Posts Tagged ‘nfc’

Someone famous and cool once said the NFL doesn’t truly start until Thanksgiving. Well Turkey Day has come and gone and what we’re left with is a deep field of teams that look poised to play “real” football. Four teams in particular—Chiefs, Dolphins, Giants, and Lions—are a few of the hottest teams in football. It’s a typical NFL trope: who these teams are and how they win makes us skeptical of their potential. But just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Nobody likes to be made a fool. Is what we’re seeing with these four teams a mirage? A closer look may reveal what we should expect in a post-Thanksgiving world.

First, let’s play a game. It’s that really awful game where any football broadcast takes some impressive stats, but puts a question mark over the owner of those stats. When the question mark is taken away, we’re all shocked!

“The guy ranked 2nd in first downs and 4th in rushing touchdowns is…Melvin Gordon??? How can that be?!”

Anyways, there’s a team in the NFL that is scorching hot. They are 18-3 in their last 21 regular season games. Some might call that the beginning of a dynasty. (Most people wouldn’t, but some might!)

Here we go, the big reveal…..it’s got to be the Patriots, right? They’ve been great for seemingly forever, with or without Tom Brady. But nope, not them.

Then maybe the defending champion Broncos? Think again.

Cowboys or Panthers?? They both lost just one game either this year or last year, so it’s not totally unreasonable. Except it’s not them by a long shot.

The answer, if not already given away by the title of the post, is…the Kansas City Chiefs! Shocked?? Ah, see, the game works!

Yes, the Chiefs are on a hot streak that has seemed to slip somewhat under the radar. Many Chiefs fans demand respect! Question is, do they deserve it? The idea of combining Alex Smith and Super Bowl triggers some cognitive dissonance. The way they win isn’t easy to trust. I believe Smith ranks just above WR Willie Snead in passes over 20 yards this season. TE Travis Kelce has consistently been Kansas City’s leading pass-catcher, snagging countless 10-yard seam routes. The defense has been consistently solid, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed for four straight years and never allowing more than 20 points per game in that span.

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The regular season is Alex Smith’s favorite time of year.

So why does it feel like KC is going to cruise into the playoffs, only to be knocked out by a “real contender?” They’ve beaten both the Raiders and Broncos already this year. At what point do we accept that they could make a run? Perhaps the latter part of their schedule could be a more in-depth litmus test for a playoff performance. They play @Atlanta, Oakland, Tennessee, Denver, and @San Diego (combined record 33-22). That’s a tough road to navigate, but if KC manages to squeak out just three, they’ll be sitting at 11-5 and almost surely in the playoffs. Even then, they’ll need to nab a couple playoff wins for people to take this team seriously.

In the deep AFC, the Chiefs are hardly the most interesting story at this point in the season. Many would likely hand over that title to the Oakland Raiders, but one scorching-hot team may be giving them some competition. That team is the Miami Dolphins, winners of six straight and now 7-4 on the season. There was a time when Miami was 1-4 and life made sense. This, once again, wasn’t a team we could trust and we could finally write them off early and move on with our lives. Jay Ajayi had different plans. Behind an offensive line that finally meeting expectations, Ajayi and the Dolphins have found a winning formula. They pound the rock with hard-hitting Ajayi and then toss the ball up to a budding superstar in DeVante Parker. Their defense is doing a better job of getting to the passer recently, but they still struggle to stuff the run game. One problem I have with this team that gives me pause is that they don’t seem to do anything spectacular. They are pretty good at a lot of things, but we often picture solid playoff teams with two or even one thing they’ve mastered. However, unlike the Chiefs, Miami may not have to be spectacular to find themselves playing in January. They face @Baltimore, Arizona, @Jets, @Buffalo, and New England (combined 28-26). Aside from the finale with the Pats, those are all games they could win with how they’re playing now.

Now let’s travel over to the NFC, where the Cowboys own the conference but their toughest competition might be found in their own division. New York (8-3) owns the 2nd best record in the NFC and are just two games out from the division lead. They won the crucial season-opener over Dallas and have another matchup (at home) approaching soon. However, even with the six-game win streak and the proximity to Dallas, something feels off. The expectations for this team before the season rested heavily on the defense. Many (including myself) figured that if those highly-paid free agents could just elevate that defense to average, a high-powered offense could carry them to interesting places.

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Not exactly the formula for a playoff contender.

Well, in true Giants fashion, the defense has done their job (16th in total defense), but it’s the offense that is struggling mightily. An offense with a two-time Super Bowl MVP QB, Odell Beckham, Victory Cruz, and Sterling Shepherd only ranks 22nd in total offense. To be fair, the passing game itself ranks 13th. But you can see the difficulties on the field. Punt after punt after punt against the Bears and Browns doesn’t exactly scream Super Bowl contender. With the offense still figuring it out 12 weeks in, we’re left with a similar question to Miami’s: what is this team actually good at? If you want to tab “clutch defense at the end of games” as reliable trait, then maybe that. Game after game the defense holds the opponent from that back-breaking touchdown that cost them so many games last year. That’s the real difference this year, isn’t it? New York isn’t that much different of a team from last year, they’re just winning the close games with a slightly-more-reliable defense. For New York, December looms as a potential wake-up call. They’re @Pittsburgh, Dallas, Detroit, @Philly, and @Redskins. Something tells me those teams won’t forgive stalled drives as much as the Bears and Browns.

Finally we come to the black magic that’s disguised as the Detroit Lions. In a division we expected Aaron Rodgers to control, but then thought Minnesota would run away with, the Detroit Lions hold the lead at 7-4. How are they doing it? Oh, you know, that old fashioned football strategy where you win seven games after trailing in the 4th quarter. Think about that. In all 11 games this season, Detroit has trailed in the fourth quarter. They’ve won seven of those games. It takes a brighter mind than I to figure out how they are getting away with that. Keep in mind this is all without star receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. We’ll see if they can manage to keep a lead against their upcoming schedule of @New Orleans, Chicago, @Giants, @Dallas, and Green Bay. It wouldn’t surprise me if Detroit begins to drop some of these late game. Their matchup with New York should be especially interesting given both those teams’ ability to close games out this season.

The NFC and AFC are incredibly deep this year, filled with many more interesting teams than just these four. However, there’s a great chance more than one of these teams gets into the playoffs on the back of their hot start. It may be hard to imagine now, but teams like these just need a few wins in January to luck into a Super Bowl birth.

Well this isn’t what I expected. Despite 27 wins between them, 21 of which came without a loss (7-0 and 14-0), the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers were two teams I refused to buy into. Now they play for the Super Bowl.

