Separating contenders from pretenders:

Through ten weeks of the NFL season I feel like we have a pretty good image of all teams, but a lot of them share similar records while not being on the same level as the others and it’s time to differentiate between them. This discussion is not about teams like the Saints, Rams or Chiefs, who have only lost one game and neither are we talking about Giants, Cardinals or 49ers, who have only won twice. This is about separating the middle of the pack, meaning all teams from a .500 record to twice as many wins as losses. With that in mind, all these teams are still in the hunt for a Wildcard Spot or in some cases even a division crown right now, but some of them are tricking us with their record and you see that they are not as good a football team when you look at the numbers and watch the tape. So which of these nine teams are actually ready to make a playoff run and which of them just pretend to be?


 

Panthers

Carolina Panthers (6-3) – Contenders Panthers

Let’s not try to mask this – that 52-21 loss at Pittsburgh was ugly. The offensive line could not protect Cam, who held on to the ball for too long and the defense really had an off day, leading to Big Ben carving them up in the secondary for five touchdowns compared to just three incompletions. In spite of what I saw from the boundary corners falling for hesitation moves and getting beat deep, I think their duo of James Bradberry and rookie Donte Jackson might be better than what they had during their Super Bowl run in 2015. It has allowed them to play more man-coverage on the outside, even though leaving anybody one-on-one with Antonio Brown will lead to at least one big play and in most cases a monster performances. Eric Reid has been an excellent addition to go alongside long-time veteran Mike Adams. As far as their front-seven goes, I think they still have one of the top five units in the entire league. Their PPG average was just inflated by last week’s debacle. Offensively, this is a different type of attack this season. While it includes standard Norv Turner elements like the power run game and vertical shots, there are way more tricky wrinkles than what you’d expect from him, such as multiple motions, fake handoffs and double reverses. Not only is Cam Newton blowing away his best mark for completion percentage in his career with 68.5 so far and is on his way to putting up a quarterback rating over 100 for the first time since entering the league, Christian McCaffrey has truly established himself as a dynamic dual-threat out of the backfield. He is on pace for almost 2000 yards from scrimmage and just under a hundred catches. Equally as important however, their y I young receivers Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore are becoming true playmakers. I know the Saints seem to be running away with the NFC South at 8-1, but the Panthers still basically control their own destiny with two meetings with the division leaders over the last three weeks and if they don’t quite knock New Orleans off, they will be a dangerous Wildcard squad.

 

Texans

Houston Texans (6-3) – Contenders Texans

It took the Texans a while to find their stride, but they have won six straight and right now are one of the hottest teams in the league. Ironically enough it was the Colts’ head coach Frank Reich deciding to go for it on fourth down inside their own territory that set up Houston to win their first game in overtime after an 0-3 start and boosted them for this run. They went on to win two close contests versus the Cowboys and Bills before their stars started to wake up. Over the last three weeks Deshaun Watson is completing two thirds of his passes for eight touchdowns and no turnovers. He is beginning to look like the guy many envisioned him to be after that incredible shortened rookie campaign. Early on the offense was among the best in yards per game, but struggled mightily converting drives into touchdowns. Watson’s unwillingness to pull the trigger in one-on-one opportunities, poor ball-placement in spots and lack of pocket presence spelled doom for them in the red-zone and they were forced to settle for field goals. So that five-touchdown performance versus Miami worked wonders for him. In combination to that, I’ve been impressed way more than I’ve ever been with Lamar Miller since he was signed as a free agent in 2016, because he has displayed excellent vision and tough running. Without Will Fuller they lack a real deep threat to clear out space and allow DeAndre Hopkins to work underneath, but they saw an opportunity to sign Demaryius Thomas and let’s see what a change of scenery can do for him. Defensively there is no reason the Texans shouldn’t be one of the most dominant units in the league and they are on their way of becoming one. The addition of Tyrann Mathieu along with the conversion of Kareem Jackson to safety has looked outstanding, they have some nice young linebackers, J.J. Watt is the Comeback Player of the Year and Jadeveon Clowney has a knack for f-ing up plays like nobody else. Add D.J. Reader as a two-gap specialist in the middle, Whitney Mercilus still working his way back and a 34-year old Jonathan Joseph still playing like one of the best corners in the game and you have everything you need.

