie Smith's questionable decision-making, and it's hard to see the Bears at .500 this season. The Lions have stopped opponents nearly 80% of the time in short-yardage situations, and yet the Bears continue to try to run on them, even though they convert only half of those attempts in general. This offense isn't good enough to afford to throw away possessions; Lovie needs to kick a little more often. (I know, it's odd for a Football Outsiders reader to suggest kicking on fourth and short, but the idea is not that you always go for it, but that you take into account your team's ability as well as the general percentages. If you can't run the ball, don't run in those situations.)
  • There's no shame in losing at Buffalo these days, but at some point, I think it's OK to question whether or not there's a chance for the Eagles to pull out of this slump. This week's game against Washington could be the nail in the coffin for the over-hyped "Dream Team": a loss would drop Philadelphia 3.5 games behind Washington and give them an 0-2 division record. There are already 11 NFC teams with better records than the Eagles; while the Lions may not continue to lead the pack, they're certainly setting a fast pace, and it's not yet clear that this Eagles team can do better than .500 – a record that wouldn't catch Detroit and might not take the second spot either. 
  • The Bills have a balanced offense, a competent defense, decent special teams, and wins over Oakland, New England, and Philadelphia. The bad news is that they still have to visit the Giants, Jets, Chargers, and Patriots. To win the division, they might have to split those games. If Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to run the offense efficiently, a split might be a worst-case scenario: all four of the teams above have questions in at least one aspect of their play, and the Bills may be able to take advantage of them.
  • Three weeks ago, the Chiefs looked like the worst team in the league. Now, they look like the worst 2-3 team in the league. Wins over Minnesota and Indianapolis make their record better, but it's hard to get excited about either game. Ripping the depleted Colts secondary should be an expectation, and it's hard to understand how Kansas City can fall behind this team by 17, leaving Pierre Garçon open for two touchdowns a week after Tampa Bay decided it wasn't necessary to cover him. The Chiefs' remaining schedule is fourth-hardest in the NFL, and it's unlikely Todd Haley will be around to complete it.
  • Curtis Painter finally showed that he might be the right guy to keep Peyton's spot warm, ripping Kansas City for a 99.1% passing DVOA, but again we saw that the problem was not the quarterback position in the first place. The Colts have posted a positive (meaning bad) pass defense DVOA every week this year, and in the last couple of weeks, both halves of the defense played poorly enough that neither game should have been contested. (The Colts did well to lose by only 7 to the Bucs.) Indianapolis fans wishing for Andrew Luck might do well to consider that drafting a young QB only helps if he's eventually going to start: imagine what would have happened if the Packers had caved into QB Redacted's demands: Aaron Rodgers could be part of a title-winning team in another city, just as sixth-round pick Matt Hasselbeck eventually left for Seattle. If Peyton comes back, there's no guarantee he'll be willing to step aside when Luck is ready ... and even if he does, what kind of line will be in place to protect him?
  • Soooooo ... I guess Kevin Kolb isn't quite ready to turn things around in Arizona? The Cardinals look just as bad as they did last year, if not worse, and with San Francisco off to a good start, it doesn't look as though there will be a chance to steal this division with an 8-8 record. About the only thing the Cardinals can do well is run the ball, and in the Year of the Pass, that doesn't really matter much. I don't know how often teams trade notable players and then both suffer as a result, but I don't think you can say that the Kolb-for-Rodgers-Cromartie trade has helped either Philadelphia or Arizona noticeably.
  • For one week, at least, Minnesota is not who we thought they were. However, the Vikings are still out of contention in the North, four games back and unlikely to catch anyone, and despite appearances, their first five games have been significantly easier than most other teams' (29th in past schedule strength). Minnesota visits struggling Chicago next week, then plays Green Bay and Carolina before the bye. It's hard to see them at better than 2-6 after those games, and 1-7 seems more likely, with the Panthers game on the road. McNabb continues to be woefully inaccurate (10 for 21 against Arizona, just 56.4% for the season), and it's hard to see the Vikings winning if he isn't able to improve his game.
  • Seattle's still a bad team, but forcing five turnovers is a good way to steal a win, and if Tarvaris Jackson is out for any length of time, the Seahawks may have a chance to right their ship. Jackson has been just as bad in Seattle as his detractors predicted, and if Charlie Whitehurst's performance in New York wasn't a fluke, Seattle might end up with a mediocre offense to match their run-of-the-mill defense. San Francisco isn't out of reach yet, but they're setting a pace that will likely require more than a 7-9 record for Seattle to repeat as division champions.
  • The Giants are looking more like a team of smoke and mirrors. With their early-season schedule, easiest in the league, New York should be 5-0; instead, they're 3-2, with losses to surprising Washington and puzzling Seattle. The Giants also have the toughest remaining schedule of any team, with remaining games against six  first-place teams (New England, Buffalo, Washington, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Green Bay), Tom Coughlin may wish that they hadn't let those early games slip away. It isn't hard to picture this team going 7-9, not when you see that their best win so far is over a Philadelphia team that doesn't look anything like what the media predicted for them.
