Each Week I will attempt, sometime on Tuesday, to review the week that was in the NFL. Hopefully I can shed some light on how I see things which played out and what it means on the rest of the NFL season. It will be an education in what we learned in the previous week’s action, including 5 revelations we discovered in the week 1, my top 5 and bottom 5 teams, as well as 4 teams which should be on upset watch and 1 team which will be a stone cold lock to win. Then to finish it off I’m going to give you 5 battles I can’t wait to see in the week to come.
5 Things We Learned
1. Jay Cutler has a lot of work to do.
Bears fans put a lot of faith into the arm and leadership of one Jay Christopher Cutler. So much in fact that they were willing to trade two first round picks, a 3rd and their starting quarterback to the Denver Broncos to get him. At the time many (including for the sake of transparency, myself) thought the move would finally deliver the Bears a quarterback who could put them in contention. He had the arm, the mobility, the presence. Yes, he was a bit immature, but so was Phillip Rivers in his early years. Still, with a speed demon like Hester, and a run game and defense to die for, what wasn’t to like?
Well, against the newly implemented 3-4 defense, maned by ancient corners and unknown pass rush, there was a lot not to like. The Packers picked off Jay Cutler 4 times, and Cutler threw half a dozen more ducks that the Pack failed to pick off. Sure, one of those picks was a one-in-a-million interception on a blown screen, but the rest were just terrible throws. Cutler needs to cut down on the mistakes, and he needs to do it fast. Jerry Angelo, Lovie Smith and Ron Turner’s jobs depend on it. The upcoming schedule gets harder before it gets easier with games against the furious defense of the Steelers (although minus Troy Polumalu) and at my sleeper team Seattle. If the Bears are 0-3 through that stretch, the damage might be unfixable. And if that happens, heads will roll.
2. The Patriots are not going 16-0
The last full game before last night that we saw was Tom Brady leading his team against the New York Giants at a shot at immortality. But after a brutal performance by the New York Giants Defensive line, and then an unfortunate injury against the Chiefs (not a defensive powerhouse itself), Tom Brady was left on the sideline. Now, he has lead his team to a 4th quarter come behind victory just like old times. However, in the process his team gave up 24 points and a 3 quarter lead to a team which fired its Offensive Coordinator less than 2 weeks ago. Meanwhile Brady was battered 6 times, sacked once and picked off by a defensive lineman. The run game was herky-jerky at best and the offense just looked ‘off’. And then came the killer, Jerod Mayo, one of the bst young ILB’s in the game went out with an injury. All in all, it was not the 2007 Patriots all over again.
But the Patriots won, and extended their streak to 12 against Buffalo. So all is good right? Wrong. The fact of the matter is, the Patriots went 16-0 on a miraculous series of games, and with a good bit of luck from the rest of their division. In 2007, the Bills, Jets and Dolphins combined for 12 wins. In 2008 the three teams combined for 27 wins. You don’t get over twice as many wins because one Quarterback goes down. No, the Bills, Jets and Dolphins all improved from 2007 to 2009, and New England will not escape the conference play without a loss. The Pats also have to deal with games at San Diego, at the upstart 49′ers, vs the Steelers, at Qwest and at Indianapolis. Obviously New England’s not losing all, or likely most of those games. But certainly it is very probably that the Pats drop one or two games in that stretch. Regardless, 16-0 is not like to happen again.
3. The Titans are in it for the Long Haul.
I’ll tell you right now, Tennessee is my sleeper pick for the Super Bowl from the AFC. Yes, they lost to the Steelers, but play that game another 9 times and I’d wager a 5-5 record. The 10-13 OT thriller in Pittsburgh was an epic game which featured two of the best defenses in the league. The Titans held a usually decent Pittsburgh rush offense to 1.6 yards per rush. In other words, to get 100 yards, the Steelers would have had to run the ball 63 times. Meanwhile, until the epic collapse in the 4th quarter, Big Ben was held in check. The defense was in control despite losing Albert Haynesworth and Jim Schwartz (although his replacement certainly showed some hesitation late in the game which may have cost them the win).