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Peyton Manning reminded us his window is closing, not closed. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

Denver rattled off seven straight to begin the 2015 season. Seems like a good barometer for success, but something felt off. Five of those wins were within one score and they came against relatively weak competition. They scraped by against the Ravens (5-11) and Browns (3-13), just two of many games that highlighted their struggles on offense. The defense, however, could not be ignored. They allowed under 20 points in all but one of those first seven games, forcing turnovers and absolutely punishing QBs. The defense really shined in Week 8 in a highly anticipated matchup with the high-flying Packers. In a game most–including me–expected to see Denver’s struggles catch up to them, the Broncos made a statement. They crushed Green Bay 29-10 and gained a lot of respect.

Then, things started to fall off the rails. A struggling Peyton Manning got injured, setting the scene for what would be a rocky second half of the season. Brock Osweiler filled in nicely for Peyton, going 5-3 in his eight starts, including impressive wins over the Pats and Bengals. Still, it was the defense that shined in the wins. When the defense stumbled and allowed 27 to Indy, 29 to KC, and 34 to Pitt, Denver didn’t have an answer. The offense couldn’t generate enough points to make up for any major lapses on the other side of the ball. A team that one-dimensional was hard to believe in. To their credit, the defense has shown up in the postseason and a healthy Peyton has backed them up with two decent performances. It’s strange; Denver’s problems haven’t gone away, they’ve just been able to overcome them enough to make it further than I ever would’ve thought.

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Before the season, I would’ve said a Super Bowl run for Carolina would require an MVP performance. With limited offensive weapons, Cam Newton has delivered just that. (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

My reluctance to accept Carolina into my life began well before the season started. How could I believe in a team that went 7-8-1 last season, especially after losing their star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Gotta admit, I had no hope for this team. I had them going 6-10 and placing last in their division. Seven consecutive wins later, I still wasn’t convinced. Much like Denver’s hot streak, the wins were hardly dominant. One score wins over the Saints, Texans, and Colts had to be indicative of a future letdown. Seven games and seven wins later, the letdown finally came. A 20-13 loss to the Falcons finally showed the world the real Panthers.

If only.

By that time, it was clear. Carolina was a great team. A fantastic team. But a Super Bowl caliber team? My mind still couldn’t accept it. I had a red-hot Seahawks team finally exposing them in the second round of the playoffs. Instead, it was more of the same from Carolina. A vicious beatdown of both the Seahawks and Cardinals will surely have the Panthers opening as Super Bowl favorites. At 17-1 and all smiles, the Panthers cannot be ignored. It’s strange to say considering my preseason expectations, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see this Panthers team complete a near-perfect season with a Super Bowl victory.

I was wrong about these teams. All that remains to be seen is who I was more wrong about.

All 32 teams started off with a chance in early September, even the Browns and Titans. Now 28 are irrelevant. Despite all four lower seeds winning in the first round of the playoffs, we’re left with the top four teams in the NFL battling for a spot in Super Bowl 50. After a week of review and analysis (from others), the only thing that remains to be seen is who will play on February 7th. There’s a bunch of numbers and rankings we could look at to make a well-informed prediction, but it can be tough to actually find what matters. On the eve of Championship Sunday, I’m here to do just that. Here’s what could very well decide the fate of this NFL season:

Which mascot would win in a fight to the death? 

Ah the ol’ classic. There’s often no better way to predict who has an edge than using the essence of the team. A team’s mascot is its heart and soul; it drives their playing style. We’ve got a diverse group of mascots left and here’s how they stack up:

  1. 368px-Carolina_Panthers_logo_2012.svgCarolina Panthers: This is a no-brainer. A panther is a natural born killer, forced to survive by killing its prey. The aggression and agility of a panther is no match for the other three mascots.
  2. New_England_Patriots_logo.svg.pngNew England Patriots: A human mascot is always a strong contender. Humans are cunning and resourceful, using their mental ability to exploit any weakness it can find in an opponent. Where the Patriot (Revolutionary War solider) falls behind is in its weaponry. Relying on a slow-loading musket would cost a Patriot dearly if he misses his first shot against a panther. One miss and you’re forced to rely on melee weapons (knife, sword) to take him out. More than possible against a bronco or cardinal, but a panther? Sorry, but I’ll take the carnivore.
  3. 1280px-Denver_Broncos_logo.svg.pngDenver Broncos: A bronco is aggressive by horse standards, known for bucking if untrained. Beyond that, I don’t see much of an advantage that a bronco could find against a panther or patriot. Even the matchup with the cardinal is a tough call, but I default to the bronco for its size.
  4. Arizona_Cardinals_Logo.pngArizona Cardinals: You can make the cardinal look as angry as you want, but it’s still just a bird. Not only that, but a cardinal, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the least threatening birds I’ve encountered. Never have I felt intimidated or even startled by a cardinal. This is an easy choice for last place. Better luck next category.

 

Best-looking head coach

This category was shamelessly stolen from the Around the NFL podcast, but for good reason. You can’t respect a leader who isn’t good looking, that’s just a universal fact. Let’s take a look at these guys:

  1. 11_Kubiak_News.jpg Denver Broncos–Gary Kubiak: He’s 54 but looks to be in the best shape of his life. Gary’s got a classic, clean-shaven look that emanates leadership on the sideline, yet he could just as easily play the aloof-but-tough Dad in a feel-good sitcom. I get a Kevin Costner vibe from Gary and it works.
  2. 9503754_G.jpg Carolina Panthers–Ron Rivera: Thanks to the Dan Le Batard show, I will now forever see Ron as “the guy who wears a lei for his entire vacation in Hawaii.” If you can get past that, Ron is actually a decent looking guy. He owns the look with his trademark photochromic lenses and reminds you he was a former player with his tough build.
  3. arians.jpg Arizona Cardinals–Bruce Arians: Ron is hardly the only one with a signature look. Bruce dons the thick frames and always a hat of some sort. Some have described him as a typical “Guess Who” character, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To me, he comes off as the lovable curmudgeon we can all learn to love with enough time.
  4. billbelichick.jpg New England Patriots–Bill Belichick: Bill has often been likened to a Sith Lord or even the Emperor Palpatine of a New England empire that just won’t die. Although this parallel is found primarily for the Pats’ reign of terror, Bill’s old and tired look fits perfectly with that of an evil leader.

 

Coolest Names

This is quite possibly the most competitive category of them all. All four teams have great names to offer. We can only hope at least one of them makes a major splash this Sunday.

