An inauspicious start on my part to the 2014 season.
Sunday 1 PM: 4-6
Sunday 4 PM: 1-1
I was OK when it came to prime time, hitting on three of four, missing only on the San Diego/Arizona game. The stretch of 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday, however, was much more brutal. My biggest misses came with regard to the AFC East. Perhaps the division isn’t as clear cut as I thought, what with New England rolling over to a team I believed to be a cellar dweller in Miami, and Buffalo shocking a team in Chicago that I thought would blow them off the field.
In any case, here’s a peek at where everyone stands within their own conference now that the dust has settled. (I like dividing it this way for playoff seeding purposes, even if the order doesn’t exactly match the standings.)
1. Denver: Is there really any debate here? Denver didn’t miss a beat without Wes Welker. Peyton looks as sharp as ever and the defense appears to be improved over last year. Gulp.
2. Cincinnati: Impressive start to the year, beating division rival Baltimore in a game the score did not do justice to. Outside one major gain by Steve Smith, Joe Flacco was erratic, with his line failing to give him a consistent pocket and his running game failing to be consistently productive. The defense was ok, forcing five field goals, but ultimately couldn’t contain A.J. Green when it counted. A loss at home to arch rival Pittsburgh could really add to Baltimore’s early season woes, and put them in an early hole in the standings.
3. Indianapolis: The closest I came to coming up with a perfect prediction was the Sunday night contest between Denver and Indy. The Colts were playing catchup for the majority of the night as I predicted. Andrew Luck, the king of comebacks, made things interesting despite having two tipped passes intercepted, but ultimately came up short late in the fourth. Look for a rematch in the postseason as Luck continues to grow in year three.
4. New England: Ugh. No team made me look worse this weekend than the Pats. Yeah the last time they lost an opener to a division opponent (the Bills in ‘03), they went on to win the whole show, but that was a very different team. The defense was surprisingly disappointing, including Darrelle Revis, who let Mike Wallace record 81 yards and score. Knowshon Moreno had a field day against what was supposed to be a stout front seven. It’s not time to panic yet in Foxboro, but Brady needs more from guys not named Gronk.
5. Pittsburgh: The Steeler’s offense looks like a revelation this year with Le’Veon Bell on the verge of superstar status following a 197-yard performance (109 rushing, 88 receiving). Bell’s performance goes nicely with the emergence of second-year receiver Markus Wheaton (six catches, 97 yards) to go along with established star Antonio Brown (five catches, 115 yards, 1 TD, and a 36-yard catch that would make Leonidas proud). The defense is another story — just three first downs and three points allowed in the first half, compared to 20 and 24 respectively in the second act. It seems the no-huddle/hurry up and running out of three wide-receiver sets are Pittsburgh’s Kryptonite. The only apparent cure could be the hurried development of rookies mack linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Hopefully they can fortify a leaky front seven.
6. San Diego: Yes, they lost, but this AFC is weak — very weak. I trust Phil Rivers and his offense over the remaining QB’s and skill players. Without one bad snap that pushed them out of field goal range, the Bolts were well on their way to a victory Monday night.
7. Buffalo: They proved me wrong, no other way around it. E.J. was more efficient and effective than at any point during the preseason. Fred Jackson continues to evade Father Time, and the defensive line is still among the best in the league. If Sammy Watkins can remain healthy, the offense certainly has potential to continue to grow.
8. Miami: The Dolphins also proved to be a more formidable opponent than I anticipated. Or maybe the Patriots just aren’t that good. Either way, the Dolphins proved to be an effective offense with standout performances from Mike Wallace (seven catches, 81 yards, 1 TD, working primarily against Darrelle Revis) and Knowshon Moreno (24 carries, 134 yards, 1 TD). Cameron Wake (two sacks) seems to improve by the year.
9. Baltimore: All the Ray Rice fiasco aside, the Ravens just don’t look very good. They could be in a Rice-induced funk, but from Flacco’s time management, to his receivers’ drops, the running backs’ overall lack of explosiveness, and the pass rush’s failure to get home, the Ravens struggled in the areas that once made them a feared opponent. They’ll have a chance to right the ship today; a win against Pittsburgh would leapfrog them up the board. But this team seems to be searching for a lot of answers right now.
