Saturday, December 11, 2010
NFL Dreamers : Separating The Pretenders From The Contenders
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Tom Brady is having one of his very best seasons in 2010, which is not easy to do if you consider the quarterback has already won three titles in four tries since he was drafted in 2000.
The offense is a mixture of veterans and youngsters, while the defense is heavily slanted towards youth. Brady has stepped up his game and his role of leader, helping the Patriots sit on top of his division with the best record in the NFL.
While the obvious flaws of the team have been highlighted in the back seven of the defense, the kids have been improving each week. This was shown three weeks ago when they stopped future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning with the game on the line, and that point was accentuated by shutting down the Jets in their 45-3 destruction that allowed the team to take control of the AFC East.
What has made the season even better is how wide receiver Wes Welker came back from a knee injury to not miss a beat and excel as if he was never hurt. They unloaded Randy Moss after three games, a star wide receiver who went to the Pro Bowl in two of his three previous years with the team, but have not missed him. They got back Deion Branch, who left them in free agency after 2005, and he has 36 receptions and four scores in just eight games.
Then there is Danny Woodhead, a guy who couldn't consistently find his way onto the field for the Jets since 2008, and all the diminutive running back has done for New England is give them 689 all-purpose yards, good for second best on the team, in the 10 games he has played for them. They also have a rookie tight end tandem combine for 65 receptions for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns so far.
As long as Brady stays healthy, this team is a threat to win it all. The defensive secondary could let them down from their inexperience, but head coach Bill Belichick will put them in the right position to make plays just as he once had wide receiver Troy Brown, a Patriots legend, excel as a defensive back one season when the secondary was bereft by injury and needed him to fill a hole.
Facing the Bears and Packers the next two weeks, a pair battling it out for the NFC North crown, New England suffers no let down from oppositional intensity. If they can match that and prevail, the last two games against Buffalo and Miami can be spent to fine tune areas for the playoffs. If this plays out in that scenario, they might be the team to beat in the AFC.
Since Hall of Famer "Mean" Joe Greene and Pittsburgh legend L.C. Greenwood were drafted in 1969 by the Steelers, defense has been king in the Steel City. The 2010 team continues on that tradition by destroying opponents weekly so well, NFL know-nothing commissioner Roger Goodell spends his time fining Steelers for tackling opponents too hard.
Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback, is known as "Coach Dad" in the locker room. The innovator of the zone blitz, LeBeau has a defense that knows how to play their positions correctly with technical excellence while rarely getting fooled. This unit has carried the team all year, which now has them sitting on top of the AFC North, and they will need to do so the rest of the way in 2010.
Pittsburgh has few weaknesses, though waiting for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shake off the rust coming back from suspension tested the defenses mettle. Halfback Rashard Mendenhall has carried the offense all year, breaking the 1,000-yard rushing barrier last week, in the face of having three different starting quarterbacks hand him the ball against defenses keying on him.
If Pittsburgh has one weakness, it is at place kicker. Jeff Reed was cut a few weeks ago and replaced by erratic journeyman Shaun Suisham. Though he has yet to miss in his three games for Pittsburgh, he has missed 25 in 226 attempts over his career and is not known for having good leg strength past 40 yards. 14 of his misses have come from attempts of 40 yards and beyond. If he is called upon to hit one from a long distance with the game on the line, Pittsburgh will probably end up regretting cutting Reed.
The remaining schedule only has the Jets and improved Cleveland Browns as games that could present problems. Roethlisberger has been improving weekly, Pittsburgh could end up winning each game and have tremendous momentum heading into the playoffs. They are a team, because of the defense, no one will want to face.
Sitting on top of the AFC South with the best record in football, Atlanta is riding a six game winning streak and showing the ability to close games as well as coming from behind. They were tested by Tampa Bay in their latest victory, but put up the last two touchdowns of the game to prevail 28-24.
Atlanta runs an offense of balance, passing just 71 times more than rushing. They do not turnover the ball often, yet their defense has swiped 16 passes so far while defensive end John Abraham has piled up nine of the teams 20 sacks.
Cornerback Brent Grimes and strong safety William Moore are quietly having Pro Bowl caliber years. Both have four interceptions while Grimes 17 defended passes leads the NFL and his 62 tackles is second on the team. Moore's five defended passes is second on the team and he is fourth in tackles.
Atlanta relies on wide receiver Roddy White to get open. He has 91 of the teams 280 receptions and seven of their 21 touchdown catches. Though he has yet to be slowed down, a team shutting him out in the playoffs could be lethal to their Super Bowl dreams. While tight end Tony Gonzales has 54 receptions, the future Hall of Famer is obviously slowing down and averages nine yards per catch. Atlanta has no true deep threat to stretch the seam, and their longest pass play went 46 yards so far.
Their longest play from scrimmage in 2010 went 55 yards on a run by halfback Michael Turner. Turner carries the load, but backup Jason Snelling has provided good hands and respectable numbers off the bench. If White were to be throttled in the postseason, this duo would have to carry the load because defenses would come closer to the line of scrimmage.
