This 2015 NFL season feels weird, right?
Only a couple of teams with gaudy records…and the rest lumped together in what the glass half-full person calls “parity” and the glass half-empty individual calls “mediocrity.”
NFL officiating is getting worse…and at the most crucial times also. “Experts” are called on by television networks to render verdicts on replays and then called out when on-the-field decisions go totally against their judgments.
Injuries to top players are sapping the joy out of this year as well. Fantasy football players used to have to worry about whether a handful of teams would play their stars in the last couple weeks of the regular season when they have their post-season berths locked in. This year fantasy football players don’t have that issue for two reasons…many stars are in street clothes and most NFL teams are going to be playing meaningful games only because their play on the field has been – at least until now – far from playoff-worthy.
And those TV spots starting to air during NFL games for the Christmas feel-good film “Concussion” with Will Smith? Isn’t it creepy watching commercials about the NFL hiding the effects of play from its players and then…back to the game we go? Side bar editorial – if you look at the NFL as an entertainment business and players are folks who are willing to take the inherent risks to entertain all of us we should have no guilt in watching them perform. The only guilt anyone should feel is the NFL for deliberately not sharing any data they had accumulated as to the likelihood and depth of permanent, quality-of-life issues. But anyone who has played football should have already known…and always should know…it is going to be life-changing to some extent. That being said, the NFL had a moral and ethical obligation to share any metrics they measured about how life-changing football can be for its employees. It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do.
Back to the goal at hand…let’s take a look at each division at this point in the campaign. So much uncertainty…and yet what is certain is each team has five games yet – roughly a third of a season – to battle through its flaws, honor its fallen teammates and collectively try to overcome failed officiating.
NFC East – Courtesy of a couple wins by AFC South members this division now finds itself as the most absurd of the eight. The Redskins and Giants “sit atop” the division at 5-6 with the Eagles a game back at 4-7 and the Cowboys just two games out of first place…at 3-8. Give Washington its due for protecting its house. The Redskins 5-1 mark at home is admirable…then again they remain (aside from San Francisco) the only team to not have any road wins in the NFL (0-5). If New York hadn’t played so miserably early on in Washington on Sunday they may have had first all to themselves but instead the Giants now find themselves with the most division losses of any of the four teams (3) as well as 5 conference losses. If you watched Philadelphia play its entire game in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day condolences and I hope your therapist can help you through your issues. That goes double for those who checked on Dallas shortly thereafter. Can you recall two more hideous, one-sided games on Thanksgiving? Without Tony Romo the Cowboys are done. With Chip Kelly the Eagles are done. It looks to be a two-hearse…I mean horse…race to the wire for Washington and New York. Only one team makes the playoffs from the NFC Least. I like New York to pull away by season’s end.
NFC South – Can Newton is always smiling and this season he has good reason to. The Carolina Panthers (11-0) look very serious about running the table and having the NFC title go through Charlotte. Kudos for a fantastic start and Newton is my MVP of the NFL to-date. They have a nice shot at finishing the regular season undefeated. Atlanta (6-5) started 5-0 but Matt Ryan continues to mystify…as does the Falcons’ free-falling defense. Four straight losses now. Tampa Bay (5-6) looks to me to be Atlanta’s equal right now. Let’s find out – Atlanta at Tampa Bay this coming Sunday. They disappointed in Indianapolis Sunday but they, like the Falcons, specialize in being inconsistent. New Orleans (4-7) definitively proved in Houston on Sunday it’s the players playing defense and not the coaching that has led to their giving up 339 points to-date. Only two other teams (San Diego, 307/Cleveland, 310) have given up over 300 points. I don’t see anyone but Carolina making the post-season from this division.
NFC North – The most interesting of the NFC divisions right now in my opinion. Minnesota (8-3) holds a one game lead over Green Bay (7-4). Adrian Peterson is…still…Adrian Peterson. The Vikings defense is very stingy. Minnesota hosts Seattle this week. Can’t wait. The Packers looked like they had finally gotten things together in Minnesota two weeks ago (the Vikings’ first loss at home) but then failed to show up on Thanksgiving For Brett Favre night against Chicago (5-6). Green Bay has now lost four of their last five. The Bears do have the most division losses (3) of any in the North (as well as 5 conference losses) but Jay Cutler is showing unusual poise…and if he gets all his weapons healthy they can score on anyone. They have won four of six on the road. Detroit (4-7) has won three straight and we know the most dangerous man is the one with nothing to lose. Matthew Stafford is playing that role right now and he has some options on offense also. If they can beat the Packers Thursday night…who knows what the Lions have in store the rest of the way? I see two teams making the post-season from this division…will Green Bay be one of them? I think so…but it will be interesting.