  1. 368px-Carolina_Panthers_logo_2012.svgCarolina Panthers: Like I mentioned before, this was no easy choice, but I am still confident that the Panthers deserve the top spot here. Star Lotulelei and Fozzy Whittaker headline a deep, deep name roster for Carolina. Included in this depth is Kony Ealy, Bene Benwikere, Amini Silatoli, and Kawann Short. Perhaps the cherry on top is that the face and leader of the franchise is Cam Newton, an easy and relatable name fit for a movie star quarterback.
  2. Arizona_Cardinals_Logo.pngArizona Cardinals: Guys like DJ Swearinger and Ifearnyi Momah made this a close race for 1st. Alani Fua, Tyrann Mathieu, and Calais Campbell are all names I envy myself, but they just don’t have quite the spark the Panthers’ names did.
  3. 1280px-Denver_Broncos_logo.svg.pngDenver Broncos: Denver owns quite a few great names as well, just not quite enough that see the field. Shiloh Keo, Darius Kilgo, and Brock Osweiler are all fantastic names, but they are 2nd string or worse. Shoutout to a great starter-backup tandem in Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield (Prison Break star) at left tackle. And we can’t forget Aqib Talib and Demaryius Thomas, classic names for NFL stars.
  4. New_England_Patriots_logo.svg.pngNew England Patriots: They may place 4th, but the Pats can be proud knowing that they quite possibly employ the best name in the entire NFL: Ishmaa’ily Kitchen. This wonderfully weird name carries an otherwise sparse roster of names. LaAdrian Waddle, Rob Gronkowski, and Dont’a Hightower cannot be overlooked, however.

 

Best Uniforms

If you look good, you play good. Another NFL reality. It’s why Jacksonville and Tennessee have struggled to reach the playoffs for so long. These teams have to be doing something right if they’ve made it so far, but whose threads can carry them all the way?

  1. Patriots_12uniforms.pngNew England Patriots: Silver and navy blue is a tough color scheme to work with, but the Patriots pull it off amazingly. The jersey gives off a classic look while also looking modern. I love the red border around the letters and along the leg. Some might find the overall look boring, but I see a timeless uniform that’s easy on the eyes.
  2. NFCS-Uniform-CAR.PNGCarolina Panthers: Tough pick here for 2nd, but I’m a sucker for the lightning blue and black combination. It may look a little “arena-footbally” at times, but the bright blue highlights on the arms and legs really light up the team. I could do without the weird stripes on the helmet that end halfway down the back. This uniform could’ve easily been botched by trying too much, but they made it fit. The classic number font keeps it from getting out of hand.
  3. Broncos_uniforms.pngDenver Broncos: Another good color scheme here but too many awkward parts hold it back. The stripes that curl down the leg and come to an end just look out of place. The suddenly-ending collar is also odd. Still, the bright orange is a fun, modern look for Denver and the number font isn’t too wacky for me to have a problem.
  4. Ariz_Cardinals_uniforms.pngArizona Cardinals: Easy choice for last place here. These unis are just plain boring and uninspiring. They suffer from the same problem Denver does with the weird leg stripe. The primary problem, however, is the bland color scheme and the way it’s presented on the jersey. No other color besides red and white make an appearance on the primary uniforms and that’s a problem. The blacks alternates, however, are gorgeous. Make this slick look the primary and Arizona shoots up to the top.

Well we broke down these teams in just about every way possible, now it’s just time to form a prediction. The Panthers found an edge in many of these categories but I can’t go against myself. I picked the Cardinals and Patriots to meet in Super Bowl 50 before the playoffs began, so that’s who I am sticking with here.

Patriots 24, Broncos 21

Cardinals 28, Panthers 21

 

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Green Bay used to be the team to beat. Now they’re being beat and will have to fight for a division that looked locked up. Photo credit: ESPN.com

One of my favorite things about every NFL season is how we form a framework of the league in our heads, using what we watch and our own preconceptions to position teams. Power rankings are a perfect example of this. The standings reflect wins and losses, but power rankings try to explain who these teams really are based on what we’ve seen. Nobody in the history of the league has ever agreed on one Power Ranking list. Our frameworks are all different and they change all the time.

My absolute favorite part about all this is how soon these beliefs become deeply entrenched. After just five weeks, we think we know who these teams are. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. I wish we had the ability to show our Week 5 selves what we’re saying now. Take, for example, the conversation I overheard today between a couple of guys about the Green Bay Packers:

“How about the Packers? Wow.”

“Yeah they’re awful now. No chance against Minnesota.”

Imagine telling that to somebody after Week 5! Green Bay was arguably the best team in the league at that point and looked poised to meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl after cruising to a 13-3 regular season. Now they’re “awful.” Now, that’s obviously a bit of an overreaction but it still illustrates how quick things can change. That may sound obvious, but just think about how confident you are in some teams right now. What if I told you the division-leading Vikings would miss the playoffs completely? Last year, the 7-2 NFC East leading Eagles were in the same position and ended up falling short of the postseason.

The season moves so fast and we’re unable to appreciate some of the trends and changes that form the league. Here at the start of Week 11, I think this is a good place to take a quick look back at where we were in Week 5 and then see where we might be in Week 17.

Seven weeks ago…

Real Clear Sports does a good job of gathering all the different Power Rankings from major sports sites and creating an aggregate list. This smooths out some outliers and gives us a good idea of what the public generally thinks of the league. Click here if you want to view the full Week 5 rankings yourself. Some things I noticed:

To me, the Patriots and Packers were clearly the two top dogs. They were hardly the only undefeated teams–there were six–but they were dominating opponents consistently, had two of the best QBs in the league, and performed as elite teams consistently throughout the decade. We were used to these guys being on top and they were on top again.

With Green Bay dropping three straight and relinquishing their division lead to the Vikings, who are the top dogs now? New England sure seems to have a stranglehold on the league’s top spot. While I’d agree that Carolina owns that second spot, I don’t think they’ve quite yet reached the caliber that Green Bay and New England appeared to have in those opening weeks. Green Bay is still a solid team, but their recent tumble has left the Patriots all alone.

On the other side of things, you may remember a few teams getting off to rocky starts. Chicago dropped three straight to begin the season on the way to 2-3. They were getting blown out in their losses and Cutler even got knocked out in the second week to make things look really grim. But pay attention to who some teams lose to because it could tell us something. Chicago lost to the Packers (6-3), Cards (7-2), and Seahawks (4-5), a pretty tough opening slate if you ask me. Against some easier competition, the Bears have figured some things out and have an outside shot at the playoffs at 4-5.

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All looked lost when Jamaal Charles went down for the year. Instead, Kansas City has won three straight and put themselves in contention for a playoff spot. Photo credit: ESPN.com

Minnesota and Kansas City are a couple teams in a similar position. They started slow (Vikings 2-2, Chiefs 1-4), but have strung together some wins to put themselves in contention. Minnesota is obviously in much better shape, now atop the NFC North at 7-2. But the Chiefs are quietly competing in that large pack of AFC teams gunning for a wildcard spot. They looked dreadful to start the season, but now sit at 4-5, a game out of that sixth spot.