As they continue to hold off the defending champion Saints for first place, Atlanta will face them in three weeks and have the luxury of facing the lowly Carolina Panthers twice. They are in control of their destiny, but it will be interesting to see how young quarterback Matt Ryan handles having White taken away if it happens. Considering it hasn't occurred much since the pair met, this could be a team that represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.
In one of the more interesting season starts in recent Eagles history, Philadelphia traded their all-time passing leader Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington and tabbed Kevin Kolb the starter after he spent three years learning from McNabb.
Michael Vick was the first person drafted in 2001. After three Pro Bowls in six years, Vick went to jail after 2006 and did not return to the NFL until 2009 when Philadelphia signed him as a no-risk project. He didn't play much because McNabb had a Pro Bowl season, but he continued to work hard with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, former NFL quarterback and current offensive quality control coach Doug Pederson, quarterbacks coach James Urban, and head coach Andy Reid, a former quarterbacks coach himself.
After Kolb suffered a concussion in the first game of the year, that hard work was showcased. Once a running quarterback who never learned the nuances of his position, choosing to rely on his excellent athleticism, Vick has become well rounded and now shows off his rocket arm along with his legs. Though Kolb did well when Vick missed a few games with broken ribs, Reid inserted Vick back into the starting lineup when he healed.
Philadelphia scores the ball often. They are not only second in the NFL in scoring, but they do not turn the ball over. Their plus 15 Giveaway/ Takeaway ratio, the same stat they earned last season, leads the NFL. With a balanced attack on offense, they can beat you in several ways.
If they have a weakness, it is one that Andy Reid has faced most of his tenure in Philadelphia. LeSean McCoy is their primary runner, and he has excelled with a 4.9 yards per carry average this year. At 215 lbs, he is not the type to run over many defenders. His primary reserve is the smallish James Harrison, who they acquired for Mike Bell. Bell excels at short yardage situations, something no other runner on the Eagles roster does.
Like in the Brian Westbrook Era, Philadelphia is full of small running backs who do not pound the ball consistently in short yardage. This is an issue that cost the team in the past. Compounded by inconsistent offensive line play that has seen even the nimble Vick get slammed often, the running game on the short yardage play could make the difference between a champion or a spectator in the playoffs.
The other issue the Eagles need to shore up is run defense. Though Sean McDermott has done a good job replacing the late Jim Johnson at defensive coordinator, the defense has given up its share of yards and is ranked 12th in the league. Though few teams can match the Eagles in offensive output, there are skeptics if Vick will continue his progression behind an offensive line that has already given up 33 sacks and is questionable in short yardage situations.
The defensive line, considered small by NFL standards, gets after the quarterback but can be run over as well. They face an improving Dallas team twice in the last month of the season, along with Minnesota and a Giants team that is in a first place battle with them right now.
These games not only can dictate momentum in their playoffs, but it has a good chance of showing just how far this team is headed by how they handle things.
Baltimore's general manager Ozzie Newsome is a Hall of Famer who is amongst the best at what he does. Knowing he had to improve the teams receiving corps, the Ravens brought in Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, and Donte Stallworth.
While Boldin leads the team with 56 receptions, Houshmanzadeh is backing up the ageless Derrick Mason, and Stallworth has appeared in just the last three games after recovering from an injury. Baltimore has enjoyed a relatively healthy 2010 season. They lost starting left tackle Jared Gaither and starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth to injuries, but have not missed a beat thanks to Michael Oher and Josh Wilson.
While the offense has been pretty average this season, the defense has done well. They rank fourth in points allowed, sixth in rushing yards allowed, and seventh in overall yards allowed. However, Baltimore has just 22 sacks and 11 interceptions this year, while quarterback Joe Flacco has been sacked 27 times. Flacco has tossed just eight interceptions, but he has fumbled seven times.
The Ravens have a veteran defense led by graybeards like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Kelly Gregg. Haloti Ngata is one of the very best defensive linemen in the NFL, and defensive end Terrell Suggs has nine sacks. Reed has played just six games this year, but his four interceptions lead the team.
When Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh last week, it knocked then down to second place behind the Steelers. In their last four games of 2010, the Saints present their biggest obstacle. The Texans, Browns, and Bengals will try to ruin Baltimore's playoff aspirations as well, but these are games most expect the Ravens to win.
This is a team no one wants to face in the playoffs because they have a veteran defense that knows how to win the big game. The offense has the talent to be explosive, so there is the worry they will finally find their stride in the playoffs. Even if they play all year like they have done so far, Baltimore is no easy out.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The mettle of the Giants have been tested all season. After opening the season with a win, they got hammered two straight weeks to the point a former player told the media head coach Tom Coughlin had lost respect in the locker room. The team responded five straight wins before losing two in a row.
Now it appears they are back on track with two straight wins, mostly because they inserted halfback Brandon Jacobs into the lineup. Though Ahmad Bradshaw was very effective, gaining over 1,000 yards and catching 33 balls, he did fumble six times and catch the ire of Coughlin. Jacobs has 577 yards at a 5.8 yards per carry average.