The only thing that got the Steelers the win was that Pittsburgh luck. For most teams, a fumble at the 5 yard line leads to a loss, but not in Pittsburgh where the OT coin flip went to the Steelers, along with the win. All that aside, the Titans look ready to blast this division wide open. The Colts and Jaguars looked sluggish and the Texans just looked plain bad. If not for an insane interception by Troy Polomalu, Collins would have had an excellent game. The young receiver Britt looks to be a find, and the running game is back in force. The 320 yards of offense that Tennessee put up was almost 100 more than the Steelers gave up per game last season. And it only gets easier from there, with only 4 games against playoff opponents from last season. The Titans could be one of the hottest teams going into December with games against Arizona, St. Louis and Miami in the last half of the year.
4. The Browns are not as bad as they were a year ago.
Cleveland rode into the season on a 6 game stretch without an offensive touchdown and with a 4th string Quarterback taking snaps from center. In game 1 of the 2009 season, the Browns started a rookie center against the best defensive tackle combonation in the league and came out in one peice. They didn’t win, but that was in no small part thanks to the wonders of Adrian Peterson. But still, for 3 quarters they held the Vikings, a Super Bowl favorite, in check. The defense played its mind out in the first half, and the offense was at least passable. It all came to a head in the 4th when Brady Quinn, the annointed one, connected with Robert Royal to end the scoreless streak. The Browns lost by14, but still made it a game until the 4th quarter.
The left side of the offensive line in Cleveland, Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach and Alex Mack, may develop into the best left side in the NFL (Jared Allen’s stat line: 1 tackle, 0 sacks), and the team is loaded with young talent. Josh Cribbs is the best special teams player in the league. Braylon, Massaquoi and Robiskie all have a lot of potential and could develop into a very good receiving corp. D’Qwell Jackson and Eric Wright are young playmakers, and the new defensive scheme even get Kamerion Wimbley involved in a legitimate pass rush. All together they make up a pretty solid corp of young players. Now what remains to be seen is if Brady Quinn can put it all together, and Eric Mangini can develop them into a better-than-average team, something Cleveland hasn’t seen in over 10 years.
5. Philadelphia is the best team in the National Football Conference
It may be a stretch, but I think its true. Watching the Eagles (when healthy) pummel the Panthers to the tune of a 38-10 victory over the NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers. No doubt Phily was aided by the embarrasing performance of Jake Delhomme, but the defense was all over the field. One of the best running attacks in the league was shut down, and Steve Smith kept in check, all of this despite McNabb having only 79 yards passing. The Eagles dropped 185 yards rushing on the Panthers and milked the clock. Meanwhile, the Panthers couldn’t get to McNabb but twice, and only got one hit on the mobile QB before he finally succumbed to a rib injury in the endzone on his touchdown run. The question now becomes, what next?
The next game is against the Saints, and if Phily wins (if somehow McNabb comes back to health), they will have a free shot at 6-0 before the New York Giants. Frankly, the Eagles at this point should be favored to win all but maybe, just maybe, 3 games this season. If the Iggles can put together a few winning runs, they should be playoff pound. And as we saw last year once they are in, they are dangerous. All of this doesn’t even include Michael Vick or Jeff Garcia, two playoff quarterbacks now on Phily’s roster, or the development of Shady McCoy. Right now, if the team stays healthy, there is no question in my mind that Phily will be the #1 seed in the playoffs come december.
The Big 5 and the Little 5
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0): Super Bowl Champions until someone beats them
2. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0): Best team in the NFC as of week 1.
3. New England (1-0): Tom Brady is unbeaten in regular season play since December 10th, 2006
4. Minnesota (1-0): Run the ball, stop the run, that is all that is needed.
5. New Orleans (1-0): Drew Brees could have another near-record setting season.
5. Carolina (0-1): Yes it was only one loss, but its clear that Delhomme is done.
4. Cincinnati (0-1): My sleeper wild card team goes down to my predicted worst team in the league.
3. St. Louis (0-1): Not a good start for the Spags era, but a brighter future is ahead.
4. Houston (0-1): The national bandwagon just lost a wheel.
5. Detroit (0-17)
1. New England @ New York
As much as Patriots fans want to believe that the locker room material will give them the edge, I would say its the opposite. New York has a lot on the line in this game. Mark Sanchez has to prove he can face a competent defense, the defense needs to shut down a high powered offense and Rex Ryan needs to put his money where his mouth is. Its at home, giving the Jets an edge, and New York has everything on the line. After failing to secure a playoff berth last season, these guys know that a national embarrasment will only set their playoff quest back another season. New England has confidence, but the threat of a 3-4 pass rush battering Brady and Jenkins clogging up the middle will be one heck of a hill to climb. This could be a very close matched game, or Brady could just unload, one way or the other there will be fireworks.
