Almost to the half way point and things are getting a little clearer. Pretenders are being outed and contenders are making bold claims towards greatness. Let me help you decipher who’s who. Entering this week I have a picks record of 54-37, good for a winning percentage of .593. So rest easy with 60 percent of my opinions.
The Broncos aren’t the team they were a year ago; they’re better. Sure Knowshon Moreno has yet to be effectively replaced, but after rushing for 100 yards against a stout Jets front seven (albeit one stretched by the league’s best passing attack) Ronnie Hillman looks like a better bet than the injured and fumble-prone Monte Ball. Peyton continues to pace the offense at a historic rate; Julius Thomas is on pace to shatter Randy Moss’ record of 23 receiving touchdowns in a single season (Thomas is on pace for 29), and Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both on pace for over 1,500 receiving yards. The defense is not spectacular, but nor was it a year ago and nor does it have to be. With the additions of DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward finally netting results, plus a healthy Von Miller and this unit is markedly improved.
My hatred for their organization not withstanding, the Cowboys are good this season. The offense is a three-headed monster between Romo, Murray, and Bryant (Terrance Williams seems to be the sprouting fourth head) and the defense has been surprisingly stout in recent matchup with some of the league’s better offenses. The real secret? Winning the time of possession battle 57.78 to 42.22 is cloaking nearly all deficiencies on this team. Having currently taken just 338 snaps on defense through six games, the Boys’ defense is only on the field on average for just over 56 plays per contest. Compare that to 2013 when the Saints’ defense registered the league’s lowest defensive snap totals with an average of just north of 58 a game, and the Cowboys could very well be league’s most rested stop unit at the conclusion of 2014. This is largely thanks to the near-historic efforts of DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher, who’s currently on pace for 424 carries, 2,093 yards, 16 touchdowns, 56 catches and 413 yards receiving. Dallas would be well-served monitoring his workload moving forward if they wish to retain his services for the entire season, something he has not done since being drafted in 2011.
3. San Diego
Phil Rivers is on an MVP campaign right now and rightfully so; the Chargers live as he lives and die as he dies. That said, Branden Oliver has been a revelation to a struggling ground game and should help bring balance back to an offense that was entirely reliant on Rivers’ arm. The defense has certainly had a hand in their success; they rank fourth against the pass, ninth against the run, fifth in fewest total yards per game and third in fewest points allowed. Keep in mind this all with Keenan Allen being ineffective as a result of some nagging injuries. If he can get back to full speed, watch out.
Philadelphia continues to win. Their utter destruction of the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football made me look silly for calling it the most interesting game of the weekend. It appears that the NFC East is going to come down to Dallas and Philly, and Philly has been relevant despite their factor back averaging just 3.6 yards a carry on the season. LeSean McCoy finally resembled himself against the Giants, rushing for 149 yards and 6.8 YPC, but it remains the runner’s only 100+ yard performance to date, something the Eagles will need more of with Darren Sproles down for the next few weeks with an MCL injury. To combat the Cowboys and their controlling offense, the Eagles will have to be able to win the TOP battle with a stout running game themselves. Nick Foles has proven he can shoulder a significant amount of the load but still has bouts of inconsistency and erratic play. The Eagles best bet to remain atop the East is with McCoy rounding back into form.
Why the drop for Seattle? I am on record saying this team is better than last year’s after all. The rationale is simply this; twice now Seattle’s vaunted Legion of Boom-led defense has had massive struggles getting off the field. The first case was in a loss to San Diego and the second in this past week’s loss to Dallas. In fact, if not for a blocked punt return for a touchdown, Seattle gets obliterated in it’s own house. The troubling trend developing with Seattle is that offenses are converting on third downs 47.3 percent of the time, good for the fifth-worst rate in the league. In last year’s Super Bowl season, the Seahawks were tenth-best in this department. Why does this worry me if I’m a Seattle fan? The simple answer is that the Seahawks offense is predicated on a heavy dose of Marshawn Lynch being force fed to his unfortunate opponents. After falling behind to the Chargers and Cowboys, Seattle, losing the time of possession battle fell back on the arm and legs of Russell Wilson over the legs of Lynch. The latter has a combined 16 carries for 97 yards and one receiving touchdown in those two losses. To maximize the effectiveness of Russell Wilson and his largely average receiving corps, Lynch must be active to set up play action and read option plays that allow Wilson to gash defenses with his throwing and rushing abilities, respectively. When it’s just the Wilson show, the young signal-caller has struggled to shoulder the whole weight of the offense thanks in large part to the aforementioned average receivers (Percy Harvin excluded) and an injured and penalty-prone offensive line. If the defense continues to struggle getting off the field, Seattle won’t make it back to the Super Bowl.
6. Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers is on fire. With a line of 14 touchdowns and 1,230 yards in the five games since week one (nearly three touchdowns and 250 yards a week), number 12 has taken R-E-L-A-X to another level (fake spikes with the clock expiring not withstanding). The defense has been opportunistic, the young receivers are emerging, and the offensive line, while still not great, has improved on its early struggles. Their AFC siblings sitting right behind them in these rankings is a testament to the respect Rodgers must be given at the helm of this team. 7. Indianapolis
Andrew Luck is making his own case for the NFL’s most valuable player. The league leader in passing yards and touchdown passes is essentially the Aaron Rodgers of the AFC. The Colts and Packers are pretty similar in that neither possess a vaunted offensive line, running game or defense, but they share the common bond of making opportune plays. The Packers have forced the third most turnovers (13), while the Colts are 4th with 12. Both Rodgers are Luck are running for their lives more than even their coaches’ strongest TUMS can account for, but neither is any less dangerous using their feet, whether it be by throwing on the move or tucking it down and running it. The Colts are entirely reliant on their 12 for their success, and so long as they can keep him relatively clean, the Colts are as dangerous as any team in the AFC. 8. New England
I’ve said it before and hell, I’ve even ignored it before, but if one thing remains consistent in the NFL it is not to bet against Tom Brady. Since the embarrassment at Arrowhead, Brady has thrown for 653 yards and six touchdowns leading the offense that has average 40 points in the past two weeks. The biggest difference has been the emergence of Tim Wright as a number two tight end and a Brandon LaFell as a deep threat. Now with the loss of Stevan Ridley for the season, someone will have to step up and run the ball, but don’t think the Pats can’t succeed without a factor back; they haven’t had one since the days of Corey Dillon. On the other side of the line, the defense, though wounded in the loss of Jerod Mayo for the entirety of the season, is very potent, leading the league in takeaways with 14. The combo has the Patriots sitting pretty atop the AFC East with a chance to further their lead with a win over the Jets tonight.
The Bengals are good, don’t be fooled, but with AJ Green’s health a question mark moving forward, I worry about the legitimacy of this offense. Sure they put up 37 points on Carolina without him, but not without Andy Dalton throwing two interceptions in a game that ended in a tie. I also worry about what was supposed to be a stout defense giving up a combined 936 yards and 80 points in the past two weeks. What has happened to the pass rush? They have just 8 sacks in five games. What happened to the run defense? They are ranked 29th, surrendering an average of 141 yards a game. What happened to the secondary? They’re 22nd with an average of 257 yards allowed. None of that is conducive to wining football and unless the defense can find its feet again, the Bengals should not feel at all comfortable in the top spot in the AFC North.
Calvin Johnson needs to get healthy, but the Lions, unlike previous years, are not lost without him. The running game has had its issues but Stafford has done well in distributing the ball to a few of his other targets, most noticeably Golden Tate, the free agent acquired from Seattle in the offseason. The most impressive aspect of this team has to be their defense which continues to stifle opponents, ranking first in points allowed and yards allowed. The one action the Lions MUST take is to arrest the impostor that continues to pose as different NFL kickers and sign contracts to miss field goals for this team. The “Motor City” has become “Shank City” in 2014, as three separate kickers have combined to make just five field goals in 15 attempts. 11. San Francisco
San Fran is alive and well with the return of good Kaepernick, but in the toughest division in the NFL, celebrating victories can only last so long. The defense has done its job to this point in the season but receivers still need to be more consistent to avoid the wild swings in points the 49ers have experienced this season. They had to rally from 14 points down to beat the lowly Rams on Monday Night Football this past week. They already blew a 17-point lead in the home opener to the Bears back in week three. Making Kap’s life easier by getting open more consistently would go a long way in limiting those types of games. 12. Arizona
I don’t know what to make of this team. Yes they are in first place in the NFC West, but the team ranks 30th in rushing and their vaunted _secondary featuring the _elite Patrick Peterson ranks dead least in passing yards allowed. Couple that with health and consistency concerns at quarterback and you have a disaster waiting to happen. 13. Baltimore
The Ravens blew out the Buccaneers Sunday, and while it was certainly a dominant win, it also was the Buccaneers. I still question the ability of offensive players not named Smith and certainly Torrey has had his bouts with irrelevance this season. That said, the defense is incredibly savvy and with experience all around, Joe Flacco can still very easily guid this team to the postseason. 14. Carolina The Panthers tied the Bengals last week, but their offense is showing me that the Panthers could still very likely make a play for the NFC South. Cam Newton has been better of late and as the running backs may their way back to the starting lineup, the defense may finally see the field less.