The passing game entered the year with a young and deep wide receivers corps. Injuries hit this unit hard, and now the team has spent the past two games starting a man, Derek Hagan, who was cut by them before the beginning of the season. Hagan did play with the Jints since December, 2008 mostly on special teams, so quarterback Eli Manning was familiar with him and the pair have hooked up 12 times and a score in the two games.
Two of Manning's favorite receivers, Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks, appear to be a couple of weeks away from returning to help bolster the fourth rated offense in the NFL in yards gained and fifth rated in scoring. But the bread and butter of the offensive attack is the rushing attack behind one of the best offensive lines in football.
While the 12 sacks the Giants have allowed are the fewest in the NFL, the defense has a NFC-leading 35 sacks. The defense has just 13 interceptions and gives up over 20 points per game, yet they rank second in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed and are ranked seventh in rushing yards allowed.
Losing defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka for the season because of injury after three games hurt, because he already had four sacks. The caused New York to play first round draft pick Jason Pierre-Paul sooner than planned, and the rookie has responded with four sacks himself. Justin Tuck and Omi Umenyiora have combined for 17.5 sacks as well.
The secondary of the Jints has been a point of interest, yet three of their safeties are amongst the top six tacklers on the team and cornerback Terrell Thomas leads the Giants in both tackles and interceptions. His 17 defended passes is tied with two others as the most in the NFL.
The last four games the Giants have will be a test this mostly veteran team has encountered before. After facing the Vikings this weekend, they host the Eagles in what could a battle for sole possession of first place in the NFC East. They then battle a Packers team who is trying to win their own division. After that, they face an erratic Redskins team, but history in the NFC East shows that no games between division rivals should ever be taken lightly.
The Giants are a team built for the playoffs. They can pound you with the run game while shutting the opposing offense down. The passing game can be explosive, but it is a solace to Manning to know he has that running game and defense to carry him.
This is the same formula the G-Men used to win Super Bowl XLII in 2007. Though Manning got the headlines, it was really the trench play that won it all. History could certainly repeat itself again.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Defending a championship is hard, and the Saints have done a wonderful job so far. Despite innumerate injuries that have dinged up most of the roster, especially at the running back position, losing two important defensive players and a key special teams player for the season, the team has stuck together and reeled off five straight victories so far.
Undrafted rookie Chris Ivory has done a fantastic job in the place of a injured halfbacks duo Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush that has missed a 17 combined games so far. Ivory has 623 yards on the ground at an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average. This effectiveness has opened things up for quarterback Drew Brees.
While Brees isn't having the other worldly season he did in 2009, he still is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Seven players have 23 or more receptions so far, with wide receiver Marques Colston leading the way with 71. Three receivers have five or more touchdown catches.
Last year, the defense had 35 sacks, 26 interceptions, and 25 fumble recoveries. Though they have recovered 17 fumbles so far this season, they only have 23 sacks and seven interceptions. Yet they give up almost three points less per game than last year, which ranks fifth best, and they rank eighth in points scored.
Despite less interceptions, the pass defense is the third best in the NFL in yards allowed, and the overall defense is ranked ninth. Players are getting healthy again for the Saints, and the timing couldn't work better for them. In the last month of their 2010 season, they face four teams trying to get in the playoffs themselves.
After facing the Rams this weekend, they face off against the tough Ravens, red hot Falcons, and finish with the pesky Buccaneers. Though they are a game behind Atlanta, it would be a real feat to win all four games. They are still very much in contention for a Wild Card slot, actually holding home field advantage so far.
If they get back into the playoffs, New Orleans presents big problems because of their good ground game and explosive aerial attack. They are a defending champion no one wants to face in a game that ends a season for the loser.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers defense gives up the least points in the NFL while scoring the seventh most. They have outscored their opponents an NFL best 182 points and they are sixth in the Giveaway/ Takeaway category.
When you look at the Green Bay offense, the focus goes primarily to quarterback Aaron Rogers and his wide receivers. Rogers is one of the more exciting young quarterbacks in the league and has made the organization look like a genius by parting ways with clubhouse cancer Brett Favre. He mostly targets Greg Jennings when passing, but Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson all have put up very healthy numbers themselves.
Halfback Brandon Jackson was thrust into the starters job after Ryan Grant went down for the season in the first game. Grant, who has two 1,200 rushing yard seasons in his previous three years, has been sorely missed. Jackson has caught a career best 36 passes so far, but he is not as good on the ground as Grant. He has churned out just 527 yards on the ground so far at an average of under four yards a carry.
He is also suspect in short yardage situations, propelling Green Bay to try fullback John Kuhn and undrafted free agent rookie Dimitri Nance unsuccessfully at that role. The inconsistent ground game is sure to cause a big problem in the playoffs.
Defense has made the headlines in Packerland mostly this year. Second year linebacker Clay Matthews III gets most of it due to 11.5 sacks, the most in the NFC, and a touchdown off his lone interception, but defensive end Cullen Jenkins has contributed seven sacks, nose tackle B.J. Raji is showing exactly why he was a first round draft pick last year, and Charles Woodson is rivaling a 2009 season that saw him named NFC Defensive Player of the Year.
