NFL Quarterpole Evaluation by Division: Can Cardinals and Vikings Keep This Up?
The NFL season is now 25% complete. As usual, there are givens and surprises. Typically Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco look great. But nobody saw Arizona at 4-1 or New Orleans at 0-4. After week 3, New England at 1-2 was under .500 for the first time since 2003.
There are a lot of individual surprises. Anyone who says they thought Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick would be leading the NFL with 12 touchdown passes is lying. The Redskin's unheralded Alfred Morris, a rookie sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, is not only the fifth-leading rusher in the league with 376 yards, but tied for second in the league in rushing touchdowns with four.
The leading receiver in yards? Miami's Brian Hartline. The leaders in receiving touchdowns are Buffalo's Scott Chandler, Arizona's Andre Roberts, Pittsburgh's Heath Miller and San Francisco's Vernon Davis. Not a Johnson (Calvin or Andre) or Gronk among them.
I'll take a look at each division in the NFL, making a few observations and foolishly predicting the division winner and wild card teams. Read, agree, disagree, laugh at me and let me know your thoughts.
New England/NY Jets/Buffalo 2-2; Miami 1-3
New England: They've scored 134 points, the most in the league. Brady is, well, Brady, going 101-154 with seven TDs and one interception. He's averaging eight yards per completion, all right in line with his career numbers. The running game has improved this year, with Stevan Ridley having 339 yards, a 4.6-per-carry average and three TDs. Rookie Brandon Bolden is a solid backup. Rookies Chandler Jones and Donte Hightower are giving that defense a boost.
NY Jets: Is any 2-2 team perceived to be worse than the Jets? In a 34-0 blowout, the San Francisco 49ers showed the Jets how to use a backup quarterback's legs by having Colin Kaepernick run five times for 50 yards and a touchdown. Tebow? Not so much. While it's definitely not all Mark Sanchez' fault, he probably will take the fall with Tebow playing a little bit more and starting by Week 8 if things don't improve. But it's tough for things to improve with your best defensive player, Darrelle Revis, and best offensive player, Santonio Holmes, out for the year.
Buffalo: After spending all that money this offseason on Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, expectations were quite high on Lake Erie. Hopes are sinking. The defense is disappointing and Ryan Fitzpatrick, although leading the league with 12 touchdown passes, is hardly justifying the huge contract given him last year. It feels like same-old, same-old in Orchard Park.
Miami: Things might be a little sunnier in South Beach than had been expected. I killed the choice of Ryan Tannehill with the the eighth pick in the draft, but his performance against Arizona (26-41 431 yards with a touchdown) might actually be an indication of good things coming quicker than anyone could have seen. Brian Hartline's 12 catches for 253 yards has propelled him to league leader in receiving yards. While that won't continue, he is a reliable target for the rookie quarterback. If Reggie Bush can stay healthy and Daniel Thomas can fulfill expectations, this Dolphin's offense could be pretty good.
Division Winner: New England
Wild Card: None
Baltimore/Cincinnati 3-1; Pittsburgh 1-2; Cleveland 0-4
Baltimore: Joe Flacco is stepping up and proving that he belongs in any discussion about the league's top quarterbacks. He is confident and owning this offense. Running back Ray Rice and receiver Torrey Smith compliment Flacco. Even without star linebacker Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' defense is solid. While Ray Lewis and Ed Reed may be aging, they clearly aren't over the hill yet. Coach John Harbaugh deserves way more credit than he gets.
Cincinnati: While the Bengals' defense is considered top-notch, they have given up 112 points, the most in the division. Defensive coordinator MIke Zimmer is a good one, and last week's 27-10 win over Jacksonville was better. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is tied for third in the league with 5.0 sacks, and the secondary is improving with Cowboys' castoff Terrence Newman. Offensively, the question is still how far Andy Dalton can take this team. Benjarvus Greene-Ellis will bring goal-line capability and the Patriots' winning attitude. Both good things.
Pittsburgh: The trainers will be overworked in the Steel City. The Steelers' defense sorely misses James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, and the season-ending injury to top draft pick David DeCastro hurt the already weak offensive line. Running back Rashard Mendenhall is expected back this week, but at what strength? The defense is aging; I think the Steelers woes continue this year.