It’s important to note that despite all these changes, most things have remained the same. Carolina, Cincy, and Arizona are still flying high while Seattle and Indy are surprisingly struggling. The NFC East was thrown into chaos with early injuries to Romo and Dez and somehow it seems like we’re dealing with even more questions today. We can expect a lot to stay the same in the next seven weeks of the season, but what has the potential to flip the script?

Seven weeks from now…

It’s all about playoffs. Seven weeks from now will be Week 17, right on the brink of deciding the final playoff spots.

Are five of the six NFC spots pretty much decided? Arizona (1) and Carolina (2) look to be well on their way to division titles, while Minnesota (3) and Green Bay (4) look to have the NFC North and first wildcard spot locked up. Atlanta (5) is two games ahead of any other NFC team for that final wildcard spot. They’ve struggled lately, but still look far more promising than the other NFC wildcard contenders. That leaves the last spot to be decided by how the NFC East shakes out. The teams in that division are so dysfunctional, there’s plenty of people suggesting that the return of Romo can propel the Cowboys to run the table and steal the division. They’re 2-7 right now and would be the first of their kind to ever clinch a playoff spot. Could we see a major change in that division? Will two teams emerge in a couple weeks or will it remain the jumble it is now by Week 17? Also, don’t count Atlanta in quite yet. I’m interested to see how Seattle competes down the stretch. They had a great second half in 2014 and another good run could launch them right back into the playoffs despite their 4-5 start. They are certainly capable of stringing together some wins.

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I’m personally most interested in the Arizona-Seattle dynamic. Has Arizona officially replaced Seattle or are we just being tricked? Photo credit: ESPN.com

In the AFC, there’s a major win equality crisis. Three teams (Cincy, Denver, New England), own 90% of the conference’s wins while the rest share the remaining 10%. Ok so it’s not quite that bad, but those teams look to have their division just about wrapped up. The fourth division, the AFC South, is in flux much like the NFCE is. The Colts, Texans, and Jags are all right there at four wins. The last two wildcard spots are where things get messy. The Steelers and Bills own them for now, but expect that to change with every passing week. There’s a pack of six other teams just one game out of that sixth spot. I’m really interested to see how this race shakes out. I expect three or four teams will remain afloat long enough to have a shot in their final game. The question is, who will it be? Keep an eye on Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Kansas City.

Every week we see a little bit more and adjust our image of the league. The playoffs are great, but try and appreciate these next few weeks of football. The race is heating up and we’re in for the best part of the NFL. Anything can change.

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After a crazy NFL season with plenty of surprises, the familiar teams are still the ones to beat.

As the defending champion Seahawks dropped to 6-4 after losing to the Chiefs, it looked as if this year was a little different. Seattle wasn’t the same dominant team. From our view, Seattle’s eyes ought to be locked on one of the two NFC wildcard spots because the 9-1 Arizona Cardinals were running away with the division. Something similar was happening to Green Bay, who had come accustomed to undeniable success in the past few years. They had owned their division since 2011 but now the Lions, of all teams, were on track to their first ever NFC North championship. Furthermore, Detroit was owning the entire NFC, occupying the #1 seed for the majority of the season.

Over in the AFC, New England was cruising. Even so, they couldn’t get rid of the murmurs of a potential run from Miami after seeing them win three straight. Denver was not short of division challengers either, as both the Chargers (tied for first) and Chiefs (2nd) refused to go away early.

It was finally time to see some “different” teams thrust into the spotlight.

*Sigh* Maybe next year.

When the dust settled, we were left with the same big boys we started with. New England and Denver shook off pesky division foes to clinch division titles and with it, the top two seeds in the AFC. The Chiefs, Chargers, and Dolphins all failed to even make the playoffs.

After holding on to the #1 seed for nearly the entire year, dreaming of finally having a meaningful influence in the postseason, Detroit failed to turn that dream into a reality. They once again fell to the big bully Packers, who took the NFC North for the fourth straight season and the #2 seed. As for that #1 seed, the 11-3 Cardinals were ready to pounce. A game away. But somehow, some way, through too many Cardinal QB injuries and Russell Wilson running wild, it was once again the Seahawks who not only stole the NFC West, but the #1 seed for the second straight year. Forget a wildcard spot, they had their eyes on the top seed the entire time.

And so here we are, left with Seattle, Green Bay, Denver, and New England atop the NFL, heading into the postseason. And that is where many of those fallen teams regain hope, as they should. Unlike the regular season, which has a way of balancing itself out over the course of 17 weeks, the postseason is much less forgiving. You’ve heard the stories about the 10-6 Giants and Ravens ending hot streaks with the trophy. As long as you can win and survive, as ugly as it can look, you can win the Super Bowl.

Having said that, I lack faith in a cinderella-esque run this year. I see the four big boys meeting in their respective conference championships, where the final result becomes a crap shoot.

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Seattle is the hottest team in the NFL heading into these playoffs. They’ve come a long way since being 6-4, not allowing over 14 points to any team since mid-November. Their top ranked rushing attack pounds the ball down your throat with Marshawn Lynch and converts crucial 3rd downs with Russell Wilson scrambles. Oh and they have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, where they haven’t lost since Week 6. Although the first Green Bay-Seattle matchup didn’t go well, a rematch in the NFC championship would be a dream, where I could see either team winning. The edge goes to Seattle there in their home field. Were it in Lambeau, I’d go the other way.

In the AFC, dethroning the Patriots is a tall order. Their only home loss came last week, when New England sat some of their starters to play it safe. It won’t necessarily be an easy road for the Pats, likely having to meet Indy, Denver, and/or Pittsburgh on the way, but I have no reason to believe they should lose to those teams.

In the Super Bowl, both teams lose their edge from being at home. There, it comes down to who can win one game. It’s tough as heck to pick against Seattle, who has looked nearly unbeatable lately, but I’m going with the consistent winning formula of the New England Patriots. Since Week 4 after getting crushed by KC 41-14, the Pats have bounced back to be one of the most consistently dominant teams in the NFL. Seattle or Green Bay winning wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Given the road New England faces and their ability for a number of different players to step up, I like their chances.

Baltimore hosts Cleveland in Week 17 in a potentially season-deciding game. Baltimore won the first matchup on a last second field goal.

Baltimore hosts Cleveland in Week 17 in a potentially season-deciding game. Baltimore won the first matchup on a last second field goal.

In the 2014-15 season of the NFL, we are seeing something pretty unbelievable. Two divisions are polar opposites and could leave us with a playoff mess.

