NFL Week 6: who can contend?
Week after week the 2012 season seems intent on producing maddening and confusing results.
After looking to be the best teams in the league and dominating the Power Rankings, four of the top five from last week delivered horrible performance.
The 49ers were dismantled and toyed with by the Giants, the Texans were steam-rolled by a vintage Aaron Rodgers performance, the Patriots failed to hold onto there lead late with Tom Brady having few answers against the Seahawks secondary and the Falcons were extremely lucky to pull out a win against Oakland.
Furthermore, the Browns finally registered a win and against a decent team in Cincinnati, the Jets produced an impressive offensive output.
Aside from some toss up games, the only result that made sense was the Cowboys again losing due to mental errors at critical times.
The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from week six is that there are a multitude of contenders from nearly all divisions in the league.
New York Giants (4-2): If not for Aaron Rodgers producing one of the best performances of the year, the Giants would unequivocally have delivered the most impressive one. Eli Manning was exactly what a quarterback needs to be against the 49ers defence. He was efficient moving the chains and avoided mistakes – although there were a number of dropped interceptions.
The Giants defence feasted upon Alex Smith intercepting the 49ers quarterback three times and sacking him six in what has to be Smith’s worst performance in a long time and the Giants significantly hampered the 49ers league-leading rushing attack.
The most important storyline to draw from this game was the collective execution of the Giants offensive line. Against statistically the best defence in the NFL, the Giants both did not allow a sack and ran the ball for 149 yards, a touchdown and a high yard per carry mark for both Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson. Towards the end of the game with the Giants clearly intent on running the ball to shorten the game, Bradshaw and Wilson gashed the 49ers defence consistently for significant gains.
The Giants are the best team away from home in the NFL and Eli Manning is once again furthering his claim as one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
Atlanta Falcons (6-0): The Falcons remain perfect, but there are some real concerns about the direction of the team. In games against teams (Oakland, Carolina) that are in no way near their talent level the Falcons have been very fortunate to escape with wins.
After being the clear cut frontrunner for MVP, Ryan was shocking against the Raiders, throwing three interceptions against a Raiders team that has a very poor secondary. The Falcons had to rely upon an interception returned for a touchdown and the Raiders leaving too much time on the clock after tying the score.
The Falcons are clearly a Super Bowl contender but their propensity to let inferior teams stay in the game will eventually catch up to them. Atlanta have the potential to win the Super Bowl but they seem just as likely to fizzle in the first round again.
Baltimore Ravens (5-1): With the obliteration of Houston at the hands of Green Bay and the inconsistencies of the Patriots, Baltimore could well be the best team in the AFC.
Ray Rice is playing well, Joe Flacco hasn’t been outstanding but has been effective. Offensively the Ravens should be feeling fairly positive but their are some serious concerns on the defensive side of the ball.
After beginning the year undermanned thanks to the long term injury to Terrell Suggs the Ravens just suffered two significant losses with Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb falling to season ending injuries. The loss of Lewis is important in a historical sense, Lewis has been the best Middle Linebacker of the last 20 years and is the most important player in the Ravens history. He could never play again.
The loss of Webb is devastating. Webb has evolved into a legitimate shutdown corner and a certain Pro Bowler for this season. There will pressure will be on second year corner Jimmy Smith as he moves into the starting lineup and Cary Williams will be looked at as the lead corner.
In addition to these personnel concerns, the Ravens defence is not performing to the level expected of the usually outstanding run defence. The Ravens allowing 136.5 yards on the ground per game.
The Ravens should sort this out by the end of the season and hold a significant lead in division.
San Francisco 49ers (4-2): San Francisco had no answers for the Giants and deservedly lost by a significant margin. Alex Smith was awful and the 49ers running game was pedestrian.
The 49ers ineffectiveness on offense was a result of them being forced to play against their game plan. San Francisco is built upon controlling the ball to shorten the game, Alex Smith exploiting defences that sell out to stop the run all the while avoiding mistakes and turnovers. This allows an opportunistic secondary and a dangerous pass rush to exploit trailing teams.
The 49ers are not built to chase leads, they are built to end games. When they trail significantly as they did against the Giants, they are forced to play a game style they are not coached to do.
Houston Texans (5-1): The most obvious criticism of the Texans prior to facing the Packers was that they had yet to face a quality opponent. After being dominated by the Packers the Texans will face the Ravens to truly ascertain whether the Texans record was just a product of weak opposition.
Whoever wins this game will immediately rise to holding favouritism in the AFC.
Houston’s ineffective running attack, mental errors and defensive confusion seems so unlike the Texans that we are accustomed to seeing. Defensively the loss of Brian Cushing appears to be far more serious than initially appeared.