Not only does he lead the team in tackles, but Woodson is one tackle away already from matching last years total. What makes the defensive units achievements even more impressive is the fact they battled through several injuries that have cost them eight players they planned to rely on for the year.
Factor in the season long suspension of defensive end Johnny Jolly and the loss of three offensive starters for the year because of injury, it is amazing that the Packers are just a game behind the Bears in the NFC North and in Wild Card contention. It may be the best coaching job defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done so far in his illustrious career.
Ted Thompson is the general manager of the team. His drafts since being hired in 2005 have built a deep team, which has been on display this year. If there is one criticism of the man, who learned from Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, it is that he rolled the dice on Jackson and didn't get anyone to add to the running attack after Grant went down. Marshawn Lynch was available, but he watched Seattle grab him for just a a fourth-round and a conditional pick, a low price for a fourth year player with a Pro Bowl and two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under his belt.
Green Bay still has to face a pesky Detroit team, the Patriots, and Giants before facing Chicago in a season finale that could decide the winner of their division. If Rodgers keeps doing what he has all year, they have a very good shot at winning the division. However, it is hard to see a team go all the way with a poor ground game, no matter how stout the defense is.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets went on a television show during training camp with a head coach loudly announcing his team was Super Bowl ready just a few months after they snuck into the playoffs and reached the AFC Championship Game.
Since then, the results have been mixed. They were shut down in their first game, then rattled off five straight wins before being shut out at home. They won the next four games, two in overtime, by having to come from behind before being trounced in front of America in a must-win game that decided who would be on top of the AFC East.
Though the team has been relatively healthy all year, they did lose starting nose tackle Kris Jenkins in the first game. Jenkins, one of the most important players in their 3-4 scheme, has played just seven games the past two years after a Pro Bowl 2008 season. New York also recently lost safety Jim Leonhard for the season, the second leading tackler on the team.
The defense has 27 sacks and only has seven interceptions. It is the second lowest amount in the NFL, and 10 less than they had in 2009. The team is also giving up almost five more points per game than they did last year while scoring at about the same rate.
The offensive line, one of the better units in the AFC, has been even better than last year. They have given up just 20 sacks, 10 less than last year, and they have led their halfback tandem to over 1,400 yards on the ground so far.
While the passing attack is still a work in progress, second year quarterback Mark Sanchez is turning the ball over less than he did in 2009. They also have five players with 31 or more receptions.
While the Jets aren't forcing turnovers like they did in their surprising 2009 season, they have tempered this by holding onto the ball better. They are still stout at stopping the run, but they have already given up over 100 more passing yards than they did all of last year. They ranked first in six different defensive categories last year, none this season.
For all of the bravado the head coach and media have espoused on the team, their play on the field so far has not matched it. They face the Steelers and Bears in their last four games, sandwiched by the Dolphins and improved Buffalo Bills. New York obviously needs to run the table to maintain their dream of winning the division, while hoping the Patriots stumble badly.
Even if New England maintains their one game lead, the Jets want to make the playoffs. They showed last year they could win then, but it is becoming more clear this team isn't the same as the 2009 squad that went 9-7. Whether they are better will be shown in the last month and hopefully beyond.
Much like most of the Lovie Smith Era, 2010 has been a wild roller coaster ride for Chicago. The season started by winning a game they shouldn't have, thanks to a bad call by an official. Then they lost three of four games, causing the faithful Bears fans to boo in disgust when Washington beat them 17-14.
The defense has taken over since that defeat, and Chicago is now riding a five game winning streak as they get ready to host the Patriots in their most important game of the season so far. The Bears sit on top of their division with a one game lead and they will have to face the Vikings and Jets before they square off against the second place Packers.
Part of the resurgence has to be attributed to quarterback Jay Cutler, who was vital in their 31-26 shootout victory over Philadelphia two weeks ago. It was the most points the team put up in a game in 2010 as Cutler tossed four touchdown passes. Halfback Matt Forte is the main offensive weapon, and he is one of five Bears with 30 receptions or more.
Though he has 17 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions this year, the past five games have seen Cutler toss 10 scores against three interceptions. Yet the offense is ranked 29th in yards gained, so the defense carries the load. They are ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed and excel on stopping the run, where they rank second.
While middle linebacker Brian Urlacher gets most of the press, the offseason signing of defensive end Julius Peppers has been huge. Not only does he have seven sacks and an interception, as well as being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month in November, but Peppers presence has helped defensive end Israel Idonije get seven sacks as well.
While the best route to beating the Bears is through the air, that task is difficult with a pair of 6'7" defensive ends crashing the edges. Another chance of beating Chicago is providing heat on Cutler. The offensive line has generally been a mess all season, giving up an NFL-leading 45 sacks.
