By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
OK, so does anyone know what’s going on here? Seriously, is there a single person who can explain what the hell is going on in the NFL this season? There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to it, whether it’s the Saints mediocrity, the Rams winning two games in a row, the Colts having two losses in their division weeks before Halloween or what have you. Last season through five weeks, there were five unbeaten teams. This season? None. More teams seem closer to mediocre or worse than to elite status. Everything is all mixed up and backward and turned around.
Take those very Saints. Last year, they scored 192 points in their first five games en route to a championship. This year, they’ve scored 98 points over the same span. That’s 98. In five games. Their Super Bowl hangover is the kind that lasts into a second day. They are without Reggie Bush, but was he really that important, so valuable to their offense that his missing all but a game and a half of the season has set the entire operation back nearly 100 points? Then there’s Arizona, which stunned New Orleans this past week. The Cardinals’ two losses are by a combined 66 points and and they are scoring 10 fewer points per game than they are giving up. They’re also 3-2, in first place in their division and starting a 25-year old, undrafted rookie named Max Hall at quarterback. Of course they are.
The Green Bay Packers are taking the crazy pills too. Picked by many to go to the Super Bowl and coming off a breakout season in which they scored 461 points and were third in the NFL in total offense. This season, after winning their first two games rather handily, they’ve lost two of three (the game they won over that stretch was a two point nail biter at home against the Lions of all teams), and are averaging 16 points per game in that time. All of that, and it looks like things won’t be getting easier for the Pack thanks to injuries. Their defense went into last week’s game at Washington already missing five starters before defensive end Ryan Pickett suffered a season-ending ankle injury and all-world linebacker Clay Matthews, only the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, injured his hamstring, something that could linger for weeks. And on offense, more potential disasters. Tight end Jermichael Finley, around whom the entire passing game is based, tore cartilage in his knee and is out at least two months. And quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the top seven in the league at his position, suffered a concussion and is questionable this week (on another note, he shouldn’t play under any circumstances until at least next Sunday, but that’s another column). Finley’s backup Donald Lee was also hurt against the Redskins and starting running back Ryan Grant was lost for the season in Week 1, the biggest reason why the Pack are 26th in the league in rushing. Whether Rodgers misses time or not, there doesn’t seem to be much margin for error now for Green Bay. They may be lucky to make the playoffs, an outcome I’d bet no one predicted.
And so on. Super Bowl candidates like Dallas, Minnesota and San Diego are in shitsville while presumed doormats like Tampa Bay and Kansas City are 3-1 and looking great. Sure some things make some sense – the Steelers, Ravens and Jets are at the forefront of the AFC, the 49ers stink, the Texans are looking fraudulent again, etc. But the strange and unforeseen outweighs the normal and predictable. It’s almost the bizarro NFL. But that doesn’t make it uninteresting. In fact, it’s pretty cool. Not knowing what could possibly happen next kind of makes things even more fun than usual. This season, it’s all about the power of equality.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Baltimore: The Ravens earn the top spot again, almost by default, again. They’ve beaten their two closest competitors on this list in Pittsburgh and the Jets and last week finally found their running game, with gimpy-kneed Ray Rice blasting off for 133 yards and two TDs on 27 carries in a 31-17 win over Denver at home.
2. Pittsburgh: The week off following that excruciating loss to the Ravens gave the Steelers some extra time to prepare for the return this week of Ben Roethlisberger. His first game back? At home against the Browns, who will be starting a rookie, third-string QB. Doesn’t get much more cushy than that.
3. New York Jets: The Jets did their best to let BrettFavre come back on them in last week’s Monday Night game, until he and they remembered he was BrettFavre. The subsequent INT for a touchdown sealed up the Jets fourth straight win, Mark Sanchez again didn’t turn the ball over and man do these guys look even more dangerous because of it. The road won’t get that much tougher with a game against the Broncos this week.
4. Atlanta: My favorite team to crap on despite knowing nothing about how good they actually are had to sweat out a road win at Cleveland last week. It was refreshing to read coach Mike Smith comment that the 4-1 Falcons could just as easily be 1-4, and the defense, this team’s weak spot the past three years, is second in the NFL in points allowed per game at 14. Things are looking really good down in Hotlanta
5. (tie) About 10 Other Teams: In keeping with this week’s theme, take your pick for this spot on the list. The Colts, Pats, Bucs, Chiefs, Titans, Giants, Packers, Bears and maybe even the Redskins all could stake a claim here. Parity is the new black.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Buffalo: The poor Bills. It made some sense that their putrid defense got rolled by the Pats and the Jets in back-to-back weeks. But the Jaguars? Buffalo allowed 30+ points for the fourth straight week in the loss to Jacksonville, the first time that’s happened in franchise history. They also let the Jags top the 200-yard mark on the ground, the third straight week that’s happened. They also led that game 13-3, before letting the Jags go on a 33-7 run to win it. I’ve been forced to pay attention to the Bills pretty much forever being a Pats fan and I’ve never, ever seen them this bad.
2. Carolina: Pretty much neck and neck with the Bills for the top spot, the Panthers are absolved only because they’ve come closer to winning one of their five games than Buffalo has. Last week, Carolina forced Bears backup QB Todd Collins into a 6-for-16, 32 yard, four INT performance… and STILL LOST 23-6. Yes, that was a caps lock worthy line. It’s a minor miracle that lame duck coach John Fox is still employed. At some point between now and Jan. 3 – the day after the regular season ends – he will not be.
