Will the Real NFL Contenders Please Stand Up?
We all know that football is a game of attrition, a game of inches and that on any given Sunday blah, blah, blah. I’m sure you’re aware of the clichés spouted by every underdog that refuses to go down without a fight and every powerhouse that doesn’t want to seem overly confident lest they give their opponents any extra motivation. But there comes a time when you have to look at a matchup and say “Okay, come on. You really think [insert team] has a chance against [insert] team?” with utter surety. Not so in this young NFL season.
Coming into the season the talk was how realistic it would be for the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots to run through the regular season and playoffs and capture the 19-0 season they came so close to achieving in 2007 before losing to the Giants in the title game. I mean, they just came off a historic comeback (not only in terms of the margin of their deficit but also winning the first Super Bowl to ever see overtime play) and they only got better by adding a shutdown corner in Stephon Gilmore and a deep threat in Brandin Cooks. Well, we need to look no further than week one in which they were totally outmatched by the Kansas City Chiefs in a game where Alex Smith threw for four touchdowns and rookie Kareem Hunt made the Patriots vaunted defense look like a series of turnstiles and stationary tackling dummies despite fumbling on his first NFL touch. There were whispers around New England that maybe the now-40-year-old Tom Brady might have succumbed to the unthinkable – age. The defense isn’t as impressive as we had been led to believe, and the offense looks good against teams with poor defenses, or when that defense has been on the field for extended periods of time, as seen in New Orleans and Houston, respectively.
The Oakland Raiders were considered true championship contenders after their remarkable season last year and seemed poised to improve with the addition of Marshawn Lynch coming out of a one-year retirement to play for his hometown team, giving the Raiders a powerful short-yardage option that would also help open up the passing game for MVP candidate Derek Carr. There were questions on defense, but the Raiders were thought to be legitimate threats to New England’s AFC dominance. After dominating performances in the first two weeks that saw Carr complete an absurd 75% of his passes the Raiders were absolutely dominated by the Washington Redskins on Sunday night. The defense looked like the tape at the end of a marathon and the Redskins just kept running through it, Carr had no time to get the passing game going and threw two interceptions after throwing just six all of last season. It also didn’t help that both Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, who both has over 1,000 receiving last season, combined for a catch each and 13 yards.
Okay, what about the Packers? Any team with Aaron Rodgers has a chance to win, right? He’s in the argument about the best quarterbacks in the league, right up there with Brady and has the ability to pull out big wins from the jaws of defeat because he’s just that damn good. Well, the Packers barely beat Seattle in a game in which Rodgers completed 67% of his passes and threw for 311 yards but managed only 17 points. They then went into Atlanta and promptly were routed by the Falcons despite Rodgers needing to throw the ball an astounding FIFTY times. He put up numbers nearly identical to the Seattle game in Sunday’s contest with the Bengals (28-42, 311 yards in Seattle, 28-42, 313 yards against Cincinnati) in which the Packers needed Rodgers to lead them from behind against a Bengals offense that hadn’t scored a touchdown in the first two games of the season and score an overtime victory.
Pittsburgh, maybe? They have some of the most dynamic weapons on offense including the best receiver in the game Antonio Brown, rocket-armed Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell who is in a contract year and trying to be paid like a top running back and top receiver combined so they should be in the conversation. Well, they lost in overtime to the formerly 0-2 Bears after allowing Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen to run all over them but Bell managed only 61 yards on the ground.
The Chiefs struggled against the Eagles who needed a 61-yard field goal to beat the hapless Giants after allowing the anemic offense led by Eli Manning to throw all over the field against them. They may be 3-0 but they’re far from dominant. Even this week’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers (which still sounds weird to me and every time I see the abbreviation ‘LAC’ I immediately think of the Los Angeles Clippers) in which they picked off Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers three times, they only won 24-10. A game in which your defense is that dominant should see you putting up more points and produce a much larger margin of victory. The Chargers themselves were a dark horse pick to win the very tough AFC West and should have been 2-0 entering the game but their kicker can’t come through in the clutch, not helping the reputation of Rivers and the Chargers being unable to win close games, something that plagued them all last season.
Speaking of the AFC West, the Denver Broncos were considered a team that could make a lot of noise come January and February, but they barely escaped the Chargers in week one (the Chargers’ kicker made a kick after a timeout was called, then missed the same kick after the timeout – and missed it badly) and then after handing the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott their worst loss as professionals they headed to Buffalo and lost 26-16. The previous week against the Cowboys, Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian looked like he was about to enter the MVP conversation after throwing three touchdowns in the first half and finishing with four total, and the defense looked like impenetrable and the “No Fly Zone” secondary lived up to their name, including a 103-yard interception return by Aqib Talib to seal the game.
Okay, well it has to be the Falcons, then right? No. They may be 0-3, but they barely escaped Chicago with a victory after three dropped passes in the end zone by Bears receivers. They also nearly lost to the Detroit Lions after a controversial goal-line call ended the Lions’ bid to come back and defeat the reigning NFC champions.
The Ravens? They’re good, right? Well, after the absolute demolition of the entirety of the Ravens’ team in their 44-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London in which “elite” Joe Flacco completed as many passes to his own team as he did his opponents (two) and was pulled from the game, I’m sure there are many people second-guessing the Ravens right about now.
Hopefully, in the next few weeks, we see the true contenders start to pull away from the pack. All we’ve learned so far this season is that no team is head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Personally, I like parity in the NFL. I like the fact that there’s no runaway favorite and that each game has to mean to it. It means that come playoff time, we should see some interesting matchups and a quality product on the field.