 

Redskins

Washington Redskins (6-3) – Pretenders Redskins

It hurts me to say this because I projected during the offseason that Washington would be one of the surprise teams this season and I think they have shown why I believed in them. They are built like an old-school football team with nasty big men up front on either side of the ball. The only reason I thought they would miss the playoffs by one game was the injury to rookie running back Derrius Guice, who could have made a run at Rookie of the Year in my opinion. The Redskins went on to sign 33-year old Adrian Peterson and he has looked great behind one of the elite offensive lines in football, but that’s where my doubts come in. Two weeks ago Washington did not only lose a game to the Falcons in bad fashion, I thought their entire season took a huge hit when they lost both their starting guards and their primary vertical threat for the year, plus left tackle Trent Williams was ruled out for a month. The key to their success early on was their ground attack. In games where they reach 100 yards rushing they are undefeated this season, but in all of their three losses they failed to get to that mark. Alex Smith is a good quarterback when the circumstances allow him to be. When he can hand the ball of 25-30 times a game, attack predictable coverages and work the middle of the field he can lead your team to victories, but I doubt that will be the case going forward, as they will face top ten run defenses in five of their final seven games and be forced to put the ball in Smith’s hands. Defensively, I love their personnel, Greg Manusky’s style and the attitude they play with. They have the best combination of three down-linemen with the two big Bama boys Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen plus Matt Ioannidis, Ryan Kerrigan has been one of the NFL’s most underrated players for a while now, Zach Brown is a Pro Bowler right now, D.J. Swearinger and Haha Clinton-Dix are in the discussion for the best safety tandem out there and Josh Norman might be their third-best corner. With that being said, even though the NFC East is weak and Washington’s schedule is one of the easier ones for the rest of the season, all those injuries should prove to be too much in the end.

 

Bears

Chicago Bears (6-3) – Contenders Bears

Similar to the Redskins, I was pumping up the Bears before the season started and felt really bad about projecting them to miss out on the playoffs due to a tie-breaker against the Vikings. Well, right now they are ahead of Minnesota and Green Bay in the race for the NFC North. There was some early doubts about Chicago after blowing a 20-0 lead to Aaron Rodgers in the season-opener and Mitchell Trubisky throwing only two touchdowns compared to three interceptions through the first three weeks. When they destroyed the Bucs 48-10 and their QB threw six touchdowns there was some noise around them by, but they failed to put away Miami after their bye week and couldn’t complete the upset over the Patriots. However, over their last three games the Bears have outscored their opponents by a combined 58 points. Overall they are tied for third in the whole league with the Rams behind only the Chiefs and Saints in terms of average margin of victory. Matt Nagy is starting to shape the offense the way he imagined to, with Tarik Cohen lining up all over the formation, tight-ends split out wide as single receivers and at one point even two quarterbacks lined up in the backfield. Their arsenal of pass-catchers rivals some of the best in the league when Allen Robinson plays like he did on Sunday and right now I don’t think there’s a more elusive runner at the quarterback position than Trubisky What made the Bears scary to me was their defense however. Khalil Mack looked like the runaway favorite for Defensive Player of the Year before getting banged up and eventually missing a couple of games, but he was back to Superman status versus Detroit. Akiem Hicks is a disruptor on the interior, they have two dynamic linebackers on the inside, an incredibly underrated safety tandem and a legit trio of cornerbacks. At this point Chicago leads the league in interceptions (16) and defensive touchdowns (four). The box score might indicate otherwise due to some fourth down conversions and a successful onside kick, but the Bears completely dominated the Lions on Sunday. I think the Bears D is already championship caliber and their offense should continue to get better until the end of the year.