The major positive for the Texans is they are at the top of probably the worst division in the NFL and are as close a certainty to make the playoffs as there is and will have the next 10 games to retool for January.
Chicago Bears (4-1): Idle with a bye, the Bears remained out of the carnage that was week 6 and preserve their lead at the top of the NFC North.
The Bears have an opportunistic defence, an excellent running game and a quarterback that can break games wide open. Jay Cutler does deliver his fair share of horrendous performances (see Green Bay) but he is also the key to the Bears success.
With the Packers rejuvenated and the Vikings surprising the division will be an absolute slugfest.
Green Bay Packers (3-3): Green Bay and New England seem to be the best teams that don’t have winning records.
After a lackluster start to the season Aaron Rodgers delivered quite possibly the best performance of his career against a quality defence in his 6 touchdown output against the Texans. The Packers should scare absolutely every team in the NFL and if they are in position to either capture the division or wild card late in the season the Packers can wreak havoc in the playoffs.
Further sweetening their victory over the Texans, the Packers rushing defence shut down the leagues best running back allowing Arian Foster only 29 yards off 17 carries for only a miniscule 1.7 yards a carry. The two touchdowns for Foster obscure just how ineffective Foster and the Texans backs were against the Packers run defence. With an exceptional performance across the board all signs are pointing up for the Packers.
New England Patriots (3-3): New England only are included in this section because they seem to be the best team in an AFC East that is deadlocked with all four teams at 3-3.
The Patriots have been wildly inconsistent with devastating offensive outputs against Buffalo, Tennessee and Denver while failing to execute late defensively and on special teams resulting in losses to Seattle, Baltimore and Arizona. With each of these teams that the Patriots lost to holding superior records, perhaps it is time to recognise that the Patriots have slid back from the top of the AFC.
Houston and Baltimore are better than New England and if the Patriots are to make the playoffs, a prospect that can be legitimately seen as a challenge and not a foregone conclusion, they are almost certain to not capture a first round bye.
With so many confusing results and disappointing campaigns the road to the playoffs is open for a vast many teams. It’s completely reasonable to forecast 21 of 32 teams contending for 12 playoff spots. With the league wide open I predict the following teams to make the playoffs.
AFC East- New England: The fight of the Dolphins has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the year considering the lack of talent they appeared to have at the start of the year, but the Patriots are clearly better than any other team in this division. Due to the tightness of the standings, the Patriots have almost zero margin for error.
AFC North- Baltimore Ravens: The Steelers are plagued by injuries and the Bengals can’t seem to beat a quality team. The Ravens should cruise through to the playoffs.
AFC South- Houston Texans: The Texans are one of the best teams in the league and are assured to win a division where they seem to be the only team not rebuilding.
AFC West- San Diego Chargers: After starting the season in such contrast from their usual listless ways, the Chargers have delivered two phenomenally poor performances losing to the awful Saints thanks to poor officiating and losing to the Broncos after a record collapse.
The Chargers define themselves almost year in and out by disappointment but they are also just as likely to roll out long winning streaks. The Chargers’ capitulation to the Broncos will not hand the division to the Broncos yet but it isn’t the best sign for San Diego. The Chargers are the best team in this division and should win but their mental errors against the Broncos are a very poor indicator for the future of this team.
Wild Card: At the end of week 6 there are seven teams with 3-3 records. Applied to a full season it is reasonable to assume that two divisions (AFC East, West) can be won with a 9-7 record and wild cards can go to teams with records as low as 8-8. The AFC is in a down year and only has two teams with winning records (Baltimore, Houston). With this mediocrity in the conference a significant amount of teams have the potential to make the playoffs.
NFC East- New York Giants: The Eagles and Cowboys make too many mistakes, Washington aren’t ready yet and their defence has suffered too many key injuries. On Sunday the Giants looked as good as any team in the league and well on their way to return to the playoffs.
NFC North- Chicago Bears: Fortunately for the Bears, they only have to play the Packers once more. When not playing the Packers, the Bears look as good as any team in the NFL.
NFC South- Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons have a four game lead in division. This race is over.
NFC West: San Francisco: This division is far more competitive than anyone expected but the 49ers appear far superior to their opponents. The 49ers are yet to play in division so it will certainly be interesting to see how their opponents stack up against the reigning title holder.
Wild Card: Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers: Alongside the Seahawks and the Packers, Minnesota, Arizona, Philadelphia, Washington and St. Louis will be in the mix. The Seahawks at this mark have the best defence in the league thanks to San Francisco’s capitulation and have some excellent wins and Green Bay has the potential to post a long winning streak.
Unlike the AFC which will have mediocre teams winning the wild cards, the NFC’s wild card holders will be exceptionally dangerous.