  • Tennessee didn't look very good at Pittsburgh, sacking Slow Ben Roethlisberger just once and allowing the Steelers to convert 7 of 12 third-down opportunities. The AFC South is down this year, but that doesn't mean the Titans have enough of a cushion to let winnable games get away from them so quickly. It's one thing to have a pass-heavy attack (which, by the way, I like in Tennessee: it's obvious they couldn't win consistently with a run-oriented game), but it's another to rely on it when you're down 21-3 or 28-3. It's much easier to pass when the other team isn't sure what you'll be doing, and few coaches in the NFL will run the ball much when behind by four scores.
  • The Steelers needed a win against a decent team, after getting thumped by the Ravens and held to 10 by the Texans. Pittsburgh's played pretty well despite that opening-week result, and they're quietly lurking behind the Ravens in a pack of 3-2 teams across the AFC. With Jacksonville and Arizona next, Pittsburgh should be 5-2 going into a key stretch of games against New England, Baltimore, and Cincinnati: 5-5 may put the Steelers in chase mode, with no chance to win the division and little chance to catch the AFC East runner-up for the top wild-card spot. 
  • New Orleans looks like a less extreme version of New England: not quite as good on offense, not quite as bad on defense. There's every reason to believe they'll be 9-1 coming into their bye week; that would effectively wrap up the South (giving them a sweep of Tampa Bay plus no less than a three-game lead over the Bucs), and then a Giants-Lions-Tennessee sequence that should give Sean Payton an idea of any areas to improve going into the playoffs. It's hard to picture New Orleans not getting a first-round bye, and they'll want to patch up some holes in their game before they welcome the NFC East or West winner ... I'm not sure there would be two wild-card teams capable of knocking off division champions.
  • Carolina still isn't a very good team, but at least they're not dreadful. Cam Newton has done a fine job of turning around the Panthers' offense; now they just need to fix the defense in the same fashion. Carolina can keep the score close in just about every game right now, but they simply can't get enough stops to win many games. New Orleans was 12 of 17 on third-down conversions, but they only needed two of those on their 13-play, 89-yard game-winning drive. Yes, some of that was probably a prevent-type defense, but that's a problem Carolina has had all season, allowing opponents to convert 43% of their third-down attempts. They've forced only 5 turnovers as well – only Miami, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans have forced fewer. I'm not sure that Newton can continue to keep the Panthers close in these games unless the defense starts to make more plays.
  • Cincinnati should beat Indianapolis and move to 4-2 going into their bye week, and that's probably better than most Bengals fans would have predicted. As with San Francisco and Detroit, Cincinnati's surprising start has been built on defense. With the unexpected decline of the AFC South, the AFC North suddenly looks like a division of strength, with the NFC West helping to pad their records as they fight for playoff spots. The Bengals won't play Baltimore until November 20, or Pittsburgh until the week before that, so it will be a while before we have an idea of their relative strength in their division, but they could well be in the thick of things when they enter a four-game stretch against AFC North opponents (with Cleveland and the return game with Pittsburgh rounding out that block).
  • The Jaguars simply aren't any good. They should be 1-7 at the halfway point, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect an interim coach to be leading Jacksonville when they return to visit Indianapolis in Week 10. Once again, weather conspired to make things difficult for Blaine Gabbert, but at some point, if he isn't able to produce, Jack Del Rio isn't going to have much to justify his decision to cut Garrard prior to the regular season, even if it is better in the long run to give Gabbert experience. QBs these days don't seem to need as much experience on the sidelines prior to seeing game action; I suspect a good bit of this is the rise of the spread offense in the college game, giving quarterbacks the opportunity to run some of the same plays that they'll run in the pros. 
  • Hue Jackson called for a two-point attempt after an Oakland touchdown in the second quarter. Proof that Al Davis' spirit lives on? Most likely. The Raiders' offense has been surprisingly effective through four games, but it's not nearly as easy to throw for two due to the lack of space the secondary has to cover. It didn't hurt the Raiders, as a kick would have left them with a six-point lead at the end and most likely a loss if the Texans scored a touchdown, but I'm not really a fan of going for two until it's clear that you need to. I just don't think there are that many teams who can take two yards when they need them, and it's too easy to end up "chasing" those points by missing your first two-point attempt and then feeling you have to keep going for two to make up for that miss.
  • The Texans are about to find out how much they'll miss Mario Williams. Road games against Baltimore and Tennessee will challenge Houston's pass defense, which was pretty good with Williams but may suffer without that outside pass rush threat. Acquiring Derrick Mason may help to make up for Andre Johnson's absence, but it may not be enough, and it would be unfortunate for the Texans to find themselves stuck at 3-4 in a conference where 10 wins may be the cutoff for a playoff spot. 
  • Well, Tampa Bay now has two losses to teams who look pretty good and three wins over teams who don't look that good. In other words, they're perfectly suited for that middle area between contending teams and those already looking forward to the draft. If they can't put together a decent performance against New Orleans, they might as well start looking at wild-card spots, or perhaps "spot", given that Detroit is 5-0 and has a win over the Bucs. New Orleans has a significantly easier schedule than Tampa Bay, so even a split probably isn't enough to give the Bucs hope of a division title.