The Bears are hard to beat when they click on all cylinders the way they did last week against Atlanta. With Cutler slinging the ball to Jeffery and Marshall and Forte toting the rock with aggression, I have little reservations about the offense. The defense is another story. Yes they’re coming off a nice performance against the Falcons, but I’m of the opinion-early season sparks from Hester and all-that Atlanta is a lousy team outside of the Ryan-Jones connection. That said, the Bears are a team to be wary of come the final stretch. Few teams have more depth at the offensive skill positions. 16. Cleveland
The Browns did it. They puncher their long-time bully right in the face this past week in their destruction of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In their August day dreams, I wonder how many Browns fans envisioned Brian Hoyer as the quarterback that would lead a monumental win against the Steelers. In either case, it appears that the 29-year old is the real deal and that mercifully, we’ll all be spared Manziel mania for another season. Watch out when this team gets Josh Gordon back. 17. Kansas City
The Chiefs have some pieces and should benefit from their week off, but I don’t know if Alex Smith can be “the guy.” In any case, this team won’t be a pushover with their feisty pass rush and stable of running backs and tight ends.
18. NY Giants
Coming off a humiliating loss to the hated Eagles and a devastating injury to Victor Cruz, it may be hard for some New York fans to find much cause for optimism right about now. That said, I won’t throw in the towel on Big Blue just yet. With Rashad Jennings returning in a couple weeks and the talented rookie Odell Beckham stepping (at least partially) into Cruz’s spot, don’t be surprised if this team remains competitive. Now they’ll have their bumps in the road, especially with a brutal schedule coming up but Eli Manning is as experienced as any. More interestingly, his two Super Bowl rings were the byproducts of 9-7 seasons. Hmmmm. 19. New Orleans Saints
The Saints probably spent their BYE week trying desperately to figure out what exactly is the matter with this team. In short, it’s the defense. Drew Brees can throw the ball all day and night, and the Saints certainly have an impressive collection of offensive talent, but there is just no consistency on defense. They face a tough task in Detroit this week who won’t be likely to cede them many points or yards as the Lions possess the top defense in both categories. The Saints will have to solve them if they wish to remain relevant in the highly mediocre and subsequently competitive NFC South. 20. Pittsburgh Steelers
This team is infuriating. Inconsistencies on offense-particularly in the Red Zone-and a defense that had all it’s teeth fall out due to age and cheap dental work >cough< Cam Thomas >cough< >cough< Mike Mitchell>cough<, the Steelers appear to be a team without paddle or direction. The seats of more than a few coaches and front office members continue to rise in temperature, but I won’t totally discount a team led by Ben Roethlisberger. Best get some of those baby teeth out there on defense Pittsburgh, or things are going to get morning-breath ugly real quick.
21. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have an impressive Quarterback and number one receiver. After that they have a good….err….complimentary back? Antone Smith has been able to break a lot of long plays as the backup to Steven Jackson, but after Julio Jones, receivers like Roddy White and Devin Hester have been masterful in their periodic disappearing acts. Then there’s the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad defense that can’t do a single thing well. Can they stop the pass? Nope, they rank 29th. Can they stop the run? Nope, 28th. Rush the passer? No, they’re tied for 28th. Good luck in achieving a .500 record this season.