 

Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) – Pretenders Bengals

It is absolutely crazy to me that the Bengals are still a game above .500 and would earn a wildcard berth if the season ended today. They feel so far away from any postseason implications after getting hammered 51-14 at home by the Saints. Don’t get me wrong – the Bengals have a very good roster and I don’t see any piece that they truly lack. Their offensive line has been improved immensely with the additions of Cordy Glenn and rookie Billy Price (even though he’s missed some time), Joe Mixon has become one of the best all-around backs in football and Tyler Boyd has turned himself into an excellent number two. However without A.J. Green out there as a true WR1, more attention will be paid to everybody else. Defensively, their front four looked ridiculous in the preseason and early on, but without Carl Lawson their pass rush has taken a huge bump. On paper that cornerback duo of Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson III combined with a rangy center-fielder in Jessie Bates looks really good, but those guys on the outside have been fairly average and the entire unit has surrendered an NFL record 2117 total yards over the last four weeks, leading to the firing of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Overall they have now plummeted to 31st in points and dead-last in yards allowed on a game-by-game basis. Andy Dalton looked pretty good early on, but now he is back to being the gold standard mediocrity. They just signed Hue Jackson as a special assistant and don’t get me wrong – Hue knows offense, especially quarterbacks – but if Cincinnati doesn’t make the playoffs this year, they finally have to let go of Marvin Lewis and completely revamp the coaching staff. A lack of talent has never been the problem for the Bengals, but to not have won a single playoff game in 17 years and still have your job is beyond me. I don’t think they will sneak into the postseason, but even if they did, I don’t see Cincy winning against any of the other five teams. Their defense has been to fragile recently and you have to be special throughout your other 21 players if the quarterback is just average, plus to be honest I’m not sure how motivated their guys will be going forward.

 

Titans

Tennessee Titans (5-4) – Contenders Titans

Finally! Before the season started, I projected that the Titans would win double-digit games and with that the AFC South. Right now they might not be on pace to do just that, but they have definitely looked like a playoff team these last two weeks. They doubled the Cowboys points total two weeks ago on Monday night at AT&T Stadium and they just hammered the Patriots 34-10 on Sunday in Nashville. It wasn’t just the final score or any of the statistics. Tennessee outcoached Bill Belichick & company and they were way too physical for this New England squad. They got after Brady and clearly made him uncomfortable, causing his highest number of incompletions (20) since the season-opener versus the Chiefs last season. The rushing totals might not be necessarily impressive, but the Patriots couldn’t stop them when they really needed to, Corey Davis torched Stephon Gilmore and not only did Marcus Mariota outplay Brady, they basically rubbed it under their nose when they came back with the exact same trick play that the Pats ran and had Brady stumble after the catch, only their QB made it look effortless. It wasn’t pretty at the start of the season, but the Titans somehow managed to win three out of their first four and after some soul-searching following a three-game losing streak, they came out with a completely different mentality. They are playing with some swag and attitude. Matt LaFleur is starting to get into a groove as far as stringing together plays goes, Mariota has looked as good as he has ever done recently and Corey Davis is becoming a true number one receiver. Defensively, unlike a lot of NFL teams, Dean Pees is not just sticking with one scheme. He mixes up different looks and coverages depending on who they face, forces opposing quarterbacks to re-adjust after the snap and hold on to the ball. The veteran DC has some excellent young personnel at all three levels now, with second-round rookie Harold Landry rushing off the edge, Jayon Brown as a dynamic linebacker in year number two, Rashaan Evans doing a little bit of everything and of course All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who headlines this unit together with three-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle.

 

Vikings

Minnesota Vikings (5-4-1) – Contenders Vikings

I understand Kirk Cousins won’t get any credit until he finally wins a playoff game, but let me tell you – he’s been outstanding this season. Some people might want to compare his and Case Keenum’s numbers from a year ago and talk about how Cousins is not worth the premium they paid for him in the offseason, but just consider what Keenum looks like without Pat Shurmur and those pieces around him. The new Vikings QB has attempted the third-most passes per game of all qualified starters, so we have seen that he can shoulder the load when he needs to. However, while he is a big reason I believe more in the Vikings than a year ago when they get to big playoff games, this offense has two bonafide number one receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but maybe even more important going forward – they have a special talent at running back. Dalvin Cook got nicked up early on and hadn’t looked the same in limited action, before the Vikes sat him out for a few games, but when he came back versus Detroit he flashed some of his potential on that 70-yard burst. The Minnesota O-line had incredible struggles at the start of the year in pass pro, but with more focus on the running game and now a great back making things easier because of his quickness and acceleration through the hole, combined with the opportunities this presents for the play-action attack, they should not hold them back too much. On defense they are not as dominant as they were last year, but since their 38-31 shootout with the Rams, they are allowing less than 19 points a game and they are back to top five overall in total yards surrendered, as well as holding teams to under 26 percent on third downs – a mark that nobody else comes even close to. They look like a different unit with Everson Griffen back in the line-up and in his absence Danielle Hunter has emerged as one of the most dangerous edge rushers out there. Add Linval Joseph and offseason acquisition Sheldon Richardson and you get a front that scares opposing quarterbacks, as they are tied for the lead-league in sacks. Clever offensive coordinators took advantage of their simple coverage principles early on, but Mike Zimmer has started taking his players out of bad situations. Rookie corner Mike Hughes has worked his way into the rotation and made some big plays, while Harrison Smith is still the most complete safety in football.