The AFC North and NFC South–almost comically opposite by name–aren’t your ordinary divisions. Unlike your average division with a front-runner or two-team battle, these two divisions still have all four teams in contention. The quality of the contest is where you see the difference. The AFC North is a battle of the best. The Ravens, Steelers, and Browns all sit at 7-4 behind the 7-3-1 Bengals. Cleveland’s 7-4 record is potentially good enough for second in six other divisions, but if the season were to end today, not only would the Browns miss out on the playoffs, but they would finish last in the AFC North.

The NFC South presents a much different kind of race. One more along the lines of “Who wants to win this division least?” It was widely predicted that the Saints would take the division, perhaps with ease. But their season hasn’t gone the way anybody has planned and they now find themselves with an abysmal record of 4-7. Again, most divisions would sit the Saints third or even fourth with a record like that but in the NFC South, they are in second and share the same record as the division leading Falcons. At 4-7, the Saints are in second via a tiebreaker. What’s even more mind-boggling is that last place Tampa Bay, at 2-9, is not only in contention for the first overall draft pick, but can also win the division! Carolina is third at 3-7-1.

Could one of the 4-7 disappointments actually be a division champ? It's either that or someone worse.

Could one of the 4-7 disappointments actually be a division champ? It’s either that or someone worse.

With only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, you can see what’s coming. The division winner for the NFC South is bound to have a record within the 6-8 win range. The extreme possibility remains that the division winner could enter the playoffs with a 5-11 record. Five wins. That’s insane. In case you forgot, the entire AFC North has already past that mark and all four teams are still battling for an AFC wildcard spot. In case you’re wondering when the last time all four teams were three games above .500, try never. It’s the first time in NFL history that has happened. And surprise, surprise, they are 10-1-1 against their NFC inverse.

The AFC North is on a collision course of the likes we’ve never seen before. Unlike the NFCS, with all four teams competing for one spot against only each other, the AFCN teams have the three inside the division as well as five others competing for a wildcard spot. It’s going to get messy and you can almost guarantee that a tiebreaker or two will come into play.

A five-win division winner is still very unlikely, but keep an eye on these two anomalies of the NFL. With these two divisions going rogue, we could witness some incredible playoff scenarios. When we do, prepare for at least a one AFC North team to feel slighted. Big time.

Kirk Cousins was not the answer Washington was hoping for.

Kirk Cousins was not the answer Washington was hoping for.

A few weeks ago I talked about Kirk Cousins starting and how important the following weeks would be for him and Washington. Well here we are after five weeks of Cousins and the Redskins have seen enough. Unless Robert Griffin III miraculously heals in time to play in Dallas on Monday night, third stringer Colt McCoy will take the reigns.

I mentioned how we’ve seen mixed success from Cousins in his isolated appearances from the past three years. In these past five weeks, we’ve seen the same. More mixed success, according to the numbers anyway. Not counting the half he played against Tennessee yesterday, Cousins threw for about 330 yards per game, around 60% completion, with an average of 2 TDs and 2 interceptions. Those aren’t terrible numbers. But Cousins was lacking in the one stat that mattered most to the Redskins over this crucial stretch: wins. You can certainly credit Cousins with a win against Jacksonville when Griffin left early in the first quarter. Other than that, Cousins went 0-4 in the games he finished. Washington was trailing again against Tennessee when Cousins got pulled at halftime and replaced with Colt McCoy, who led the Skins to a 19-17 win.

Cousins’ numbers may not be that bad, but his performance told a different story. That mixed success was a little too lopsided. He showed flashes of potential, especially against Philly and Seattle. But when it rained, it poured. Ever heard of great QBs having a terrible short-term memory? Well, Cousins’ was great. At home against New York, Washington fell behind early and faced a 24-7 deficit. This is when Cousins was needed most and he delivered immediately, leading the Redskins on a touchdown drive to shrink the deficit to 10. With a chance to bring Washington within seven, Cousins threw a pick. The interception didn’t hurt him as Eli Manning gave the ball right back to the Redskins five plays later. One pick was not a problem. But for Cousins, it appeared the opposite was true as he started forcing passes into windows that weren’t there. One pick swelled to two, then three, then four. New York cruised to the 45-14 win.

The next multiple interception game came against Arizona, a game in which Washington found themselves down just three late in the game. With under 30 seconds left, Washington had the ball and a chance to get into field goal range. It was a tall order, but certainly not impossible. Cousins kept the excitement of that drive to a minimum by throwing a pick six on the very first play, effectively ending the game. It was his third interception of the day.

With suddenly limited backup options for Washington, the pressure on Robert Griffin III to stay healthy is perhaps the greatest its ever been.

With suddenly limited backup options for Washington, the pressure on Robert Griffin III to stay healthy is perhaps the greatest its ever been.

It should be noted that Cousins faced some tough teams. Those four opponents mentioned have a combined record of 17-9, including 5-1 Philly and Arizona. Washington gave him a chance to see what he could do against a weak 2-4 Tennessee team and after seeing another pick thrown in the first half, they pulled him before it could snowball into any more.

So where does this put Washington?

Well for now they turn to Colt McCoy, who played most of the year he was drafted (2010 by the Browns) and the year following. Since then, he’s seen extremely limited playing time. With Griffin getting healthier every week and closer to starting, McCoy is a temporary replacement, not an answer. When Griffin does return, Washington will cross its fingers hoping the time he has spent healing can somehow turn him into a QB resembling the one they saw bring them to the playoffs in 2012. With their insurance option in Cousins gone, Redskins fans will face a tough reality if–or rather when–Griffin suffers another serious injury.

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AFC Championship: New England Patriots (12-4) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

January 19, 2013 CBS 3:00pm

Pick: Broncos

In the first game of day, we’ll be treated to yet another matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Enjoy this one because we don’t know how many more times we’ll see the two best QBs of our generation on the same field in the playoffs. Their regular season meeting was an absolute classic, with Brady erasing a 24-0 deficit en route to a 34-31 comeback win in OT. Despite jumping out to that early lead, Manning had his worst game of the regular season against these Patriots. It was only the second time all season Peyton was held to under 60% (52.8) completion and the only time he was held to under 200 yards (150). New England made it readily clear that they know how to stop Manning and if they can keep him at bay on Saturday, they will walk away winners once more. However, a couple things are different this time around that may tip the scales in Denver’s favor. Perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that they don’t have to play in Foxborough this time around–where New England is 8-0–and instead play in front of their home fans where they’ve only lost once. In as tightly contested a game as this, you better believe home-field advantage will be a factor. Another big change is going to be the absence of Rob Gronkowski, who shredded Denver for 90 yards on seven receptions and a TD. That’s one big guy Denver doesn’t have to account for anymore. I can find multiple reasons why both teams can win, but Denver will have the slight edge and will capitalize.

