Will the Real Contenders Please Stand Up?
We are almost almost to the half-way point in the NFL season and I’m still waiting for the real contenders to reveal themselves. I could be wrong but I feel like the 1972 Dolphins popped the cork on the champagne a little early this year. The only team in the NFL to be playing at a consistently high level is the 6-1 Eagles. Aside from the Eagles, there isn’t another team that has distinguished itself from the pack. Parity is alive in today’s NFL now more than ever.
Entering Week 8 there are nine teams with just two losses. All of these teams have enough flaws to raise doubts as to their status as a contender. I split these teams into two categories: the perennial contenders and the challengers. The perennial contenders are the Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, and Chiefs. Over the past five years these teams have consistently been in the playoffs and won division crowns. The Patriots, Steelers, and Seahawks have all won Super Bowls with their current quarterbacks. Pundits often give these teams the benefit of the doubt because they “have been there, done that.”
The challengers are the Saints, Vikings, Rams, Bills, and Dolphins. These teams have generally been mediocre over the last five seasons and have had little to no playoff experience. Other than the Saints, all these team lack a true franchise quarterback (although Jared Goff may be quickly becoming one). These are the teams that many experts would expect to come back to earth a bit in the coming months.
For the sake of clarity, let’s look at each of teams and why or why not they will separate themselves in the coming months.
Why they are a contender: As much as I don’t like him, I admit that Tom Brady is the biggest reason they remain a contender. While his play may have dropped a smidge from last year, he is still arguably the best in the league and he remains the most clutch QB in NFL history. The offense is loaded with weapons and their coach is arguably the best in history.
Why they aren’t a contender: Defense. Tom Brady has never won a Super Bowl with out a top ten defense and this defense is far from being in the top ten. Through seven games the Patriots have surrendered more yards than any other defense in the league and is ranked 23rd in points given up. The likes of Josh McCown has shredded the secondary and if it weren’t for a myriad of missed field goals (Tampa Bay game) and a botched review (Jets game) the Pats D would be ranked even lower than it currently is. The Pats have only notched one win over a team with a winning record (Saints in week 2) and has already shown that it is far from invincible at home.
Why they are a contender: The Seahawks under Pete Carroll are perennially slow starters. The defense, which currently leads the league in scoring, seems to have come to life in recent weeks forcing five turnovers versus the Rams and then holding Giants to just 177 total yards of offense. Russell Wilson continues to make the best of a bad defensive line and the offense has shown it can come together when it needs to.
Why they aren’t a contender: The offense has made it through six games of the season without scoring a touchdown. While the offensive line has improved, it still rates in the bottom ten in the league. The lack of offensive consistency is troubling and feels a lot like last year’s team. Three of the teams four victories come against teams with a combined record of 3-18. They are a Cooper Kupp drop away from being .500. The defense is solid, but not good enough to tow that offense to the promised land.
Why they are a contender: Alex Smith is playing some of the best football of his career and Kareem Hunt is a breath of fresh air. The defense is competent. The Chiefs have big victories over both the Patriots and Eagles. If it weren’t for a short week on the road against a talented but desperate Raiders team, the Chiefs would be tied for the league’s best record.
Why they aren’t a contender: Eric Berry’s injury in the opening game of the season has severely hurt the Chiefs defense. Andy Reid and the Chiefs franchise have a reputation for being unable to win big games. In the last two weeks, the Chiefs have lost to two teams with their backs against the wall (Steelers and Raiders). If the Chiefs are going to go the distance they will need to prove they can put a team out of its misery. Finally, Kareem Hunt has been fantastic so far this season, but he could hit a wall when games are most important late in the season and the playoffs.
Why they are a contender: The Steelers defense is among the best in the league and combine that with Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown and you have recipe for success. Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, and James Harrison are a strong veteran core who have seen just about everything the league has to offer.
Why they aren’t a contender: Consistency. For two weeks Ben Roethlisberger looked as if he was washed up. He rebounded last week with an improved performance, but we don’t know which version of him will show up week to week. The defense has been able to feast on mediocre quarterbacks seven games into the season, but has yet to face a pro-bowl caliber quarterback. When the games matter, they won’t be playing against the likes of Sam Bradford.
Why they are a contender: After dropping their first two games of the season, the Saints have responded by winning four straight games. Drew Brees is putting together another Drew Brees type season and he is backed by middling defense. The defense provides just enough support to get Brees over the hump.
Why they aren’t a contender: The Saints style of play fits the early months of the season. If the Saints are forced to go on the road late in the season and in the playoffs they will need the defense to play better.
Why they are a contender: I personally believe that the Vikes have the leagues most talented defense. They have proved through seven games that they can win with just about anyone at quarterback and in the coming weeks they will like get either Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford back. A strong running game and strong defense will travel in December and January without Aaron Rodgers in their way they have clear path to the division.
Why they are not a contender: They don’t have a quarterback on their roster who has won a playoff game, worse yet, they don’t even know if they’ll have one by the end of the season. As much as I love their defense, it is not dominant to overcome the obstacles at quarterback.
Why they are a contender: Balance. The Rams are one of the few teams that have balance across the board. Sean McVay has created a balanced offense behind Todd Gurley and Jared Goff and has paired it with talented defense. This balance has led the Rams to have the league’s high point differential through seven weeks.
Why they are not a contender: Experience. When is the last time a first-year head coach and a second-year quarterback have gone to the big game? If has happened before it hasn’t been in recent memory.
Why they are a contender: Admittedly, I have yet to see the Bills play yet this season. The defense combined with a strong running game provide reasons to be high on a team that many expected to be in rebuilding mode.
Why they aren’t a contender: New England. Good luck catching Tom Brady. Odds are that the Bills are going to come back to earth either way. They have road games against the Chiefs and Pats in the second half of the season plus games against the Saints and a Raiders team looking to get back in the race for the AFC West.
Why they are a contender: Because somehow you’ve made it through six games with Jay Cutler and managed to only lose twice. I’m wasting ink writing any more here.
Why they aren’t a contender: Despite their record, the Dolphins have a point differential of -20. That is not going to get it done.