Cleveland: The Browns are simply a flailing franchise. I respect Mike Holmgren, but I think he is proving that coaching is one thing and running a team is another. It clearly looked as if the Browns drastically shifted course in the draft when Tennessee took Baylor receiver Kendall Wright two picks before the Browns were going to give Colt McCoy a receiving weapon to go along with first-round pick Trent Richardson. Instead of helping McCoy, they benched him, choosing Brandon Weeden instead. Weeden looked better against Baltimore, but his dropped passes hurt, and he just doesn't look like the answer. Still far more questions than answers in Cleveland.
Division Winner: Baltimore
Wild Card: Cincinnati
Houston 4-0; Indianapolis 1-2; Jacksonville/Tennessee 1-3
Houston: The Texans are clearly the best team in the league at the quarterpole. Is any quarterback as blessed as Matt Schaub? Throwing to Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, James Casey and Kevin Walter. Handing off to Arian Foster and Ben Tate. It's good to be Matt Schaub. Gary Kubiak's seat has cooled dramatically. JJ Watt and Brian Cushing are leading a vicious defense.
Indianapolis: Stating the obvious category: Andrew Luck will be great. I know the offense is only scoring 20.3 points per game, which is 22nd in the league. The weapons Luck has are not great. Reggie Wayne can still get it done, but Austin Collie being out is tough. Donnie Avery, Collie, Coby Fleener and TY Hilton have potential as a unit. Donald Brown isn't the answer in the backfield. But be patient, the Colts are coming.
Jacksonville: Is there a more nondescript franchise in the league than the Jaguars? They can't score—15.5 points per game is last in the league—and aren't doing well stopping anyone, with 24.3 points-against per game. They need recognizable names besides Maurice Jones-Drew. Justin Blackmon needs to focus on his performance on the field and not issues off of it. He's their hope for a star. Blaine Gabbert is showing signs of some life at quarterback, but is it enough?
Tennessee: Jake Locker, with his 90.2 rating, is much better than I expected him to be. Was Chris Johnson's breakout game against Houston (25 carries for 141-yards) a sign of him returning to form? The Titans need Kenny Britt to stay healthy and to mature if the offense has any hope. Defensively they stink, allowing 151 points against so far, which is the worst in the league.
Division Winner: Houston
Wild Card: None
San Diego 3-1; Denver 2-2; Oakland/Kansas City; 1-3
San Diego: Nine lives? Coach Norv Turner has long surpassed that. It appears that Philip Rivers is back, as he has completed 69 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and four picks. His rating of 91.9 isn't bad. With Ryan Matthews banged up, Jackie Battle has stepped up to run for 163 yards with a 5.1 average. Matthews is running for 4.4 per carry and as he heals, the Chargers will have a nice tandem. Malcolm Floyd, Antonio Gates, Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem are nice targets for Rivers. The Chargers are younger on defense and coming together.
Denver: The rust wasn't completely gone after a great Week 1 performance, but it's being shaken off by Peyton Manning. He's completing almost 65 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and three interceptions for a nice 96.9 rating. More importantly than that, he looks like Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage. Just like in Indianapolis, Manning has a decent running game, with Willis McGahee running 4.7 yards per carry and Lance Ball providing decent backup. The Broncos' receiving corp of Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley is terrific. Elvis Dumervill and Von Miller lead a defense that can flat-out get after the quarterback.
Oakland: When you score only 16.8 points per game (29th in the league) you can't win. Carson Palmer looks better but still looks like he has more rust than Manning. Darren McFadden has beast skills but hasn't shown them much this year. When your top receivers are McFadden, someone named Brandon Myers (no offense to his mom) and Marcel Reece, you have a problem. The Raiders need Denarius Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey to step up. The secondary has been decent, led by Tyvon Branch and MIchael Huff. The front seven has been improving.
Kansas City: Oye vey. I thought the return of Jamal Charles and the acquisition of Peyton Hillis would really spark the Chiefs' offense. I thought wrong. Both are doing their jobs. Charles is second in the league in rushing and averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Hillis is averaging 4.4. But quarterback Matt Cassel is only completing 58.4 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. They can't pass and they can't stop the pass. Cassel has a rating of 70.4 and opposing quarterbacks have one of 114.7.