If Forte is shut down, causing Chicago to pass, sacking Cutler often might cause turnovers. The Bears only allow 16 points per game, so opponents must shut down their inconsistent offense for a chance to win. Chicago is heading into the most difficult month of their 2010 season by facing three teams battling for the playoffs, including their most hated rival on the last Sunday of the regular season. When the smoke clears, a more definitive picture of who the Bears are will be more apparent.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs 2010 season can be better termed consistent than surprising. While few saw much success coming for them this season, the Chiefs are ranked ninth in points scored and points allowed.
Not only do they have the top-rated rushing attack, they have been near or at the top all season in that category. The passing game is ranked just 25th, but quarterback Matt Cassell has tossed only four interceptions all season. They are plus seven in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department, which is ranked seventh in the NFL.
The defense is prone to giving up yards, especially in the air where they are ranked 21st, but they stiffen in the red zone. Former defensive end Tama Hali is in his second season at outside linebacker and leads the team with 10 sacks. Linebacker Derrick Johnson was drafted by the Chiefs in the first round of the 2005 draft and is having perhaps his best season. He is just four tackles away from matching his career high total already, and his career best 11 defended passes is the most by any NFL linebacker and is just six behind the leader.
Cornerback Brandon Carr leads the NFL with 17 defended passes, and fellow cornerback Brandon Flowers has 13 himself, which in ranked as the ninth most in the NFL. One of the men Flowers is tied with in leading the team in interceptions is safety Eric Berry. Berry is a rookie who is second on the team in tackles.
Not only does defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel deserve a pat on the back, but Hall of Famer and Chiefs legend Emmitt Thomas deserves a mountain of praise for the job he has done as the defensive backs coach.
While halfback Jamaal Charles already has 1,137 yards rushing and fellow halfback Thomas Jones has 765 more, the Chiefs offensive line deserves extra praise. They have given up just 17 sacks, which is tied with Atlanta as the third least allowed in the NFL.
The reacquisition of guard Ryan Lilja was key. Lilja, who was born in Kansas City and went to college at Kansas State, was signed as an undrafted rookie by the Chiefs in 2004 but was cut a few week later and was quickly picked up by Indianapolis. After becoming a starter in 59 of the 66 games he appeared in and earning a Super Bowl ring, the Colts released him two years after having signed him to a $20 million extension. Going back to Kansas City, he has teamed with four-time Pro Bowler Brian Waters to give the Chiefs maybe the best guard tandem in the AFC.
Although the Chiefs hold a commanding lead in the AFC West with eight wins, twice as many victories as they had in 2009, they must finish strong to complete this surprise regular season. Three of their final four games are against the Chargers, Rams, and Raiders, teams that are battling for a playoff berth themselves.
While Oakland struggles trying to stop the run, they did beat the Chiefs in overtime five weeks ago. Kansas City has not been to the playoffs since 2006, and has made it three times since 1997. They haven't won their division since 2003, so their fans are hopeful this squad can complete the task after having seen them win just 10 times over the previous three seasons.
It seems almost every NFL season has a team unexpectedly reach the playoffs, and this might be the Chiefs turn.
SAINT LOUIS RAMS
When the Rams used the first pick of the 2010 draft on quarterback Sam Bradford, they figured it would take a few years for him to mature. Although he has excellent veterans in center Jason Brown and guards Jacob Bell and Adam Goldberg, they came into the season with very young tackles.
Right tackle Jason Smith was the second overall pick of the 2009 draft and left tackle Rodger Saffold was a second round pick this year. The offensive line has progressed nicely as the season has gone along. Though they have given up 24 sacks, halfback Steven Jackson is just 15 yards away from his sixth consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season.
Although Bradford has had typical rookie struggles, he has done a good job minimizing his mistakes and has shown a propensity of spreading the ball out. Six players have 23 or more receptions, with a team leading 65 by Danny Amendola. Amendola, in his second year with the club, went undrafted in 2008 and led the NFL in kickoff returns and kickoff return yards last year. He is not a deep threat, but he catches practically every pass thrown in his direction.
What makes Bradford's season even more impressive is the fact the team has lost three wide receivers and two tight ends to injury this year. Two, Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery, were expected to be the starters. Despite all of this, Bradford has thrown just 10 interceptions so far.
While the Rams rank 20th in both rushing and passing yards, as well as 25th in points scored, the defense seems to be at its best when the opponents near the end zone. While they rank 14th in yards allowed, they also rank ninth in points allowed.
They have 35 sacks, which is the most in the NFC and one behind the Raiders and Steelers for the most in the entire league. This has helped, because they have just 10 interceptions. The interior of the Rams defense is their strength. Defensive tackles Chris Long and Fred Robbins have combined for 11.5 sacks while middle linebacker James Laurinaitis leads the team with 79 tackles and has chipped in three sacks.
Saint Louis is a team that has won six games the previous three years before winning six this year. Second year head coach Steve Spagnuolo took the job knowing he had to rebuild, and it appears they are on their way. Playing in the NFC West helps their cause, as does a weaker schedule due to a 1-15 2009 season, but the Rams have defeated the Chargers and lost to the Buccaneers and Raiders by a total of three points.