NFC West – Arizona (9-2) is the obvious class of the bunch and has opened up a three game lead on second-place Seattle (6-5) while on a five game win streak. But I see both of them making the post-season. No one wants to draw the Cardinals in the playoffs. As long as Carson Palmer stays upright both sides of the ball are stout. We knew the Seahawks would be in a post-Super Bowl fog for the early part of 2015 but they showed fight in their duel with visiting Pittsburgh Sunday and losing Marshawn Lynch for a few weeks will now force other players on offense (do you feel me Russell Wilson?) to raise their games. After visiting Minny this week…Seattle finishes with Baltimore, Cleveland and St. Louis before a finale at Arizona. Just sayin’. St. Louis (4-7) actually sports a 3-0 division record but Jeff Fisher’s Rams are on a visible downslide now having lost four in a row. Oh…and here comes Arizona for a visit on Sunday. San Francisco (3-8) was never going to be a factor this season anyway Colin Kaepernick or not…a tribute to their staff that the last two weeks in Seattle and at home against Arizona they have been respectable.
AFC East – New England (10-1) has the reputation of being able to “next main up” which they’ll need to do big-time in 2015 to win a Super Bowl…especially if Rob Gronkowski is in street clothes for any length of time. Besides…how many different offensive-line combinations can they keep running out there expecting good fortune? Fortunately…winning this division won’t be an issue. Good news. Next up for the Patriots is a home game against Philadelphia. (Philly fans – suicide line operators are standing by…) New York (6-5), Buffalo (5-6) and Miami (4-7) are all close record-wise but it is really hard to see the Dolphins (0-5 in the division with 6 conference losses) playing out anything but the string. The Jets and Bills appear to have some “want” and I think it is possible…possible…one makes the post-season. Buffalo hosts Houston this week. Let’s see what ya got Rex. Oh…and the last week of the season it’s Jets at Bills. That might mean something extra than the usual between these two franchises.
AFC South – Indianapolis (6-5) and Houston (6-5) are currently saving this division from slipping into NFC East-territory. 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck (you must mention Matt is 40…I think it’s a law by now) is undefeated when Andrew Luck has been unable to answer the bell and the argument should be made loudly if Andrew should take the field if deemed healthy enough to do so. I believe HC Chuck Pagano will be fired after this season no matter what but if he instantly puts Luck back in without pause there should be no pause in excusing Chuck right now. The Texans are getting it done without Arian Foster and with Brian Hoyer…and sometimes even T.J. Yates. J.J. Watt leads a pretty decent defense. Four straight wins cannot be ignored…including one in Cincinnati a couple Monday nights back. Jacksonville (4-7) had plenty of time to get ready to host a lowly San Diego squad Sunday and failed miserably. Tennessee (2-9) lost a heart-breaker at home Sunday against Oakland and still hasn’t gotten a “W” in Nashville. I think ultimately it comes down to Indy or Houston as this division’s lone post-season rep. I prefer Indianapolis right now.
AFC North – HC Marvin Lewis rallied the Bengals (9-2) from their two-game mini-losing streak and led Cincinnati to a blowout win over St. Louis on Sunday. (I’m giving Marvin credit because this site has been so negative about him for so long guilt is starting to set in with the Holidays now upon us…) They’re a solid team and now own a three-game lead over Pittsburgh (6-5). The Steelers keep finding more and more creative ways to give up points and also get Ben Roethlisberger hurt. I see a scenario where Pittsburgh gets to the post-season but only if the Steelers can stop giving up a zillion yards a game and also keep Ben unconcussed and otherwise functional. Their Sunday night home game against the Colts may be labeled a must-win even with this many left. Baltimore (4-7) and Cleveland (2-9) showed Monday night why they are where they are…even with providing us with about as wild a finish as you’ll ever see. Browns have now lost six straight…and “lose” even more each additional week Johnny Manziel remains on their roster.
AFC West – Denver (9-2) took down the previously undefeated Patriots in a snow globe Sunday night and Brock Osweiler of all people led the charge. Credit goes to the Broncos’ staff for gently setting Peyton Manning aside and moving forward with this best-case scenario for at least the short-term. The three-game lead over Kansas City (6-5) can be successfully managed down the stretch with Osweiler and I don’t think they’d automatically go back to Manning even if released for active duty. The Chiefs have won five in a row; some of them weren’t even close…and have a favorable schedule to finish out with. They also own a conference record of 5-2 which comes in handy considering the other teams they may have to tie-break with. Oakland (5-6) is mathematically there but mentally I’m not so sure. They had lost three straight before eeking out that last-second win at Tennessee Sunday. The Raiders and KC still have to play each other twice beginning Sunday in Oakland. I think the Chiefs will give this division a second post-season participant. San Diego (3-8) looked like they had packed it in after getting crushed at home by Kansas City but traveled cross country to Jacksonville Sunday and played well enough to get their first road win. (That may say more about the Jags though, huh?…) Still…there is no late-season charge foreseen in the Chargers’ future.
Right now I’ll go with these teams to participate in the post-season party (in no particular order)…
NFC – New York, Carolina, Minnesota, Green Bay, Arizona, Seattle
AFC – New England, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Denver, Kansas City