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NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

January 19, 2013 FOX 6:30pm

Pick: Seahawks

On the other side of the league, we’ll have the two young guns Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick face off. Two veterans in one game, two up-and-comers in another. You really can’t make this stuff up. Could we ask for anything better? Anyways, for as much attention as these two QBs will get, this game will come down to defense. These bitter rivals boast two of the best defenses in the NFL and will swarm to the ball every chance they get. San Francisco is red-hot right now. Winners of eight straight, the Niners held Aaron Rodgers’ offense to 20 points and Cam Newton’s to 10. However, in both games the SF defense allowed 90+ rushing yards, an aspect of the game that Seattle thrives on. The Seahawks torched New Orleans on the ground for 174 yards and if San Fran allows anywhere close to that number, they are in for a long day. Don’t take it from me, just take a look at the numbers: in Seattle’s 29-3 win in Week 2 over SF, Seattle rushed for 172 yards. In the Week 14 rematch, Seattle only rushed for 86 and lost. It’s pretty simple for San Francisco: stop the run. With the crowd at record volume at CenturyLink Field, Seattle should be able to move the ball just enough to squeak out a close defensive win.

These are the third annual TD Awards! If you’re not familiar, the TD Awards (TD being my initials) are awards I give out to teams in the NFL for various categories. However, unlike most award ceremonies, not all of these awards are positive. While I love to look at the best of the best in the NFL, I cannot ignore teams and players that fail to perform. One important note to point out is that these awards only take the regular season into account. I know some playoff games have already been played, but those results will not factor in the decision-making at all. Awards will go out to eight teams, two divisions, one conference, and one player in categories such as “Best Team,” “Worst Defense,” and “Best Division.” To see previous years’ winners, you can go to the TD Awards tab on the left or just click here.

Best Team of 2013

The first award for the 2013 regular season also happens to be the most prestigious. It goes to the overall best team in the NFL after 17 weeks. In the playoffs, who knows? The past two winners for Best Team (2011: Packers, 2012: Broncos) did not make it to their respective conference championships, nevermind the Super Bowl. This year there were two teams that stood out and arguments could be made for either team, but one key stat gave the winning team the edge.

pfiobtreaq7j0pzvadktsc6jvWinner: Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks edged out the Denver Broncos for the NFL’s best team. Both teams went 13-3 (7-1 home, 6-2 road), won their conferences, and now hold the 1-seeds in the playoffs. However, each team is pretty different from the other. Seattle boasts an incredible defense, holding opposing QBs to just 172 yards a game (best in NFL) and running backs to just over 100 yards (7th in NFL). With a fantastic mobile QB in Russell Wilson and a physical running back in Marshawn Lynch, they own one of the best rushing attacks and will pound it down other teams’ throats to win. Russell Wilson may not throw for a ton of yards (29th in NFL), but he knows how to make smart plays with the ball, moving around in the pocket and throwing few interceptions. Wilson has a great cast around him, but he is a vital part of Seattle’s success. In contrast, Peyton Manning is the heart and soul of the Denver Broncos. He led the NFL in nearly every major QB category and I don’t mean just this season. He broke the NFL records for most TD passes and passing yards in a single season. He has a good defense to back him up, but not nearly the caliber that Seattle puts on the field. While Seattle is stingy and wins by allowing few points, Denver does the opposite and will put as many on the board as it takes to win (e.g. Denver beat Dallas 51-48). So with strengths in different places, how can I tell who’s better? It sure is close, but Seattle holds a major edge in turnover differential. Not only does Seattle have the most takeaways in the NFL (39) but they have the 4th-fewest giveaways (19), giving them a +20 differential. Denver gives and takes the exact same amount (26), balancing their differential at 0. Creating and capitalizing off turnovers can be the difference in close playoff games and Seattle is the best in the NFL in that department. With this edge, Seattle rightfully deserves the TD Award for Best Team.

Runner-Up: Denver Broncos

Honorable Mentions: Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots

Worst Team

For every great team in the NFL, there’s a bad one. And in some cases, just plain terrible. A lot of teams did their best to win this award by getting crushed week after week, throwing interceptions, blowing late leads, etc. but one team outdid (or outdidn’t) them all.

HoustonTexansLogoWinner: Houston Texans

The Houston Texans started off the season 2-0, about as well as anyone expected. They then dropped their next 14. Two sentences don’t do justice to how bad Houston looked at times, but their 2-14 record is what they deserve. Some may say, “Hey cut them some slack, they lost in a lot of close games.” This is true, many of their games were decided by a touchdown or less. After 14 losses, however, I’ve run out of slack. Their two wins were also decided by a touchdown or less, so what am I supposed to do? Houston did not know how to win games this season, plain and simple. Even against the lowly Jaguars, who many expected to own the top pick in the 2014 draft, the Texans failed to win (twice). On the bright side, Houston will have that top pick and hopefully can find their way out of embarrassment.

Runner-Up: Washington Redskins

Honorable Mentions: Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Surprise Team

This award is my personal favorite because it epitomizes what the NFL is all about; you never really know what will happen year to year. Teams with under four wins making the playoffs the following year is becoming more and more common. Just last year, for example, the Minnesota Vikings made it to the playoffs after winning just three games the year before. Two teams in particular had major rebounds in 2013.

KC%20ChiefsWinner: Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs, winners of just two games in 2012, did more than just make it to the playoffs in 2013. KC won their first nine games of the season, led the AFC in takeaways, held opponents to less than 20 points a game, and owned one of the NFL’s best running backs. With new coach Andy Reid and new QB Alex Smith, improvements were expected, but an 11-win season was optimistic by anybody’s estimation. Kansas City shocked the NFL with their success and showed us first-hand that any team has a chance in any given year. Carolina followed closely behind in second, winning their division–when only Atlanta and New Orleans were expected to contend–and representing the 2nd-seed in the NFC.

Runner-Up: Carolina Panthers

Honorable Mention: Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Disappointment 

While some teams will shatter expectations, others will crack under the pressure. This award is obviously the opposite of Biggest Surprise and goes to the team that did the least with the most. They show us that all the projections for division winners, playoff clinchers, and Super Bowl contenders mean nothing until games are actually won. Underachievers, flops, duds, etc. However you want to put it, this is not an award you want your team to win.

HoustonTexansLogoWinner: Houston Texans

Houston already won our award for worst team and deserve this one just as much. At best, the Texans were expected to contend for the Super Bowl. Coming off a 12-win, division-winning season, with a solid QB, star RB, and top-10 defense, Houston looked ready to make a serious run. At the very least, they were expected to clinch a playoff spot. In a weak AFC, where nine wins was enough to make it, many (including myself) didn’t even entertain the thought that Houston could miss out. Well, if only it turned out that bad and nothing worse. Houston not only missed the playoffs, but lost every single game after September 15. No fall was farther than the Texans’ this season.