10. Tennessee: Ken Whisenhunt is an offensive guru and maybe one of the few coaches who can help Jake Locker reach his potential. That said, this Titans team is not all that intimidating. With Bishop Sankey disappointing and buried on the depth chart at this stage, no one strikes me as a gamebreaker out of the backfield. The receiving corps have plenty of talent — Justin Hunter has the height/speed combo to make him a star — and the defense isn’t awful, as made evident by their neutralization of one of the league’s most dynamic threats in Jamaal Charles. Still, the Chiefs are not the test they were a year ago.
11. New York Jets: The Jets did what they were supposed to in beating the awful Raiders. Geno Smith fared well, completing 82.1 percent of his passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. The running game performed up to expectations, putting up a league-high 212 yards. Their first real test will be putting their depleted secondary up against the high-octane Green Bay passing attack.
12. Kansas City: The Chiefs haven’t proved me wrong yet. The assumption that they’d have a tough time reproducing last year’s successes seems to be accurate. Jamaal Charles was bottled up, Alex Smith couldn’t find any rhythm, and the defense had a surprisingly difficult time containing the Titans iffy running back corps, surrendering 162 yards on the ground. Things aren’t going to get any easier as they travel to Denver this week.
13. Houston: The Texans brought the heat against hapless Washington. J.J. Watt — who just got paid like an NFL quarterback — was purely dominant, picking up a sack, a forced fumble, and a blocked kick. The big downer for the Texans was the injury to Jadeveon Clowney. He didn’t get much of a chance to show his impact before pulling up lame after pursuing RGIII on a blitz. He’ll miss the next 4-6 weeks recovering from a torn meniscus. While Fitzmagic avoided the big mistake, and Arian Foster ground out 103 yards, there’s still plenty to be nervous about within this roster.
14. Jacksonville: It all looked so promising. For two quarters and change, the Jags took the Eagles to the woodshed. They were playing their best football since, what, 2007?Then the second half happened. Nick Foles woke up, the Jags pass rush ceased terrorizing the aforementioned signal-caller, and Allen Hurns came back down to Earth. The result? 34 unanswered points in less than 30 minutes of game play. Let’s hope we see some Blake Bortles or this year might get ugly.
15. Cleveland: “A” for effort, but at the end of the day, the same old issues plague the Browns. The offense proved to be more than effective in opening lanes for the ground game, but the passing game was ineffective for too long. The no-huddle brought some promise, but you’re not going to be playing a defense as mixed with inexperience and old-age as Pittsburgh’s each week. When it counted, Brian Hoyer could not muster a drive, and the offense gave up two losses in three plays to pin themselves inside their own ten on what could have been the game-winning drive. It’s also worth noting Hoyer saw three potential picks sail off Steelers’ defenders’ hands. Nevermind the fact that the “strength” of this team was absolutely gashed in the first half to the tune of 364 yards, allowing explosive plays all over the field. They’re not as bad as they once were but they’re not improved enough yet.
16. Oakland: Derek Carr wasn’t awful and James Jones had a fantastic touchdown catch, and that’s about where the positives end. The Jets bulldozed a washed-up collection of defensive linemen, and the Raiders failed to take full advantage of a shoddy secondary. The Black Hole should pay attention to these following names: Marcus Mariota, Bryce Petty and Jameis Winston.
1. Seattle: Not a hard choice. They’re dominant in all facets of the game. Will the Chargers provide a challenge? My guess is no.
2. San Francisco: Nothing like a date with the Dallas Cowboys defense to soothe all that ails you. The “struggling” 49ers offense had no issues with dispatching Big D, but Tony Romo’s three picks may be the more immediate source than the lousy defense that resides in Jerry World.
3. New Orleans: Yeah they dropped a tough one in overtime to a division opponent. Yeah their high-priced defense looked like swiss cheese against a talented Falcons offense. Yeah Drew Brees looked slightly mortal Sunday, only completing 69 percent of his passes for 333 yards one touchdown and a pick. With all that said, there’s something about playing a division opponent that highlights your weaknesses. Look for the Saints to rebound against a Browns in a big way.
4. Detroit: So the Giants are bad. But the Lions looked so sharp on Monday night, it’s hard to imagine many defenses slowing them down. Megatron looked as devastating as ever and Matt Stafford looked lighter and more mobile. Throw in Golden Tate and Reggie Bush as complimentary receivers and a trio of athletic tight ends and that offense won’t be stopped by many defenses outside the West Coast.
5. Green Bay: The defense has issues, sure. But Aaron Rodgers is more than up to the task to compensate. When Eddie Lacy returns from his concussion, the multidimensional offense will find a way to win games and ultimately the NFC North.