2. Baltimore @ San Diego
The Chargers, at home against an East Coast team, should be the favorite, but I wouldn’t wager on it. Baltimore’s offense exploded on the Chiefs (it was KC) and their defense kept the Chiefs in check but for special teams plays. Meanwhile San Diego looked sluggish and clumsy against the Raiders, and the defense couldn’t do much to keep J-Roc in limbo. Against Joe Flacco, another strong armed QB with an even better offensive line, the Chargers could be in for some serious work. Darren Sproles is the type of back who can make Baltimore look silly, but with that linebacking corp and pass rush its going to tough sledding getting the W, despite being at home to an “inferior” team. It should be a close one, if Phillip Rivers plays his best game all year.
3. New York Giants @ Dallas
The Cowboys will be unveiling the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, but thats not why New York needs to be on the ready. Right now the ‘Boys are on the ropes. They beat Tampa, but it was Tampa. Meanwhile their playcalling has come under scrutiny, their stadium has been ridiculed and their owner fined. They are a team in a corner with very few escape routes, and a win over their rivals from up north would be a huge feather in the cap of a very bare Wade Phillips. The Giants meanwhile handled the Redskins, and have to be thinking that they wont be challenged until week 6. The opportnity to overlook a lesser opponent often leads to defeat. The Cowboys have nothing to lose, if they win, they get an upset. If they lose, they lose to a better team. And a team with nothing to lose in a rivalry game is always a team you want to be weary of.
4. Arizona @ Jacksonville
The Jaguars held Peyton Manning to moderate success for much of the game this weekend, and kept it close in a 12-10 loss to the most successfull regular season team in the league. Now they face another high-powered offense which is coming off a home loss to a rival. The Cardinals could fall into the Super Bowl trap and go down 0-2 before heading into a big game against the Colts in week 3. If Arizona looks too far ahead, they could be hit in the face by a team which can’t afford to lose. If Jacksonville slips to sub .500, Jack Del Rio is likely gone. A coach on the hot seat often finds a way to win games he shouldn’t otherwise win (see Jim Hasslet with the Rams in 09, or Romeo against the Giants on MNF with the Browns). If Jacksonville can control the sidelines and limit Warner to short passing, they can win this one and pull off a big upset in week 2.
Stone Cold Lock
Minnesota over Detroit- Adrian Peterson will put up another 2+ TD, 150+ yard game against the worst run defense in the league, and with the amount of speed on the Vikings offense, I can’t see this team not winning against a hapless Detroit squad. Meanwhile the Williams wall will force Matt Stafford to try and win the game, and while he should have decent numbers, I can’t see him willing this team to victory. Not yet.
Matchups to Watch
1. Knowshon Moreno v. Cleveland Defense- The Browns D-line was a sive against the Vikings, lets see if they can shape it up to stop the rook out of Georgia.
2. Matt Ryan v. Carolina’s Secondary- McNabb got 2 passing touchdowns and a rushing score, what will Ryan get? And Tony Gonzolez should have a breakout performance agianst safeties who will be too busy playing the run to shut down the middle of the field.
3. Mark Sanchez v. Bill Belichick- If you don’t think B Squared is salivating at the idea of confusing and confounding a highly touted rookie quarterback, then you are dreaming. Sanchez meanwhile will have the opportunity to prove himself against a real defense, good luck rook, and welcome to the NFL.
4. Jay Cutler v. Pittsburgh- Green Bay got 4 picks, how many will the Steel Curtain get?
5. Samurai Mike v. Jim L. Mora- Two Coach of the Year sleepers in my book, as both will have vastly improved teams. The show down should be a deciding one in the run for the NFC West crown.
And that is what we learned in week 1 of the NFL Season.