3. San Francisco: At 0-5, Niners owner Jed York pronounced earlier this week that his team would win the NFC West. He may not be too far off considering the level of competition in that stinky division. But to come out and make such a claim in the face of the worsening and continuing failures of his team, which could and should have beaten the Eagles last week if it only had a competent quarterback and set of offensive coaches, is exactly why this franchise hasn’t been able to get its act together over the past 10 or so years. Take it easy, Jed – why don’t you stop talking for a while? Maybe sit the next couple plays out.
4. Cleveland: The Browns are in every game and they deserve credit for that. But they dearth of talent on this team is much more of a focal point, which is why even playing as valiantly as they have (and for a head coach like Eric Mangini, no less?!?!) all year won’t be enough to keep them from living on this particular list week after week after week.
5. (tie) Detroit: Good for the Lions. They finally won a game and it was a total blowout, too. The 44-6 thrashing of the Rams was their largest margin of victory since the pre-Matt Millen days and gave them their (ahem) third win in their last 38 games. Backup QB Shaun Hill was 21-for-32 for 227 yards and three TDs in the victory, and with no picks either. Sure, it was the Rams, looking like their old selves instead of winners of their previous two games. But Detroit has been getting closer and closer for weeks now and if they ever figure out how to play a lick of defense against anyone halfway decent, they might just do some things.
-The Giants: Another New York team, another set of soap opera-esque circumstances. The Giants, thought to be dead and buried alongside coach Tom Coughlin not quite three weeks ago after a brutal home loss to the Titans, are now arguably the favorites in the NFC East thanks to decisive wins over Chicago and Houston, the latter of which was especially impressive. Wide receiver Hakeen Nicks, perhaps the team’s best player all year, had a career day with 12 catches for 130 yards and two TDs in the 34-10 rout. And the defense came to play again too, with Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck rolling up three more sacks while contributing to an effort that held the once explosive Texans offense to just 11 first downs.
-Matt Forte, Bears: With his quarterback setting back NFL passing offenses decades in that Carolina game, Forte picked up the slack with 166 yards, a career high, and two TDs. Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s greatest achievement – the Rams offense of 1999-2003 – had a Hall of Fame runner in Marshall Faulk. Forte isn’t anywhere near Faulk’s level but there certainly is room in that offense for a guy like him to shine.
-The Redskins Defense: With (supposed) offensive guru Mike Shanahan and (supposed) elite quarterback Donovan McNabb in the fold, it’s interesting to see the ‘Skins winning games with their defense. Washington is ninth in scoring D (18.4 PPG) and has held the Eagles and high-flying Packers to 12 and 13 points, respectively, the past two weeks, both wins. With Indianapolis coming to town Sunday night, it will be as stout a test as this group has faced yet.
-The Saints: It’s not a breaking story that the Saints, who have been outscored by Jacksonville (??!!) this season, are having some problems in defense of their title. But a 30-20 loss to the Cardinals? Really? New Orleans had four turnovers, two of which became Arizona TDs, in the loss while also gaining just 22 yards on 13 red zone snaps. Yikes.
-Steve Crosby, Chargers: He’s not a player, he’s the San Diego special teams coach, and he presides over a unit that has cost this team all three of its losses so far. Two blocked punts allowed against the Raiders in the first four and a half minutes of last week’s game cost them nine points in a game they lost by eight. Three weeks ago in Seattle, they allowed two kick returns for TDs and in Week 1 at Kansas City, it was a punt return for a score. It doesn’t help that QB Philip Rivers had three turnovers against the Raiders (the last one in the red zone on the game’s final drive), but if the Chargers’ wealth of talent is wasted thanks to their lousy special teams, this guy should be fired last week.
-The Cowboys/Vikings Game: A battle of desperate teams that unfortunately has to have a winner. I say unfortunately because watching Minnesota and Dallas not live up to their ridiculously high expectations and squirm so much while doing so is a real treat. Dallas came out of a bye and committed 12 penalties, had three turnovers and allowed six sacks in a brutal home loss to Tennessee while the Vikings were victimized once again by BrettFavre himself in a close and late situation on Monday night at the Jets. Which brings us to…
I’ll be as brief as possible here because I don’t really like to talk about him, but I loved how in the immediate aftermath of the latest pick thrown by BrettFavre in a crucial situation that cost his team a game, the excuses made by all of his favorite excuse makers started flying fast and furious. He threw the pick because of that nasty tendinitis in his elbow, or because of the pressure he felt due to the scandal involving his sending text messages of his junk to a sideline reporter when he played for the Jets, or because it was someone else’s fault and not his, or because of the mining incident in Chile or what have you. No one mentioned that none of these things were issues for the balance of the previous 25 or so minutes of the game when he threw three TD passes including the 500th of his career.
The point, yet again, is that BrettFavre is no longer a great, star player but a mediocre, over-the-hill, once great player who is still capable of flashing that greatness from time to time but not nearly enough. There has been a little more criticism of BrettFavre this year and a little less ball washing (thank god Tom Jackson didn’t go on another rant about how brave he was to throw a game/season-ending, hope crushing INT after the Jets game). But not enough to convince me that if he kept pulling his stale, sorry act until he turned 75, his most ardent suckups wouldn’t continue to defend him while deluding themselves that he’s still a top level, winning player.
His most recent look-at-me thing is that this terrible tendinitis, which naturally didn’t seem to flare up until right before the horrible throw he made right to Jets safety Dwight Lowery to lose the game, might force him to sit out a couple weeks, thus ending his consecutive games played streak. Funny how he says this while in the cross hairs of a league investigation of him for sexual harassment that could net him a suspension. Wow, what a coincidence. This fraud is going to keep playing anyone and everyone who will buy it until he’s tired of doing it anymore. And only then will we truly have some peace.