Tuesday, October 05, 2010

NFL 2010: The Quarter-Point Mark

Whoa! Just like that we are already a full quarter of the way through the NFL season, with most teams now having played 4 of their 16 regular season games other than four teams with bye weeks this past weekend. And if there's one thing the NFL teaches you year in and year out -- far more than any other major professional sport out there in the U.S. -- it is to expect the unexpected. It's been a great season so far, with several major storylines and surprises leading the way -- on both the positive and negative end of the spectrum.

First, what do we know that we did not know heading into the 2010 NFL regular season?

1. Steve Spagnuolo, Sam Bradford and the Rams are for real. After blowing out Washington in Week 3 and following that up with another blowout of Pete Carroll's hapless-on-the-road Seattle squad, the Rams are looking up. Week 3 is the first time this team won a road game in nearly a season and a half, and now this is the first two-game win streak for the team in who know how long. This is the first time since very late in the Curt Warner era / very early in the Marc Bulger era that the Rams can actually go into their games with a reasonable expectation to win. Bradford is getting the job done without much other talent around him other than a hobbled Steven Jackson, and Spagnuolo is showing why the Rams hired him away from the Giants a few seasons ago and have stuck with him since then. Although it's hard to expect much from the Rams after the debacle of the past few seasons, this team's upside in a very poor NFC West is basically unlimited. Go ahead -- tell me the Rams couldn't possibly win that division this year. I dare you.

2. The Jets are for real. I could not believe this heading into the 2010 regular season, and after that first game against the Ravens' defense, I was ready to pronounce Mark Sanchez dead on arrival and start looking for a replacement who could actually throw an NFL ball. But what Sanchise and the Jets have done since Week 1 is nothing short of spectacular, going 3-0 against division rivals the Cheatriots, the Dolphins and the Bills (the last two on the road, no less) and scoring over 32 points per game over that stretch to take over the top spot in the very tough AFC East, the real best division in football this year. Sanchise has followed suit, throwing 8 touchdowns against 0 interceptions so far on the year, easily his best stretch of patience and smart decisions of his short career. With the Pats looking beatable and the Dolphins off to an 0-2 start at home with losses to the Jets and the Pats, the Jets look to be the team to beat in their division as they bid to reach the Superbowl after last year's deep post-season run.

3. The Colts and Vikings may be in some trouble. The Colts didn't lose a single game they tried to win in all of the 2009 regular season, but now they have lost two of their first four games here in 2010, with essentially the same team returning and none of the players really getting old in the traditional sense. Meanwhile, Brett Favre has struggled mightily so far this season for Minnesota, with his team scoring just over 14 points per game after leading the entire NFL in scoring in 2009. While the Colts are mired in unfamiliar territory at 2-2 this early in the season, the Vikings sit at 1-2 after a bye this past weekend, but now head into very hostile territory against the Jets next Monday night in New York Jersey.

4. Donovan McNabb kinda sucks. Don't get me wrong, he got the win in Philly this past weekend thanks to horrible game planning by Andy Reid who got embarrassed by Mike Shanahan in D-Mac's first return to Lincoln Financial Field since leaving the Eagles in the offseason, and I can assure you that McNabb has had enough bad games in his career that the only thing he cares about is that mark in the victory column for his team. But that said, McNabb's performance overall in this young season has been spotty at best, totalling just three touchdowns in four full games along with two picks, and a general inability to make the big throws when he has been most needed so far in the first four games of 2010. All I know is, it felt really good to hear the crowd sarcastically cheering when McNabb missed a wide open Chris Cooley for a sure touchdown in the first quarter on Sunday, because as a longtime Eagles fan who watched the past ten years of D-Mac closely, I knew we were all feeling the exact same relief.

5. The 49ers are awful, and the NFC West may be the worst overall division in NFL history. It turns out Alex Smith is actually not the second coming of Bart Starr despite his heroic performance in Week 2 this season -- in fact, Alex Smith is worthless, Frank Gore is of limited usefulness, and in general the 49ers are not at all displaying the patience and control expected of a Mike Singletary team. The latest embarrassment was the team intercepting a pass late from the Falcons' Matt Ryan last Sunday that essentially sealed the 14-13 victory for the 49ers, but then the player insisted on returning the interception and scoring a meaningless touchdown rather than just sitting down and getting tagged, thereby allowing his team to run out the clock. The result of course was another modern-day Leon Lett situation where the interceptor was caught from behind and lost the ball back to the Falcons, setting up a last-minute drive for the winning field goal. As I mentioned above, this division is basically totally up for grabs at this point, with the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams all tied at 2-2, and the Niners in the cellar at 0-4 and heading home to face the Eagles this coming weekend in Week 5.

6. Don't let the 2-2 record fool you: the Miami Dolphins are a very solid team. I wasn't sure if they would be quite good enough to make the postseason when I made my 2010 NFL predictions just over a month ago, but I knew then that Tony Sparano and the Dolphins still have a buzz around them this year that hasn't been there since sometime before Dan Marino retired. Although Chad Henne was impatient and made a number of poor decisions of extremely telegraphed throws on Monday night against the Cheatriots, in general Henne has a gun for an arm and I believe can be taught to play more within himself and not cost his team a chance at winning. Brandon Marshall looks like a superstar again at wideout in his new digs in South Florida, and damn if I had this kid Bess running for my team I would be in seventh heaven. Watching Bess run with the ball is like watching John Wall last year in the NCAA tournament -- the guy is just flat-out faster than everyone else out there on the field with him. Bess is likely to be a touchdown machine over the next few years in this system, and I would keep my eyes on the Dolphins to make some noise before all is said and done in the AFC East in 2010.