Division Winner: Denver
Wild Card: San Diego
Philadelphia 3-1; Dallas/Washington/NY Giants 2-2
Philadelphia: What a team. How can you be 3-1 while scoring 66 points and giving up 83? The Baltimore Orioles of the NFL. The Eagles are 30th in points scored and turnovers are the main reason. Vick is only completing 56.8 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and six picks. He has been sacked 11 times. It's not good that he is the Eagles' second leading ball carrier with 27 carries. They need to run LeSean McCoy much, much more. I don't foresee the Eagles continuing to win three out of four.
Dallas: What drama. The Cowboys are right there at 2-2, but what a disappointment. Tony Romo has thrown five touchdowns and eight interceptions, and the offense is 31st in scoring. Dez Bryant may have stupid talent but it does no good if he isn't focused. He clearly wasn't on the same page with Romo Monday night when Romo threw the interception to Tillman. Hard to know for sure whose fault it was, but I'm betting on Bryant. All I know is that neither Robert Kraft, the Rooney family, the Mara family or the collective shareholders in Green Bay make football decisions like Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones does. Any wonder why New England, Pittsburgh, the Giants and Green Bay have been winning Super Bowls lately?
Washington: What an offense. The Redskins are 4th in the league, scoring 30.8 points per game. RGIII is completing 69.4 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and only one interception. I am concerned about his heavy participation in the running game with 39 carries. His 6.5 average is great but he won't be able to stay standing at that pace. The 'Skins may have yet another example of running backs being found anywhere with rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris from Florida Atlantic. He's gained 376 yards (4.6 average) with four touchdowns. The secondary has been good with DeAngelo Hall and Madieu Williams, and ageless LB London Fletcher keeps on ticking.
NY Giants: Why would we think the Giants would do anything but struggle for a while? Eli's four picks are a bit high but he still is Eli. Another running back from nowhere, fourth-year Andre Brown from NC State, is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Even with Hakeem Nicks hurt, the receivers are good, with Cowboys' castoff TE Martellus Bennett stepping up. Even with the secondary banged up, I expect the defense to be okay.
Division Winner: NY Giants
Wild Card: Philadelphia
Minnesota/Chicago 3-1; Green Bay 2-2; Detroit 1-3
Minnesota: Are you kidding me? The Vikings are the second-best story in football to the Cardinals and that could change this week. Christian Ponder has been terrific, completing 68.3 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions. None. Adrian Peterson is proving that he just isn't human. He doesn't need no stinking time off for an ACL. His 332 yards and 4.2 per carry are amazing. Percy Harvin is producing like he always teased us he could. Second-year TE Kyle Rudolph is coming on with 15 catches and three touchdowns. LB Chad Greenway, Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are leading a tough defense. All of that said, I still don't believe they will be there at the end.
Chicago: Like Dallas, high on drama. Jay Cutler's sidelines antics might not be that different from some other quarterbacks, but he just doesn't handle it well. I know the offensive line stinks but he has to deal with it, as Aaron Rodgers and Kevin Kolb have. Get up and go at it again. Cutler's 57.3-percent completion percentage is an issue. Five touchdowns and six picks are also. That said, this team has weapons. Matt Forte and Michael Bush in the backfield and the receiving corps of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery are all very good.
Green Bay: Everyone wearing a cheesehead: breathe. Just breathe. The Packers will be fine. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league. It may not be by much, but it's indisputable. He's completing 69.9 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Cedric Benson is providing enough running to help out, and the receivers are still the deep Packers receivers. The offensive line is an issue, but after giving up eight sacks in the first half against Seattle, they haven't given any up in the six quarters since. The defense is improved with rookies Nick Perry and Casey Hayward stepping up. Clay Matthews is still in beast mode with seven sacks.
Detroit: The Lions have been a big disappointment. Projected to be the next great offense, they are only 15th in the league in scoring. Matthew Stafford has five touchdowns but four picks. The running game has been weak, although Mikel Leshoure might give it a boost. Ndamukong Suh needs to show up. He has only seven tackles and one assist. This team had a bad offseason, and are showing maturity and discipline count.