Runner-Up: Atlanta Falcons

Honorable Mention: Washington Redskins

Best Offense

These next few awards are pretty simple; we take a look at the best and worst offenses and defenses of the NFL. While having the best offense isn’t everything, it sure helped the team that won become one of the best teams in the NFL. The race for Best Offense was no contest this year.

Denver-Broncos-LogoWinner: Denver Broncos

This should be a no-brainer to everyone. With playmakers all over the field, Denver scorched defenses with their passing attack and kept the opposition honest with a solid run game. Denver picked up 7317 offensive yards this season, 641 more than the next team. Their passing game collected 5444 yards (best in NFL), backed up by their running game with 1873 yards (8th in AFC). My favorite stat out of everything, however, is their staggering 37.9 points per game. That’s an average. When Denver is scoring 40+ points on most days, it’s no wonder why they are Super Bowl favorites.

Runner-Up: Philadelphia Eagles

Honorable Mentions: New England Patriots

Worst Offense

Nothing is worse than watching a slow offense. You’ve seen them. I’m talking about the ones that go three-and-out drive after drive, turn the ball over constantly, settle for field goals, etc. It gets really hard to watch and one team in particular was unbearable.

jacksonville_jaguars_logo_detailWinner: Jacksonville Jaguars

While some aspects of Jacksonville’s offense weren’t the worst in the NFL, they were still collectively the worst of the worst. Even with a new logo and new uniforms, the Jags couldn’t find a solution to their offensive woes. They picked up 4701 yards (31st in NFL) and rushed for 1260 (31st). To their credit, their passing offense was better than 11 other teams’ and didn’t giveaway the ball that much (27 turnovers, one more than Denver). However, like with Denver, the most telling stat is the ability to put points on the board. In that department, Jacksonville ranked dead last with just 15.4 points a game.

Runner-Up: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Honorable Mentions: New York Giants

Best Defense

A good defense can take major pressure off the offense. Knowing that the other team will have trouble scoring, an offensive coordinator doesn’t have to take as many risks and can spend his time wearing down the other team. Just like in Best Offense, this award was an easy pick.

pfiobtreaq7j0pzvadktsc6jvWinner: Seattle Seahawks

Seattle’s physical defense made it easy on me this year. The Seahawks allowed the least total yards in the NFL (4378), the least passing yards (2752), and least points per game (14.4). To top that all off, they forced the most turnovers in the NFL (39). They’ve held powerful offenses like Carolina, San Francisco, and New Orleans to seven points or less. I can’t wait to see how this defense performs in the playoffs.

Runner-Up: Carolina Panthers

Honorable Mentions: San Francisco 49ers

Worst Defense

Handing out the award for Worst Defense was a little tougher than the rest. I found that a lot of defenses suffered in different ways. Some couldn’t force a turnover to save their lives, some allowed touchdown after touchdown, and others simply allowed large chunks of yardage.

New_Minnesota_Vikings_LogoWinner: Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota was the only team in the NFL to allow 30 points per game and that was ultimately the deciding factor when picking the league’s worst defense. They also ranked 31st in passing yards allowed, an aspect of defense that is becoming more and more important as QBs throw for more yards year after year. Lastly, they only managed to force 20 turnovers, which ranks 15th in the NFC. They may not have a terrible running D, but the other stats are enough to convince me that Minnesota was the worst at getting offenses off the field.

Runner-Up: Jacksonville Jaguars

Honorable Mention: Atlanta Falcons

Best Division

There was only one division that sent three teams to the playoffs, but there was another that yielded three 10+ win teams. These two divisions stood out in 2013, but for me there was a clear winner.

nfc-west-300x300 Winner: NFC West

The NFC West won Best Division last year and followed it up with an even better showing in 2013. Seattle won the division at 13-3 and already holds the award for Best Team. The second place finisher, San Francisco, was not far behind at 12-4. The Arizona Cardinals, 10-6, were as good a third team as we’ve seen. And in last place, St. Louis finished at 7-9, better than any other last place team and earning quality wins over Indy and New Orleans. This was an all-around fantastic division and each of the four teams proved to be difficult opponents throughout the season. The runner-up was the AFC West, who sent three teams to the postseason. While that’s impressive, the overall strength of the NFC West cannot be matched.

Runner-Up: AFC West

Honorable Mention: AFC East

Worst Division

Determining the NFL’s worst division was actually more challenging than determining the best. Is a division as bad as its worst team? Or does its winner show us a better representation? I tried to weigh all the teams somewhat equally and picked a winner, though an argument could be made for the runner-up.

afc-south Winner: AFC South

In the division where four-win Jacksonville finished third, the AFC South isn’t doing itself any favors. The worst team in the NFL, Houston, owned the bottom and seven-win Tennessee managed to hold second after an up-and-down season. The winner was Indianapolis, who won 11-games but dropped games to Arizona, Miami, and St. Louis by a total of 63 points. While Indy is still a strong playoff team, the rest of the division suffered and gave opponents something to look forward to when facing the AFC South.

Runner-Up: NFC North

Honorable Mention: NFC East

Best Conference

In this brand new category, I crown a definitive winner for the NFL’s best conference. Of course, there are only two eligible nominees but the conference clash has always interested me nonetheless. Which conference is king?

NFC_PRM_20101Winner: NFC

The NFC won the head-to-head this year 34-30, though it was the strength of the conference’s playoff field that stood out to me. The NFC boasts three teams with 12 wins or more–compared to two from the AFC–and the first team to miss out on the postseason was 10-win Arizona, compared to 8-8 Pittsburgh. Green Bay sticks out like a sore thumb at 8-7-1 among the better NFC records but with Aaron Rodgers back, Green Bay is better than their record indicates. Overall, the NFC proved to be the superior conference with multiple Super Bowl contenders in Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

MVP

The only player award I give out is for league MVP. There are tons of stars in the NFL today, but who’s the best of the best? Some years it’s a tough choice. Not this time.

Peyton's 2013 regular season showed us why he's one of the best QBs in history.

Peyton’s 2013 regular season showed us why he’s one of the best QBs in history.

Winner: Peyton Manning

If you don’t know why Peyton Manning should win MVP, you haven’t been watching him enough. He’s the leader of the best offense in football, earning the most passing yards and passing TDs in 2013. He’s been deadly accurate and has only thrown 10 interceptions out of 659 throws. Need more evidence? Well, all that is nothing compared to how some of his numbers rank in the NFL record books. With his 5,477 passing yards and 55 TDs in a single season, he is now the top QB of both categories. At 37, he gave Denver one of his best seasons of his long career and coming off four surgeries just a couple of years ago, it is truly unbelievable what he has been able to do. Peyton Manning is your NFL MVP by far.