7. Kansas City could really be a force in the AFC West this season. Yes, this team's 3-0 record is largely a result of the team playing the Chargers -- who play markedly worse on the road than they do at home -- and then the Browns and the 49ers so far this season. But you know what? Take a look at the Chiefs' schedule this entire season through, and you will notice that there are just not a lot of tough games to speak of. After a difficult matchup with Indy in Week 5, the team will play Houston - Jacksonville - Buffalo - Oakland - Denver - Arizona - Seattle - Denver - San Diego - St. Louis - Tennessee - Oakland to finish up the season. With a defense giving up under 13 points per game so far this year, it's not hard at all to imagine KC picking up another 5 or 6 wins on that schedule, in a division where 8-8 is likely to win out for the second consecutive season.

Second, what is proving to be more or less just what we expected?

The Cheatriots are a good team. Their defense can be porous and like last year will likely be their ultimate downfall, but the offense is great. Tom Brady is back and looks like his old self from a few years ago instead of the timid, injury-shy player I saw through much of the 2009 season. Even with Randy Moss flagging week to week and pissed off about it at that, this team has got enough moxie on offense to take on all comers in the NFL this year.

The Lions are a hapless bunch. I was excited for this team heading into 2010, but when Matthew Stafford went down early in Game 1, and then the Lions had that game stolen away from them by the hideotic call on the no-touchdown-catch on the final play, I just knew it did not bode well. Where the Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams seem to be succeeding -- scoring points, managing games, getting lucky when they need to -- the Lions continue to fail, and are looking at yet another 0-4 start to a season as a result.

The Browns and Panthers have no quarterback, and no chance to make a good run this year. The Giants are inconsistent once again, losing games you think they should win, and then just when you're ready to count them out, they bust out with the big win, a cycle that has come to be the hallmark of the Tom Coughlin era in New York. The Redskins, even with a new head coach and totally revamped scheme, seem to play down to the level of their opponents and as always just never look ready to just come out and steamroll a team. Cincinnati is typically inexplicable so far this year, winning two low-scoring games against Carolina and Baltimore, but losing two higher-scoring affairs against the Cheatriots and now the lowly Browns this past weekend as Marvin Lewis continues to bumble along until someone finally wises up to his lack of managerial talents. Atlanta is solid, focusing on offense, and probably primed to make another playoff run in 2010. The Steelers' defense has been as strong as anyone's in the NFL so far this year in Big Ben's absence, with a healthy Troy Polamalu up to his old tricks and making life hell for the AFC's quarterback corps. The Titans and Ravens are good combinations of passing and running with excellent team defense and special teams that should also take them to the postseason in 2010. Houston is off to a 3-1 start and has an early full-game lead over favored rivals Tennessee and Indianapolis here through a quarter of the regular season.

Last, what are the big stories I am looking at for the second quarter of the 2010 NFL regular season?

1. Far and away the biggest issue to me is the Mike Vick / Kevin Kolb drama as it continues to unfold. As much interest as there already was in this storyline with Vick playing MVP-caliber quarterback for the Eagles the past two weeks, now that Vick is down with a rib cartilage injury, he is likely to miss 2-3 weeks at least, which means the qb job in Philly is now once again Kevin Kolb's to win. Because, let's not forget, Kolb was the "quarterback of the future" for this team as recently as three weeks ago, and he only lost his starting job to Vick because of Kolb's injury in Week 1. So anybody who doesn't realize that the Eagle quarterback job is now Kolb's for the taking is just not paying attention. I mean, can you imagine if Kolb goes 3-0 at San Francisco, at home vs Atlanta and then at Tennessee over the next three weeks, with three decent games? The quarterback of the future in Philadelphia will become the quarterback of the present again faster than you can say "ThankGodDonovonIsGone". Take it from me, something tells me we haven't seen close to the end of the quarterback drama in Philly yet so far in 2010.

2. Can Brett Favre come back from his early-season swoon? Or will the Vikings simply roll over and die and cede the NFC North to the Packers / Bears winner? Favre, who is 60 of 97 for just 2 touchdowns and six interceptions through three games in 2010 so far and a qb rating of just a hair over 60, is going to need to improve significantly if his team is to go anywhere in 2010, and the smart money says that the old man is clearly still feeling the effects of his ankle surgery from early this year. But whereas in the past few seasons Favre has generally improved as the season wore on and he got into better shape and got to know his offense better after going through his annual ritual of skipping out on training camp, I worry this year that Favre could be getting worse and not better with his ankle injury that as recently as 6 weeks ago or so had Favre claiming he was not going to be able to play football this season.

3. Will Dallas step up and win a weaker-than-expected NFC East? Can the Chargers pull it together enough and play well enough on the road to win the super-weak AFC West? Both of these teams were overwhelming favorites to win their divisions heading into the 2010 NFL regular season, and both teams thus far have looked kinda chumpy over too much of their seasons so far. But both have the luxury of playing in divisions that seem eminently winnable, and ultimately both teams find themselves just a win out of first here a quarter of the way into the season. Something tells me that both the 'Boys and the Chargers will find their way to the top of their respective divisions by the time the snow is falling in New York.

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Blogger MorningThunder said...

With the Chiefs it may just come down to holding serve at home. Arrowhead is on it's way to becoming the home field advantage it was back in the nineties. They could easily win 6 more and home and steal just one more on the road to get to 9 and the AFC west title.

11:52 AM  
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