  • Just as Tampa Bay's stock is falling, San Francisco's is rising. The NFC West jokes may still apply to the other three teams in the division, and Alex Smith may never be a solid quarterback, but the 49ers' defense is looking better and better each week, and if it weren't for that overtime loss to Dallas, we might be hearing talk about the West practically being locked up. That defense will get tested, though, in a visit to Detroit. A loss may raise questions about San Francisco's playoff hopes; a win would validate them and also give them plenty of momentum heading into their bye.
  • Speaking of weak West divisions, San Diego might be the worst 4-1 team in football, if not also in recent history. The Chargers couldn't stop New England's passing attack and have yet to play another decent team. Special teams aren't disastrous like last season, but they're not great, and neither the offense nor the defense looks good enough to make a playoff run. The Chargers face a solid defense in the Jets after the bye, then the Chiefs, but after that, Green Bay and Oakland should give San Diego the chance to prove that their defense can make something happen in January.
  • So TIM TEBOW is now QB AWESOME in Denver, I see. He "led" the Broncos' comeback against San Diego, pulling Denver within 2 despite completing just 4 of 10 passes. Yes, Orton has thrown quite a few interceptions this season, but the passing attack is far from Denver's only problem, and Tebow really hasn't shown the ability to be anything other than Just A Guy at QB; that kind of player isn't going to rescue a team in need of help at so many other positions. (Protip: to position your team to draft high in the first round, hire someone from the Belichick coaching tree. Works nearly every time.) On the other hand, at least it'll help to quiet the fools who are convinced that TIM TEBOW will lead the Broncos to an 18 and -2 record and five Super Bowl wins this year.
  • At some point, Rex Ryan will have to concede two things. One is that his Jets are never going to win a Super Bowl, and the other is that Mark Sanchez is never going to run a solid NFL offense. This is a guy who's completing 54-57% of his passes in a scaled-down offense in an era where the median percentage is around 61% and 65% only gets you into the top quartile. I'm not trying to suggest that Mark Brunell should start against Miami, but I will say that after that game, the Jets face San Diego, Buffalo, and New England, and after that stretch, there should be no question about the Jets' playoff hopes. (Is this an appropriate time to start questioning USC quarterbacks in general? Carson Palmer had one good season in Cincinnati, but Matt Leinart was an out-and-out flop, Matt Cassel had one decent season in Kansas City so far, and Sanchez has been poor at best – he's lucky that so many defenders dropped sure interceptions of his last year.)
  • Right now, the only question about New England is whether or not their offense can score enough to make up for the bad games the defense is having. Dallas, Pittsburgh, and both New York teams should provide a reasonable test for Brady and the monstrous Patriot offense, but New England will have to learn from archrival Indianapolis: you can only win a Super Bowl with a bad defense if, at playoff time, it completely forgets it's a bad defense. The Patriots can't afford any missteps, either, not with the Bills keeping pace with them at the top of the AFC East. Good teams do win road games, but no one wants to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl, and Indianapolis is one of the few cities where "neutral" fans are most certainly going to be rooting against New England ... a Super Bowl appearance would be as close to a true road game as they'd be likely to get. 
  • Green Bay struggled a bit against a weak Atlanta pass defense, which is interesting. The Packers will likely be 10-0 going into their Thanksgiving game with Detroit, which could actually turn out to be a showdown of NFC contenders. The Lions aren't likely to be 10-0 at that point as well, but they'll certainly have a good record, and if the Packers stumble, the Lions could force Aaron Rodgers to throw on the road in the playoffs. (That might not bother Green Bay's offense much, but Detroit's offense would probably prefer indoor home games to outdoor road games.) For now, though, Mike McCarthy's team will focus on knocking off weaker opponents, and that should be no problem with St. Louis and Minnesota up before the Packers' bye week.
  • The Falcons just don't have it this year. Their losses to Chicago and Tampa Bay look less and less impressive each week, as does their win over Philadelphia, and Seattle is a bad team no matter what the Giants have to say about it. A contending Atlanta team would be 4-1 at this point, looking to keep pace with New Orleans atop the South; this team could end up 2-5, as Carolina is no pushover and playing in Detroit is much less fun for opponents this season than it has been in the past. The offensive line has been unimpressive, the defense isn't getting a good pass rush, the secondary isn't stopping opposing quarterbacks, and Matt Ryan is looking less and less like a quarterback who deserves a real nickname rather than the feeble one he's got and more like Just A Guy. Perhaps, like Miami, the Falcons' turnaround was just a one-season wonder.
We're not yet far enough in to make concrete statements about most teams, but we are starting to see a few teams pull away from the pack, if only for playoff positioning, and a few teams are sinking to the bottom, unlikely to rise. In a couple of weeks, we should be able to eliminate a group of teams from playoff contention and look a little more closely at top teams to see how they might fare in the playoffs.

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