22. Houston Texans
It’s so painful to watch this team. Arian Foster is great. Andre Johnson is great. The offensive line is great. J.J. Watt is great. Brian Cushing is great. Ryan Fitzpatrick by comparison makes the Falcons defense look great. I know I’m being a bit unfair to Fitz, as he made some nice throws against Indy to keep Houston in the game last Thursday, but what happened when the game was on the line? Fitzpatrick snaps the ball, looks, maneuvers, looks, pumps, looks and POOF, like Fitzmagic, the ball’s on the ground and Indy plays take away to seal the game. Same old story and same old result. Until they find a quarterback, the Texans are not a contender. That said, with Clowney on the mend, they’ll probably still beat the Steelers this week on Monday Night Football. 23. Buffalo
The Bills were sorta scrappy against the Pats, but the Patriots did what they do to Buffalo and steamrolled their way through the 4th quarter and on to yet another Brady-led victory over the Bills. I’m just not a believer of the idea that Kyle Orton can make this team a contender. I think very few are. The offense needs a little more seasoning as it is with young wideouts like Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, and until the Bills get a quarterback that can stretch the field with his arm, those high draft picks will not reach their full potential. Neither will the Bills. 24. Miami
Knowshon’s out for the year and Miami just suffered a heart-breaker against the Packers. On one hand, the Dolphins can be encouraged by a decent showing against a good team, but on the other, the team found a way to self-destruct again, turning the ball over three times including two interceptions thrown by Ryan Tannehill who looks less and less like an the future of this franchise. Without any improvement from the quarterback position this team is really no better than any of the other struggling teams in the AFC East. 25. Minnesota
Brutal would be generous in describing the Vikings’ performance against the Lions last week. In his return from injury, Teddy Bridgewater was sacked a ridiculous eight times, and constant pressure contributed to him throwing three interceptions. The good news is that the Vikings wont face many stingier defenses this season aside their second meeting with the Lions in week 15. The bad news is that there really does not appear to be anywhere near enough talent on this roster to support the fledgling Bridgewater this season.
Washington is better than their record indicates, and despite reports of RGIII nearing a return, I don’t think the reins should be taken out of Kirk Cousins’ hands. Yes his three fourth quarter interceptions last week were awful, but remember there has to be some reason people thought this Cardinals secondary was good (they’re not). Nonetheless, it appears that collapse was enough to sway Washington coaches back into RGIII’s corner, as he’s effectively been named the starter whenever he’s able to return. Chalk this season up to deciding who your quarterback of the future will be and more importantly what your new nickname should be and call it a year of progress if you emerge with both answers Dan Snyder.
27. Tampa Bay
Back to the drawing board for Tampa. The beat down they endured from Baltimore was largely confined to the first half, but there can’t be much cause for optimism when you give up five sacks, go a combined 2-14 on third and fourth down and give up three plays over 50 yards (a Jacoby Jones kick return included). Sloppy play from a sloppy team with a sloppy outlook. 28. Tennessee
It’s no secret the Titans are lousy. But are they really so lousy that Charlie Whitehurst may be the best quarterback on the team? That may actually be a legitimate question after the Titans squeaked out a win over a winless Jacksonville team. Jake Locker finally appears to be ready to return to play but I’m not so sure that’s an improvement. With a struggling Washington team next on the schedule, we’ll see just how bad this team is should they fail to pick up the win. 29. St. Louis
What will the Rams have more of this season? Sacks or wins? The answer may be closer than you think. One of the biggest failings of this season for St. Louis has been the highly underwhelming play of the defensive line. Sure Chris Long is out, but that doesn’t excuse the lackluster play of the recently PAID Robert Quinn. The Rams ran into a 49ers team picking up steam on Monday Night Football last week. Tough luck for a tough Austin Davis who again wasn’t terrible, but was less effective than he’d been in his previous starts. This team is still several pieces away from relevance, but if Davis can prove he’s a legitimate QB, the Rams will be one giant step closer. 30. New York Jets
The Jets gave Denver more of a fight than I expected, but don’t be fooled; they’re still terrible. Geno floundered again, the secondary was beaten when it counted and the talented front seven gave up 100 yards on the ground to Ronnie Hillman and friends. Rex and Idzik would be wise to begin packing now. 31. Jacksonville
Blake Bortles and his receivers have grit but sadly, the rest of his team (save for a decent defensive line) do not. They’ll play scrappy for four quarters but ultimately there’s just not enough talent for this team to win more than two games. 32. Oakland
Derek Carr actually looked really good in his return, throwing four touchdown passes and giving the Chargers a real scare, but ultimately the lack of a defense and running game to close out the game ended up costing the Raiders what would have been the upset of the year. With that said it appears there may be some legitimate talent in the receiving corps. We all know James Jones is capable, but Andre Holmes may be entering that conversation as well following a solid showing.
Tim Mullhaupt (@TimakaHines) is the editor of The Buckets Blog.