With only 4 weeks remaining in the regular season, teams are beginning to really jockey for division titles and playoff positioning. Below is my take on where things currently stand in the NFL, as well as some analysis, as we get ready for week 14…
1.) New Orleans Saints – After dismantling the Patriots on MNF, the still-unbeaten Saints followed that performance with the best comeback, and perhaps best overall game, of the NFL season so far. As the offensive NFL debate continues, how could anyone bet against Drew Brees? After exposing the Patriots secondary, Brees pulled a rabbit out of his hat in delivering the come-from-benind victory over the ‘Skins. While it certainly wasn’t the complete performance that we’ve seen from them this year, they continue to find a way to win any type of game.
2.) Indianapolis Colts – The AFC’s clear-cut best team continues to march on, this time dispatching a Titans team that was playing very well and with great confidence. Despite numerous injuries on both sides of the ball, Peyton & Co. are finding ways to win week-in and week-out. This has enabled them to get longer looks at younger, backup players, which will only serve to improve their depth as the playoffs near. The only question remaining for them is, should they keep the throttle down and go for 16-0, or let off the gas and coast to the finish line like in previous seasons?
3.) San Diego Chargers – Considering the start that this team got off to, it’s really amazing to see them sitting at 9-3. With 7 wins in a row and a strong history of December success in recent seasons, they are in a good position to make a run at the Colts in the AFC. LaDainian Tomlinson is starting to run the ball much better, which is paying dividends for Norv Turner’s commitment to the run. With LT and Sproles in the backfield, and Rivers, Gates and Jackson in the passing game, this team is an absolute handful to slow down. Their defense has also been holding up very well despite numerous injuries.
4.) Minnesota Vikings – A trip to the desert proved to be one of the only things that has been able to stop Brett Favre and his incredible performances so far this season. Along with Favre’s off-night, their defensive discipline against the Cardinals passing attack, which has been one of their strong points all year, was clearly missing. This is still a very good team, but they had to be disappointed with the way they played Sunday night.
5.) Cincinnati Bengals – They certainly won’t get many style points, but the Bengals continue to win football games. Getting Cedric Benson back gives them tremendous depth at running back as they prepare for the postseason. While their passing game has been inconsistent this year, Palmer seemed to have great rhythm in hooking up with Ochocinco several times against Detroit. Mike Zimmer’s defensive schemes continue to torment opposing offenses.
6.) Philadelphia Eagles – Michael Vick’s much-anticipated return to Atlanta saw the home crowd booing to start the game and cheering by its finish. Their offensive attack was very balanced despite missing Desean Jackson, and their defense absolutely smothered and harassed Chris Redman. Lesean McCoy continues to be very effective in Westbrook’s absence, and Sheldon Brown continues to anchor the Philly D despite being banged up.
7.) Arizona Cardinals – What a difference Kurt Warner makes for this offense. They sliced and diced a very good Vikings defense, as Warner was able to spray around balls to Fitzgerald and Boldin. Their pass rush was much better Sunday night, and it certainly helped them contain Minnesota’s passing game. They won’t be an easy out in the NFC.
8.) Denver Broncos – Believe it or not, the Broncos are a very solid football team. Their pasting of the Chiefs at Arrowhead was impressive, and they are very quietly 8-4 and a darkhorse in the AFC. Their running game has really stepped up in recent weeks, and Knowshon Moreno looked like one impressive rookie on Sunday. When their offensive line gives Kyle Orton time to throw, he can consistently move their offense.
9.) Green Bay Packers – Despite a multitude of injuries on the defensive side of the ball, the Packers have been able to hold things together pretty well. Charles Woodson is a definite candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Aaron Rodgers has been doing a great job of managing games, and their defense was able to come up with very timely interceptions on MNF to keep the Ravens at bay.
10.) New York Giants – The Giants faced a critical test at home against the Cowboys, and they were able to respond well to the challenge. Eli Manning and the offense are much better when the combination of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are rumbling down the field, and both were able to have success against a fairly solid Dallas defense. This team has the talent to make a run in the NFC if their defense can get healthier.
11.) Dallas Cowboys – At 8-3, things were looking very good for Dallas. Suddenly, after a lackluster loss to the Giants, New York and Philly are breathing down their necks. With a difficult schedule remaining, along with their much-documented December struggles of recent years, the pressure is really going to be Tony Romo and their offense to be more consistent. They have not been able to generate a rushing attack that is consistent from week-to-week, and that has contributed to Romo’s up-and-down play.
12.) New England Patriots – A week after getting their doors blown off by Drew Brees and the Saints, the Patriots secondary once again struggled to stop an opposing offense. They looked a bit road weary against Miami, and compared to recent years, it’s very surprising how much they have struggled away from Foxboro this year.
13.) Baltimore Ravens – After several weeks of rather pedestrian performances, their passing game with Joe Flacco seemed to be getting back on track. However, Joe Flacco’s critical interceptions cost them a shot against the Packers. Ray Rice is a great player in all facets of the game, and really looks to be coming into his own, but the Ravens really struggled to run the ball against Green Bay. Their normally great defense has been struggling to generate a pass rush, and the loss of Terrell Suggs on the outside has been very noticeable.
14.) Jacksonville Jaguars – Along with Denver, The Jags are another team playing well in the AFC that doesn’t seem to get much respect. Currently sitting at 7-5, they have the inside track for an AFC wildcard spot. Their secondary is still very shaky, but they’ve been holding up enough to help the team grind out victories.