Tough competition is on the horizon for the 3-2 Cardinals.

Tough competition is on the horizon for the 3-2 Cardinals.

I don’t like discussing who is and isn’t “for real” too early in the season but I feel that five weeks is finally enough to make some judgment calls. We have a bunch–10 to be exact–of teams sitting at 3-2. This is the area where we find a lot of “pretenders,” teams who have started off well but aren’t really a threat down the stretch. Last year, only three of the seven 3-2 teams made it into the postseason and only one (New England) won their division. So which of these 10 teams will falter and which are built to fight for a playoff spot?

Arizona Cardinals: Give the Cardinals credit for holding running backs under 80 yards a game. Only two other teams have done the same up to this point. Other than that, it’s curious to see Arizona with three wins, the most impressive of which coming last week against Carolina. Away from home they have struggled and their offense isn’t picking up enough yards to thrive in a tough division. With Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta coming up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arizona exposed and end up with a 3-5 record heading into their Week 9 bye. Bottom line: Definite pretenders

Detroit Lions: It was clear in the first few of years of Matthew Stafford’s career that he was built to throw a lot of yards. His inability to take care of the ball is what got him in trouble for the past two seasons, throwing over 15 picks in both. So far he’s only thrown three and Detroit has been able to score a lot of points as a result. Stafford and Calvin Johnson form a scary duo but with Johnson out, as he was against Green Bay, Detroit’s offense suffers. There’s no real way to stop Calvin Johnson, but if teams can contain him and force Stafford to make throws he doesn’t want to make, they’ll be able to slow Detroit’s high-scoring offense way down. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

The Niners will be all smiles soon enough.

The Niners will be all smiles soon enough.

San Francisco 49ers: San Fran suffered a tough couple of games against two very good teams, Seattle and Indy. While this is a concern for a team that is expected to win, or at the very least compete, in these games, it’s no reason to panic. Their defense remains one of the best in the league despite some hiccups and Colin Kaepernick will get back on track. He’s been tripped up a bit in these first few games, failing to throw for over 170 yards in four of five. If there is any doubt, one man assures me San Fran will contend: Jim Harbaugh. I simply cannot see a coach with his prowess fail to build a strong team. With Arizona, Tennessee, and Jacksonville on the slate, expect the Niners to find their stride. Bottom line: Definite contenders

Baltimore Ravens: For the amount of talent they lost, Baltimore is really holding their own early in the season. A rout by Denver and close loss to Buffalo are their only slip-ups, both on the road. Baltimore is tough to beat in their stadium and should win nearly all of their remaining home games if they want to balance out their troubles on the road. Joe Flacco isn’t playing like the same Joe he was in the playoffs but like Kaepernick, I expect him to get in a groove and start to make more touchdown passes. Baltimore is lucky to have a solid record despite Flacco’s 5:8 TD-INT ratio. A home win against Green Bay next week would go a long way in boosting this team’s confidence. Bottom line: Probable contenders

Miami Dolphins: Miami started off the season as well as they could have wanted but dropped their next two. I love the wins on the road over Cleveland and Indy, but have lost some faith in their ability to compete after losses to New Orleans and Baltimore. Ryan Tannehill can make throws when he gets time but he’s been sacked nearly five times a game (most in NFL). The running game is faltering bad, failing to run for more than 70 yards a game (28th in NFL). The bye week is promising heading into their match with division rival Buffalo but I’m worried that Miami will be unable to string together enough wins with the current state of the O-line. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Chicago Bears: Out of nearly every team in the NFL, the Bears are the one team I really cannot figure out. They feel like a team just on the brink of a wild-card spot but just don’t feel like a playoff team. This could change with some convincing wins down the stretch of course, but their body of work up to this point isn’t enough for me to tab them a contender. A win at home against Cincy looks good, but their wins over 1-win Minnesota and winless Pittsburgh don’t tell me much. Their defense was torn apart by the Lions in Week 4 and couldn’t do enough to stop Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 5. Perhaps hosting the Giants on Thursday night will give us more insight. If they truly are a playoff-caliber team, they should have no problem dispatching New York. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Cleveland's defense is quickly turning into one of the best in the league.

Cleveland’s defense is quickly turning into one of the best in the league.

Cleveland Browns: Cleveland has rattled off three impressive wins in a row. This is their year! Right? Well there’s still a lot to sort out but if one thing is for sure, it’s that their defense is seriously good. They are top-10 in the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed. That D will face yet another test against Detroit who, as I’ve said before, can clearly put up a lot of points. It looked as if Brian Hoyer was Cleveland’s guy after delivering them two straight wins but now they are back to Brandon Weeden after Hoyer’s injury in last Thursday’s game. Can Weeden keep this train going? I’m not so sure I trust him to carry Cleveland on a run to the playoffs but I also didn’t expect the Browns to win three straight. Bottom line: Probable pretenders

Cincinnati Bengals: I’m not so sure who the real Bengals are. Is it the team we saw score six against Cleveland or the team that held Tom Brady’s offense to six? I’m inclined to say the latter is more indicative when I consider the fact that they were able to beat Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but Cincy really needs to score more points. Defense isn’t really the issue right now but when they do have a bad game, seven to 13 points isn’t going to cut it. Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns is frustrating for an offense and they have got to take care of the ball better. The Jets are the only team that have more turnovers in the AFC than Cincy. Despite these hiccups, I trust their experience and previous seasons of success. Cincinnati should be able to get on a streak when they click. Bottom line: Probable contenders

Tennessee Titans: I love what the Titans are doing this year. Their two losses to Houston and KC were very competitive. Chris Johnson seems to be back on track this year and the defense has been the staple of their wins, keeping every team under 17 points in each victory. But can the Titans seriously be a contender? It sure seems weird to say. Wins over the Jets and Steelers aren’t going to wow me but they look good on the field. They’ll be facing their toughest test by far against Seattle and San Fran in the next two weeks. A win against one of those two would really catch my attention. Bottom line: Probable pretender

New York Jets: I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t give New York a shot at Atlanta on Monday night. To their credit, New York went in there and played one heck of a game. Geno Smith played his butt off despite New York holding the ball for only 24 and a half minutes. Unfortunately, this was one win out of a long, long season. I expect better defenses than Atlanta to force Geno into more turnovers and expose the Jets’ weaknesses. It takes a poised, experienced QB to carry a team like the Jets to a strong season and I don’t think Geno is there just yet. He showed flashes of greatness against Atlanta and I would love it if he and the Jets proved me wrong. Bottom line: Definite pretenders