Division Winner: Green Bay
Wild Card: Chicago
Atlanta 4-0; Tampa Bay/Carolina 1-3; New Orleans 0-4
Atlanta: The Falcons are right there with Houston as the best team in the league. The offense is the next great one, averaging 31 points per game, which is third in the league. Matt Ryan is completing 69.4 percent of passes with 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The demise of Michael Turner was a bit exaggerated, as he is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The receivers are terrific with Roddy White, Julio Jones and an ageless Tony Gonzalez. An unheralded defense is doing a good job.
Tampa Bay: Coach Greg Schiano has certainly brought toughness. Just ask the NY Giants who tried to just kneel and kill the clock. Josh Freeman is struggling again, however, only completing 54.6 percent of passes with five touchdowns and four interceptions. Rookie running back Doug Martin needs to pick it up, only averaging 3.5 per carry. The other big rookie, safety Mark Barron, is looking good.
Carolina: The bloom might be coming off the Cam Newton rose just a bit. He's regressing, throwing four touchdowns to go with five interceptions. His demeanor has looked a bit immature and that's not great for a quarterback. See: Cutler, Jay. The Panthers should have beaten the Falcons, and it's not all on Newton's key late fumble. The defense let the Falcons get in field-goal range on a drive starting at their own one-yard line with 50 seconds left and no timeouts. LBs Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly look good.
New Orleans: What's left to say? While Drew Brees has tied the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 47, he's only completing 57.6 percent of his passes. Very un-Drew-Brees-like. The running game has been nonexistent, with Mark Ingram only averaging 2.8 yards per carry. They need to use Pierre Thomas more, as he's averaging 5.4 yards per carry. The defense has been terrible. Enough said.
Division Winner: Atlanta
Wild Card: None
Arizona 4-1; San Francisco 3-1; St. Louis 3-2; Seattle 2-2
Arizona: Coach Ken Whisenhunt deserves a ton of credit. This team looked pathetic in the preseason. They had no quarterback and a horrible offensive line. The line is still an issue but I do think that Kevin Kolb is proving himself. He's completing 62.6 percent of passes with seven touchdowns and two interceptions, and can make plays. They do need a running game with Ryan Williams only averaging 3.0 yards per carry. Beanie Wells' 2.6 wasn't getting it done and now he's hurt. The receivers are decent with the amazing Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts. The defense is great, led by LB Darryl Washintgon and DE Calais Campbell.
San Francisco: Coach Jim Harbaugh gets a ton of credit and deserves it. I think the Vikings' loss was a blip, although let's face it, the Vikes are much better than anticipated. Alex Smith is certainly better, completing 67.3 percent passing with five touchdowns and one interception. I still worry a bit about his accuracy, and he certainly stumbled a bit against the Jets. Frank Gore has been great, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Kendall Hunter is a terrific second back, averaging 4.6. The 49ers' receiving group is terrific with Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Mario Manningham. The defense is sick, led by LBs NoVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Aldon Smith has 4.5 sacks.
St. Louis: I love Jeff Fisher and have no doubt he will bring this team back. Sam Bradford's stats are so-so with a 61.6-percent completion rate for four touchdowns and four picks. But he can do better. Steven Jackson has been a disappointment—my third round pick, oye—averaging 3.3 yards per carry. The Rams' seventh-round pick out of Abilene Christian, Daryl Richardson, has been great, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. The receivers are very limited other than Danny Amendola, who got hurt last night. It's a decent defense with LBs James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lon Dunbar and DE Chris Long. CB Cortland Finnegan brings nastiness to the secondary.
Seattle: I'm not sure what to make of crazy Pete Carroll's team. They are only 28th in the league in scoring and the jury is way out on Russell Wilson at quarterback. He is completing a decent 60 percent of passes, but with only four touchdowns and four picks. I love his intangibles, but I'm not sure he is the man. They gave Matt Flynn a lot of money to sit, and I think you'll see him soon. Marshawn Lynch has been great running the ball, but the receivers are lacking. The defense is living up to the hype, especially the very physical secondary.
Division Winner: San Francisco
Wild Card: None