6. Atlanta: Matt Ryan was sensational and the committee of running backs were highly effective. Devin Hester came back from the NFL void (five catches, 99 yards) to help the Falcons begin their “Forget 2013” campaign on the right foot. On a side-note — if this is truly it for long-time Falcon John Abraham, may I say congrats on a fantastic career and wish him the best with regard to his health moving forwardd.
7. Arizona: The Cardinals pulled off an impressive come-from-behind win at home over the Chargers Monday night. Carson Palmer proved he has a little juice left in his arm and legs (304 passing yards, two TD’s, 29 yards rushing), and Cardinals receivers not named Larry Fitzgerald distinguished themselves as exciting options moving forward. Keep an eye on rookie John Brown from Pittsburg State who scored the game’s go-ahead touchdown.
8. Philadelphia: The least-disappointing team from the NFC East, the Eagles averted absolute disaster, rallying from a 17-point deficit with 34 unanswered points. Still, there’s cause for concern here as Nick Foles missed open receivers early and often in this one, LeSean McCoy was held in check (74 yards rushing, 41 yards receiving, no scores), and an offensive line that is regarded as one of the league’s best surrendered five sacks.
9. Carolina: The Panthers won without Cam Newton. Now “Superman” is back in the fold for week two. Couple Cam with that wicked front seven and you’ve got a respectable team. I’m still curious to see how they fair against some of the better passing attacks in the NFL given the losses of guys like Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn, but for now the Panthers remain a difficult threat in the South.
10. Chicago: On one hand, the Bears should be given a bit of a pass — both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery left this game with injuries. Matt Forte was solid, recording 169 all-purpose yards (82 on the ground, 87 receiving) but no scores. Jay Cutler was good, bad and ugly all in the same game, despite throwing for 349 yards, 2 TD’s, and a near 70 percent completion percentage.
11. Minnesota: The Vikings are on the rise. Cordarrelle Patterson rushed for 102 yards on three carries, Matt Cassel didn’t toss for an absurd number of passing yards, but didn’t mess up and threw for 2 touchdowns. AP was mortal (75 yards on 21 carries and no TD’s) but safety Harrison Smith’s playmaking ability was on display once again, as he returned an interception 81 yards for six. It’s not a stretch to to say that Minnesota may very well have the best defense in the NFC North.
12. Tampa Bay: The Bucs were able to hang tough against a now-underrated Panthers squad, but their offense ultimately failed to live up to their lofty expectations. Josh McCown was only a guy, throwing two TD’s but also two picks and just 183 yards. Doug Martin continued his struggles from a year ago, rushing for just nine yards on nine carries. Mike Glennon time? Not yet, but a combined nine catches on 19 targets and just 73 yards between Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans just won’t cut it moving forward.
13. Washington: Ugh. Washington just can’t seem to get on the same page. The running game succeeds with 137 yards rushing between Alfred Morris and Roy Helu, but RGIII, while completing nearly 80 percent of his passes, averaged less than 10 yards per completion and failed to find the end zone against the Texans defense. Washington’s defense also failed to register a sack and allowed over 300 yards to an offense led by Ryan Fitzpatrick.
14. Dallas: The Cowboys failed on multiple fronts Sunday afternoon, turning the ball over four times, three of which came off the arm of Tony Romo. Romo was bad, Dez Bryant recorded just four catches after taking a tough shot to his back, and the Cowboys’ only touchdown came in garbage time. On the plus side, they held the 49ers to just 192 yards passing, but that may be in part due to the multiple short fields Dallas gave to San Francisco following their turnovers.
15. New York Giants: What happened to Eli? What happened to JPP? What happened to the pass-rush that once struck fear into the hearts of even the most untouchable QB’s? All has fallen by the wayside as made evident by the sudden decline in the Giants’ play in the past two seasons. Sure, Detroit is as tough an offense as any, but Eli not only failed to take advantage of a mediocre secondary, he actually looked equally as mediocre if not worse, missing on open targets and throwing dumbfounding interceptions. How many weeks before Nassib sees some action?
16. St. Louis Rams: The poor Rams. In a few short weeks, St. Louis has been the injury bug’s favorite meal, first taking the season of Sam Bradford and now at least eight to 10 weeks away from Chris Long. Losing two of the most important positions on your roster is never a recipe for success, especially when that team plays in the NFC West. A 34-6 loss to the Vikings may just be the beginning. Without a passing game and a talented yet partially depleted pass-rush, the Rams will be forced to rely on their ground game to keep them from following into the 0-16 abyss.