Thursday, October 05, 2006

Looking at the pretenders and contenders at the quarter mark...

Teams around the NFL have begun to stake a claim to what they are hoping will be their identity for the rest of the season; the personality that will show who they really are. Are they resilient? How do they answer when faced with a loss? with adversity?
Ultimately, it all comes back to the question, "is the team a contender, or a pretender?" There are two levels of that question are they a contender for the division, and are they a contender for the Super Bowl? Just because a team is a legitimate contender for the East, North, South, or West in the AFC or NFC, it doesn't make them a legit contender for the Super Bowl. And I'm addressing who I think has a legitimate shot at the big prize based on the first quarter of the season.
Here it is, by conference and division, listed as they currently stand with my preseason prediction in parenthesis and notation of contender or pretender along with a brief reason...

NFC East
1) Eagles (2) - Pretender. Too reliant on a fragile, undersized running back in Westbrook to have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. Also, I still believe they have an over-rated secondary that can be taken advantage of.
2) Cowboys (1) - Contender. Admittedly, I could be wrong about these two teams, but I feel the Cowboys have a better defense and bring a more balanced attack on offense.
3) Redskins (4) - Pretender. Gave up 30 points to Jacksonville - not exactly an offensive powerhouse. Their secondary has too many issues with a D line that's not getting to the QB.
4) Giants (3) - Pretender. Has shown exactly the issues I mention in my preseason predictions and is unlikely to climb out of the hole they've already dug for themselves.

NFC South
1) Saints (4) - Pretender. Who knew. Evidently some of the personnel and coaching changes have worked out better than I expected, but I see this as an overachieving bunch right now. They may make the playoffs, but they're unlikely to make a lot of noise there.
2) Falcons (3) - Pretender. I've said it before, I'll say it again - No team has ever won the big game with a scrambling QB ala Vick. When it comes to playoff football, teams need to have more than one dimension on offense. Even the Ravens were able to get the ball downfield on occassion when they won it all.
3) Panthers (1) - Pretender. With their history of slow starts, I don't think anyone in Carolina is panicking. However, like with the Falcons, the Steve Smith injury revealed the Carolina offense as a one weapon team. One weapon is easily taken away by a good defense.
4) Buccaneers (2) - Pretender. No running game. No passing game. No defense. No chance.

NFC North
1) Bears (1) - Contender. With a strong defense and an improved offense (more improved than I expected), Chicago should be considered a legitimate contender for the Lombardi at the end of the season.
2) Vikings (2) - Pretender. While better than last year's squad, still too many holes on offense to make any real headway into the second season.
3) Packers (4 - Horrible offensive line translates to bad things for Brett Favre and the running game, not to mention a defense that stays on the field getting tired. AJ Hawk is going to age five years from the workload by the end of the season.
4) Lions (3) - Pretender. Mike Martz continues to demonstrate that he will try to force square pegs into round holes in order to make his offense work. Detroit and Green Bay will both be in the running for the number one pick overall at the end of the season with the Titans and the Raiders.

NFC West
1) Seahawks (1) - Pretender. Deion Branch is not the answer. The defections along the O-line have hurt and now their running back is too. If Shawn Alexander is out for a significant period, this division could go to the Rams.
2) Rams (2) - Pretender. This team improved as soon as they got rid of Martz who never had time for defense, and was a poor game manager, and it shows. Still too many problems on defense (the Mike Martz hangover?) to make a run at the title.
3) Cardinals (3) - Pretender. With their offensive line, did anyone really believe that Edgerin James was going to be a difference maker?
4) 49ers (4) - Pretender. This team is improved, and it shows, but they are not significantly improved.

Now for the AFC -
AFC West -
1) Broncos (1) - Pretender. While they always seem to get the best of the Patriots, and went deep in the playoffs last year, I have a hard time buying into Jake Plummer delivering in the clutch.
2) Chargers (2) - Pretender. One word; Martyball.
3) Chiefs (3) - Pretender. The once dominant offensive line is gone and so are the chances at a title until that problem is addressed.
4) Raiders (4) - Pretender. Arguably the worst team in the league and has a legitimate shot at going 0-16 on the season.

AFC South
1) Colts (1) - Pretender. Until I see this team perform under real pressure (ie; a playoff game), I can't, in good conscience, dub them a contender.
2) Jaguars (2) - Pretender. Not too far away, but something is still missing on offense. Could be a contender next year.
3) Texans (4) - Pretender. Kubiak will get this mess turned around, just not this year.
4) Titans (3) - Pretender. I don't even know where to start, but I'm beginning to think that slotting them into the third spot in my preseason predictions was generous.

AFC North
1) Ravens (3) - Contender. Baltimore looks like it may have found the formula again that catapulted them to a Super Bowl win over the Giants. However, I believe there are a number of teams in the AFC that are better now than the best AFC teams during the Ravens' Super Bowl run and I still have some doubts about the offense.
2) Bengals (1) - Pretender. Super Bowl teams don't give up rushing yards the way the Bengals do.
3) Steelers (2) - Contender. There's not much that I've seen from this team outside of week one that makes me think they can contend, but I can't rule out the Super Bowl champions this early in the season, nor can I rule out a team that got there the way they did last season.
4) Browns (4) - Pretender. Romeo still has a lot of work before this group is ready to contend. I think it's likely that Willie McGinnest will be retiring before this group wins anything.

AFC East
1) Patriots (1) - Contender. After a first couple of weeks where Brady looked shaky, the offense is beginning to come together, and the defense is starting to look like it did during the Super Bowl runs. The offense could still go South, but that would be out of character for a Belichick coached team.
2) Jets (4) - Pretender. Eric Mangini has this team seriously overachieving, but with their schedule, they could feasibly make it to mid-season and go into their bye with a 5-3 record and might have a legitimate shot at 10-6 if things fall their way.
3) Bills (3) - Pretender. If the chips fall in their favor, they might eke out eight wins, but I think they're looking at 7-9 with the schedule they face during the remainder of the season.
4) Dolphins (2) - Pretender. I got somewhat caught up in the preseason hype and I was wrong. This is a team that will not make the playoffs. This is a team, with all the problems on offense, that will be drafting in the top ten next year.