15.) Miami Dolphins – A very gutsy performance to come from behind in the 4th quarter against the Pats. And, they were able to do it without a single Wildcat play. Davone Bess had a tremendous game, and their wide receiver corps could use continued big-time efforts from him. Chad Henne continues to show great progress, as he can make just about any throw on the field, and his confidence should continue to grow.
16.) Pittsburgh Steelers – It’s remarkable how the mighty have fallen. Their bounce back opportunity against the Raiders proved to be anything but, as they allowed Bruce Gradkowski to throw for 308 yards and 3 touchdowns. It’s clear that Polamalu is the heart and soul of their defense, as they currently look like a shell of their former selves. Once #43 gets back, they’ll have a much better opportunity to rattle off wins. The only problem is, will it be too late? They need to win out in order to make the playoffs.
17.) Tennessee Titans – The maturation of Vince Young continues, as he simply left too many plays on the field to be able to keep up with the Colts high-octane offense. While their secondary has finally gotten healthier, they were still unable to match-up and compete with a playoff-tested offense lead by Peyton Manning. Their faint hopes at making the playoffs appear to have faded.
18.) New York Jets – It was certainly a sloppy game against Buffalo, but they were able to do enough to secure the victory. Mark Sanchez has really been the key to their season so far, as his play has been very poor over the last month of the season. Not having big nose tackle Kris Jenkins is also a very noticeable loss to their interior rush defense.
19.) Carolina Panthers – Is this team better off without Jake Delhomme behind center? One thing’s for sure, he wasn’t able to cost them a victory against Tampa. He clearly is not the future of the position, and it’s definitely a position that they’ll be looking to upgrade in the off-season.
20.) Atlanta Falcons – Even though his play has been spotty, it’s clear how much Matt Ryan’s presence means to this offense. The Eagles blitzed Chris Redman constantly, knowing that he has a history of holding on to the ball too long in the pocket. On defense, the Eagles were able to expose them even without Desean Jackson. Unless Michael Turner and Ryan are able to return soon, their once promising playoff homes will quickly disappear.
21.) Houston Texans – Their roller coaster season continues, as Matt Schaub’s shoulder injury on the first play of the game put them into a hole that they were unable to recover from. Without Owen Daniels, teams have been able to double-team Andre Johnson in an effort to slow him down. Defensively, their pass rush has not been able to slow down opposing passing attacks.
22.) Seattle Seahawks – They were able to fend off the 49ers at home, but this team still has far too many shortcomings in order to compete for playoff spots. Will Mike Holmgren be returning to the Great Northwest to inject some energy into the team?
23.) Chicago Bears – It’s been a tough season for fans in the Windy City, as prized acquisition has been unable to get comfortable in the pocket. His confidence has been waning, but he was able to get it together enough to dispatch a lousy St. Louis team. Making matters worse, Matt Forte have been unable to generate a consistent ground game, which has put even more pressure on Cutler’s shoulders. Defensively, they don’t have the healthy personnel in order to play with their usually aggressive trademark.
24.) Oakland Raiders – Despite all of the shortcomings on their roster, they are a team that plays hard and doesn’t quit, and that allows them to occasionally sneak up and beat a much better team. While their offense has been below average much of the season, Bruce Gradkowski is clearly an upgrade over Jamarcus Russell, and they will spend the last 4 weeks giving him a much closer look as their future quarterback.
25.) Washington Redskins – The Redskins might have put together one of the best all-around team performances of week 13. Had it not been for a missed 23-yard field goal with just over 2 minutes left, they likely would have pulled off the upset of the season. Their offense really rose to the occasion, as Jason Campbell looked very impressive. They are another team that has a defense littered with injuries, and they struggled as expected against a potent Saints team with the best offense in the NFL.
26.) San Francisco 49ers – After starting the year on a very solid pace, the 49ers have definitely come back down to earth. Alex Smith does not have a strong enough supporting cast to overcome his deficiencies, and their offensive line has struggled to open holes for Frank Gore. Like many other teams in the league, the Niners can’t seem to get a consistent pass rush.
27.) Buffalo Bills – While Ryan Fitzpatrick looks to be a solid backup, he seems incapable of being a successful starting quarterback at the NFL level. Marshawn Lynch doesn’t seem to be 100%, and they seem to be a much better offense when Fred Jackson is in the backfield. Defensively, they do not have nearly enough talent to be a consistent team from week-to-week.
28.) Kansas City Chiefs – There weren’t many positives to take away from their blowout loss at home to Denver, but Jamaal Charles looks to be a very solid running back. He looks like he could be a very good running back for them in the future if they incorporated more of a shotgun-utilized spread offense. On the negative side, Matt Cassell was flat-out terrible against Denver.
29.) Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford continues to show a high ceiling, and he’s obviously a very tough guy, but their complete lack of overall talent on the defensive side of the ball will continue to hold this young team back.
30.) St. Louis Rams – They are still fighting very hard for Scott Linehan, but they also do not have enough quality talent on defense to slow down opposing teams. While they have talent on offense, including stud running back Steven Jackson, it might be time to secure Marc Bulger’s future replacement.
31.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Josh Freeman is certainly going to have a lot of tough games during his rookie campaign, but Sunday’s 5 interceptions against Carolina was definitely a step back. Their offense will continue to be a work-in-progress based on their young signal caller.
32.) Cleveland Browns – The Browns simply don’t have enough talent to be competitive right now at the NFL level. While it was encouraging to see them play very hard until the final gun sounded, injuries have decimated a defense that didn’t have many playmakers to begin with. Brady Quinn had another good performance, and the key for him now will be to gain consistency. Him emerging as a legitimate starter in this league would be a tremendous boost to their rebuilding process.