It is fun watching a young team grow up before your eyes, and that is what Rams fans are enjoying this season. The team will get their first true test this year in the final month, as they face the Saints, Chiefs, and Seahawks. All three teams are trying to get in the playoffs as well. Even if the Rams fade in the stretch, it has been a season no one can say they expected from Saint Louis before it began.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
It is strange to see Brad Childress and Josh McDaniels fired, but Norv Turner still employed as a head coach in the NFL. When will the San Diego front office get tired of the slow starts and desperation finishes? It almost seems underachieving is accepted, because Turner continues to wallow in this mire his entire career as a head coach.
It is as if only a Turner-coached squad could be second in the NFL in yards gained and passing yards, third in passing touchdowns, first downs earned and allowed, first in yards allowed, passing yards allowed, net yards gained per pass attempt and net yards allowed per pass attempt, as well as fourth in touchdown passes allowed, would be sitting with a mediocre 6-6 record at this juncture.
The season started out ugly, as the owners refused to pay left tackle Marcus McNeil and wide receiver Vince Jackson the moneys they two thought they were worth. Both sat out at the start of the season. McNeil returned the sixth game after getting the contract he desired. Jackson did not, so he sat out until the 12th week and promptly got injured before catching a pass. If both had been brought into the fold at the beginning, perhaps the Bolts would not have stumbled out of the gates. Yet the team had before with both playing.
Despite losing his favorite wide receiver and best blocker, quarterback Philip Rivers has put together a performance that will garner him MVP votes. The entire receiving corps has been in flux most of season because of nagging injuries, but Rivers has hardly missed a beat and made the replacements productive. He has done this in the face of a running game that has been dealing with injuries as well.
Rookie Ryan Matthews, a first round draft pick, has missed four games because of injuries and has been dinged up virtually the whole season. His backup, the diminutive Darren Sproles, is second on the team in receptions. Fullback Mike Tolbert has been carrying the load on the ground and has done a better job than expected with 625 yards and nine scores.
Antonio Gates is the Chargers Pro Bowl tight end who has been running around gingerly much of the season with the same foot problems that have dogged him over the last couple of years. He still leads the team with 50 receptions and 10 scores in spite of being in pain virtually every moment he plays.
The defense said goodbye to linebacker Shawn Merriman this year, but did not miss him after cutting Merriman before the fourth week started. Shaun Phillips has more than replaced him by getting 10, tied for the third most in the NFL, of the teams 35 sacks, which is the second most in the league. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett is having the best season of his career, already getting a career high marks with 74 tackles, five sacks, and two interceptions. One swipe was returned for a score.
Despite losing two long snappers to the injured reserve, including Pro Bowler David Binns, who has played the most games in Chargers history, the special teams has still done well. Punter Mike Scifries is averaging a whopping 47.9 yards per punt, and placekicker Nick Kaeding has missed just four attempts.
There is no doubt the Chargers have enough talented players to lead the team to the Super Bowl, but their head coach seems to hinder them at every turn. They seemed to be on the comeback trail in December yet again until the Raiders beat them up last Sunday.
Despite the slow start, they are just two games away from being in first place. After squaring off against division leader Kansas City this weekend, the Bolts finish the season against the 49ers, Bengals, and Broncos. All three of those teams are struggling and their 2010 seasons were done weeks ago.
San Diego's only hope is to win all of their games and hope the Chiefs and Raiders stumble. Even if this happens, one has to question if it will be enough to save Norv Turner's job.
In a season that has run hot and cold for Oakland, they started out 2-4 and are now on a 4-2 run. Part of the erraticism is because of their line of scrimmage play on both sides of the ball and how head coach Tom Cable keeps juggling starting quarterbacks.
This helped slow down halfback Darren McFadden, who gained 16 yards in two recent losses after running for 757 in seven other appearances. Now that it appears Oakland has settled on Jason Campbell due to a season ending injury to Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback, McFadden gained 97 yards, along with 95 more by Michael Bush, as the Raiders trounced the Chargers in San Diego last Sunday to crawl into a second way tie between them.
Oakland's offensive line has given up 34 sacks, but the defense has countered with an NFL best 36 of their own. They have six players with at least four sacks, and leading tackler Tyvon Branch has three of his own. The starting safeties of Oakland, Branch and Michael Huff, lead the team in tackles with 79 and 70 respectively. While the secondary has just seven interceptions, tied with the Jets and Saints as the second least in the league, the pass defense is ranked ninth in the NFL in yards allowed.
Oakland has struggled to pass the ball this year, and it isn't only the fault of the offensive line. Campbell, who was acquired in a trade before the start of the season, is learning his seventh offensive system in eight years while working with a group of young wide receivers learning the pro game themselves. While the team has missed Chaz Schilens all year, he appeared in his first game of the season last week and should help in the final games.
Rookie Jacoby Ford has been a big help in the passing game and special teams, but only three Raiders have 30 or more receptions. Three of their last four games come against teams that struggle to stop the run, so McFadden and Bush will be called upon to lead the team to the playoffs.
