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.
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 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