 

Dolphins

Miami Dolphins (5-5) – Pretenders Dolphins

I already said that it’s crazy that the Bengals are still part of the current playoff picture in the AFC. Well, get this – the Titans are the only team ahead of the Dolphins from the outside looking in. Yes, the Brock Osweiler-led Miami Dolphins. Head coach Adam Gase deserves consideration for Coach of the Year for keeping a team at .500 that is in the 20s in every major offensive and defensive category, meaning passing, rushing and total yards as well as points per game. There is not a single other team that is in the 20s in all those categories and despite that more than half the league is standing a worse record than Miami as of right not. Gase let go of some talented and productive players in the offseason, because he believed putting together a locker room of guys that were team-first and concentrated on making their headlines with their play on the field was more important for long-term success. I applaud him for it and I believe they found the perfect culture-setter when they drafted Minkah Fitzpatrick out of Alabama with the 11th pick back in April. He has been phenomenal so far and he should be the guy they want to build around. However, offensively Miami was already slim in terms of skill position talent, but then they lost their most dangerous YAC receiver Albert Wilson to IR and Kenyan Drake has flashed more than he has actually produced consistently. I like a lot of the Dolphins’ pieces on defense. They have two book-ends, modern day linebackers who can make plays in coverage, versatile safeties and some feisty corners. The Phins have the ability to play a lot of sub-packages with three safeties on the field as Fitzpatrick is basically another corner for them and options in their rush fronts. That group has been excellent against Sam Darnold twice, Marcus Mariota and through large stretches of other games, but I thought they were put into tough spots by the offense and at times even their own DC, plus the elite QBs have carved them up. If they add some skill players and maybe another boundary corner I put them in the mix next year, but when Brock Osweiler has played as well as your starter you are just very limited as a team.

 

Packers

Green Bay Packers (4-4-1) – Contenders Packers

The fact that this team is third in their own division with a .500 record is ridiculous. There might be no team in the league that frustrates me more to watch than the Packers right, because they have the best quarterback in the game for the last eight plus years and I think they have enough pieces around him to compete for a championship, but they always seem to stand in their own way. Davante Adams has been playing like a number one receiver, they have a tight-end who is second only to Gronk in terms of receiving touchdowns since entering the league in 2010, a running back that is emerging as one of the under-the-radar superstars in the NFL in Aaron Jones and a multitude of talented young pass-catchers. While they have been banged up on the offensive line at times and their number two and three receivers have missed some games, I think the bigger reason that they are not 7-2 or so has been the Mike McCarthy’s play-calling and probably also Rodgers’ checks at the line to some degree. Green Bay has stood in their own way so many times when they refused to lean on the running back even though it was successful, when they didn’t call enough quick-rhythm passes to stay on schedule and simply asked their quarterback to make incredible throws down the field just because he can. Rodgers has been hesitant to pull the trigger at times because he didn’t trust one of the rookie receivers and Jimmy Graham has been a shell of himself so far. While the defense has been fairly average, I love their young defensive backs – especially Jaire Alexander – and they are tied for the lead-league with 31 sacks. I trust in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his ability to confuse opposing quarterback, to allow the pass rush to get home. I think the Packers have everything they need to contend for the NFC with number 12 at the helm, but they need to play better complimentary football. They can not lose games because of stupid fumbles in huge spots, five missed kicks in a game or extending opposing drives with roughing the passer penalties (even though I think they are a joke).

 



 

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