If things work out, their final game will be in Kansas City against the division leading Chiefs in what could be another historic chapter of the many battles between organizations that have done that before on several occasions. With the way the Raiders seem to now be jelling, Oakland could be dangerous to face if they reach the playoffs. Especially if the defense plays as well as they did last Sunday.
While leading the AFC South, Jacksonville had jumped on the back of Pro Bowl halfback Maurice Jones-Drew. He already has 1,453 yards from scrimmage, including 1,177 yards on the ground. With the 29th ranked passing attack, their second ranked run game has been almost the entire story to their surprising success.
Defense has not done well for the Jags in 2010. Their defense is near the bottom in points allowed, passing yards allowed and overall yards allowed. They have just 21 sacks and 11 interceptions and their leading tackler, linebacker Darryl Smith, has a paltry total of 66. They are second to last in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department and have been outscored 43 points by opponents, which is 24th in the league.
While quarterback David Garrard has been inconsistent this year, wide receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Mercedes Lewis have been playing at a Pro Bowl level. This has helped Drew and the team pull off quality victories over the Colts, Cowboys, and Texans. Wins that probably have bought head coach Jack Del Rio another season after coming into 2010 with rumors he was on the hot seat.
The last four games of the year are winnable, but two will be against teams desperately fighting to get into the playoffs in Oakland and Indianapolis. If Drew can keep averaging 4.5 yards per carry like he has all year, the Jaguars could end up with their first division crown since 1999 and their first playoffs appearance since 2007.
It is almost surreal to be discussing the Seahawks and the 2010 playoffs in the same sentence. This was a team that was beginning the long journey of rebuilding under first year head coach Pete Carroll. While playing the AFC West is a huge reason as to why they could be playoff bound, Seattle has defeated Chicago and San Diego.
How they win is part of the fun to the mystery that is the Seahawks. They rank 24th in scoring and 21st in points allowed. Seattle has the 30th ranked defense in yards allowed, and rank 28th in yards gained. Part of their offensive woes is an inability to rush the football, where they rank 30th.
Though the offensive line lost depth with Ray Willis, Ben Hamilton, and the versatile Max Unger for the year because of injuries, the mostly veteran unit has underachieved. The defense lost veteran linebacker Leroy Hill for the year because of injury, yet his replacement, David Hawthorne, leads the team in tackles.
Pass rush specialist Chris Clemons has 8.5 sacks, but the secondary has played poorly this year with the exception of rookie free safety Earl Thomas, who has five of the teams 10 interceptions and is third in tackles on the team. No other Seahawk has more than one interception. Seattle coughs up the ball more than they create turnovers, but they create problems on the special teams unit.
Leon Washington has returned two kickoffs for scores and averages over 20 yards on 10 punt returns. Rookie Golden Tate averages over 11 yards on 15 punt returns. Placekicker Olindo Mare has been solid, missing just four kicks all year. Punter Jon Ryan averages over 43 yards per attempt.
Though excellent special teams play can win games, it is not a long lasting formula typically. Seattle does have a veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, but he has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes and has been sacked 27 times so far. He has been able to throw three passes for over 60 yards so far.
His favorite receiver is Mike Williams, a reclamation project whose 52 receptions this year exceeds his career total of 37 over three previous seasons. Williams, a former first round draft pick in 2005, has been out of football since 2007 and is a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Seattle has two difficult games against the Falcons and Buccaneer after they face division rival San Francisco this weekend. If they get through that, the season finale will be against the Rams in what could be a battle for the NFC West crown. Even if they fall short, Seahawks fans have to be pleased with the pleasant surprise this squad gave them over the 2010 season.
The face of this franchise is Peyton Manning, and his recent struggles are a part of the reason Indianapolis has lost four of their last five games. After starting off on a sizzling pace that exceeded any other of the future Hall of Famers previous seasons, Manning has tossed 13 of his 15 interceptions in those four losses.
A big reason for that is injuries. Losing Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark, maybe his favorite target, for the year after six games hurt, but there are several players on the roster dinged up unable to play at this time without need of being placed on injured reserve.
The biggest loss might be halfback Joseph Addai, who has played in only six games so far. His absence has left the Colts one-dimensional because they have no running game at all now. Donald Brown, a first round pick last year, has been an absolute bust so far and has given the Colts very little. Addai still leads the team in rushing by more than 100 yards despite missing half of the teams season so far.
Defense has also been bitten heavily by the injury bug. Six players, five being defensive backs, are on injured reserve. Bob Sanders, an oft-injured safety who was the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year, has yet to play this year because of torn biceps.
Despite all of the losses to their secondary, the Colts rank fourth in the NFL in pass defense. A part of that reason is because teams choose to ram the ball down the throats of their 29th ranked run defense. Indianapolis has a porous run defense, but they have two undersized defensive ends in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney who provide speed off the edge. The pair has accounted for 16.5 of the teams 24 sacks.
Since the team has just nine interceptions and 10 forced fumbles so far, this pairs effectiveness is paramount to the defenses successes. If they are throttled, then Manning is put in a situation where he needs to be near perfect and outscore the opponent.
The last month of the season is very important to the Colts. They face the struggling Titans twice and the division leading Jaguars once, as well as an Oakland team still fighting to win the AFC West. Indianapolis has picked a good time to have a down season, because the entire AFC South is also struggling this year.
At 6-6, the Colts are in second place and just one game behind Jacksonville. While the Colts could make their way into the playoffs for the ninth straight year, it is hard to see them go far in the playoffs with their defense and non-existent running game. Addai getting healthy again will go a long way in helping Manning, who is capable of taking the Colts all the way despite all of the problems the team is having right now.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Still in the running for at least a Wild Card spot, Tampa Bay has taken people by surprise all season. They excel behind a young quarterback and a rushing attack that came unexpectedly from a rookie picked up off waivers.
They do not score much, and slightly give up more points than they put up. Though they rarely turn over the ball, they do not cause many themselves and the 18 sacks they have gotten is tied for second fewest in the league.
Yet they win. Three interceptions have been returned for scores, as well as a kick return. When they lose, they do not make it easy. Three losses are by a combined 19 points. No one expects them to make the playoffs, but no one expected them to get this far.
Three of their last four games are winnable, so expect Tampa Bay to keep the pressure on the Falcons and Saints. Their last game is in New Orleans, a game that could be for the NFC South title since the Buccaneers will not go away without a good fight.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Redskins
Tampa Bay needs this to stay in the playoff run. Washington is in shambles again this season, and first year head coach Mike Shanahan has little to no respect in the locker room.
Buccaneers 24 Redskins 21
Atlanta Falcons @ Carolina Panthers
The team with the best record in the NFL takes on the team with the worst record. Expect Atlanta to roll.
Falcons 31 Panthers 10
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
For all the talent the Bengals have on their roster, they might be the most disappointing NFL team in 2010. They can't seem to play four quarters. Pittsburgh prides themselves on defensive dominance for entire games. Expect more of the same.
Steelers 27 Bengals 17
Oakland Raiders @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Both teams desperately need a win here. The Jaguars want to maintain their lead in the AFC South, while the Raiders are trying to catch up to the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West. Both teams run the ball well, but neither can stop the opposition at running the ball.
Raiders 27 Jaguars 24
Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Lions
Green Bay knows division leading Chicago has a tough game this weekend, so this is their chance to jump into a tie for first place. The Lions are young and pesky, but they aren't as hungry for a win because their 2010 season was over a long time ago.
Packers 30 Lions 24
New York Giants @ Minnesota Vikings
If clubhouse cancer and egomaniac Brett Favre plays, the Giants win thanks to Favre's weekly turnoverfest. If the Hyckocrite sits, the Vikings have a shot.
Giants 37 Vikings 14
Cleveland Browns @ Buffalo Bills
These two teams have inproved greatly the last month, but both of their 2010 seasons were over before that. Thestar of this game will be the blizzard conditions surround the city of Buffalo. Expect Fred Jackson and Peyton Hillis to get a lot of touches.
Browns 13 Bills 12
Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers
Rumor is that quarterback Alex Smith will start, probably the last ones of his feeble career. Seattle needs to win to stay in first place in the NFC West.
Seahawks 17 49ers 10
Saint Louis Rams @ New Orleans Saints
The Saints are a game behind Atlanta, so winning is vital to them. The same importance rings true for the Rams, who are in a first place tie in the NFC West with Seattle. Saint Louis has a young defense and excellent pass rush, but not enough defensive backs to stop Saints quarterback Drew Brees from spreading it all over the Super Dome.
Saints 26 Rams 21
Kansas City Chiefs @ San Diego Chargers
The Bolts mythical December winning streak was halted by Oakland last week, causing them to fall two games behind the first place Chiefs in the battle for the AFC West. A Chiefs win here ends their season.
Chiefs 28 Chargers 24
Miami Dolphins @ New York Jets
While Miami is only playing for pride right now, the Jets are still stinging from the embarrassment of a thorough butt-kicking on Monday Night Football a few days ago. They should be very angry this weekend.
Jets 23 Dolphins 13
Denver Broncos @ Arizona Cardinals
Two of the worst teams in the NFL face off. The Broncos first game head coach should prevail over the rookie Cardinals quarterback playing his first game.
Broncos 34 Cardinals 14
New England Patriots @ Chicago Bears
Game of the Week
Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher recently told people he was confident Chicago would win this game. His logic is feasable because his teams offense has been playing better while the Patriots are coming off a short week after defeating the Jets on Monday Night Football.
Both teams lead their divisions by a game. Defense decides this one more than any other area, but Tom Brady is better than Jay Cutler by a wide wargin.
Patriots 23 Bears 17
Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys
Eagles fans hate Dallas, and for good reason. Michael Vick looks to keep his team in first place against a mediocre Cowboys defense playing for nothing.
Eagles 30 Cowboys 21
Baltimore Ravens @ Houston Texans
After losing to Pittsburgh last Sunday, Baltimore fell to second place in the AFC North. They cannot afford any more defeats. Houston is still mathematically alive in the AFC South, but their defense just isn't good enough.
Ravens 27 Texans 24