NFL: 5 Sleeper Teams That Should Impact the Playoff Picture
As we near the midway point in the NFL season, I want to take a look at five sleeper teams that could sneak into the postseason and have a profound effect on the playoff picture.
The 2012 season has not disappointed as it has provided fans with their weekly dose of exciting finishes, game-changing plays and surprise teams.
This list takes a look at some of those surprise teams and the prospects of them continuing to be successful as the season progresses. Look for any of these teams to possibly sneak into the playoffs and wreak havoc on more traditional powers.
5. Indianapolis Colts
So far, Andrew Luck has proven worthy of the lofty expectations placed on him. He has already led the Colts to three wins, one more win than they accumulated in all of 2011. While Luck’s game still has several flaws, mainly his ability to take care of the football, he has shown that he has the skill and talent necessary to succeed. With experience, he could soon become a superstar.
The Week 5 Packers game has been Luck’s signature moment in his brief career and provided evidence that Luck possesses the poise and leadership ability to win big-time games.
If Vick Ballard can build off of his Week 7 effort to establish a running game and take the pressure off of Luck, the Colts offense will become increasingly dangerous each week.
For the Colts to actually make an impact, however, they will need their defense to step up as well. The defense has specifically struggled against the run where the unit ranks 26th in the NFL in yards allowed.
The remaining schedule for the Colts has them playing the Titans twice, the Dolphins, the Jaguars, the Bills, the Lions and the Chiefs, all games that are very winnable. If they can continue to win close games, it is conceivable that the Colts could be hanging around the playoff picture at the end of the year.
Normally, when you are the eighth pick in the draft, it is hard to fly under the radar. But going into the season, Ryan Tannehill was playing in the shadows of the more notorious rookie QBs, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
After falling to 1-3, Tannehill has been able to lead the Dolphins to two consecutive, crucial wins against the Bengals and the Rams, putting the Dolphins at 3-3. Sitting at .500, the Dolphins are now in contention to win the AFC East or at least earn a wild-card bid.
Tannehill has benefited from a strong defensive effort all season long, as the Dolphins currently rank eighth in the league in fewest points allowed and fourth in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed. Karlos Dansby has been a force clogging the middle, as he has already registered 46 tackles.
If the Dolphins can continue their physical play on defense and Tannehill and the offense continue to improve, Miami could be a contender in what is proving to be a mediocre AFC East.
The Dolphins only have four games remaining on their schedule against teams with above-.500 records, which helps the odds that the Dolphins will most likely finish with eight or more wins.
At 5-2, it is tough to still consider the Vikings a sleeper team, but I kept them on the list simply because so few people predicted them to achieve any sort of success in 2012.
With Adrian Peterson coming off surgery and the fact that they play in the deep NFC North, it was hard to see the Vikings creating any sort of noise. Yet the Vikings have proved to be the biggest surprise of the season so far and there is good reason to believe their success is not a fluke.
On the offensive side of the ball, Christian Ponder has surpassed most everyone’s expectations and is showing that he can be a quality NFL QB. Evidence of this is his 87.5 passer rating, which is good enough for 14th in the league.
Adrian Peterson has come back after his turbulent offseason to prove that he is still an elite running back. He is tied for third in the league in rushing yards and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
On the defensive side of the ball, Jared Allen has continued to be one of the top pass-rushers in the league with 6.5 sacks already. Allen's stellar play has helped the Vikings rank sixth in the league in fewest points allowed and ninth in the league in fewest yards allowed.
A tough upcoming schedule, however, will test whether the Vikings are for real. They still have two games against the Packers, two games against the Bears and a matchup each with the Seahawks and Texans.
After posting losing seasons in his first two years at the helm for the Redskins, Mike Shanahan’s coaching expertise is finally starting to pay dividends in Washington. Shanahan has successfully been able to implement an offense that takes advantage of Robert Griffin III’s unique talents by using designed runs, QB options, plays from Griffin III’s college playbook and arm strength.
Griffin III’s dynamic play combined with the emergence of Alfred Morris has led the Redskins to being competitive in every game so far.
Like all young teams trying to turn the corner, the Redskins have had trouble closing out games. Look for them to improve on this as the season progresses and they gain experience.
If the Redskins pass defense can improve (currently ranked 32nd in the league) and Griffin III continues to develop, this team can definitely make a run.
In spite of being picked to win the NFC by ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons, not many folks predicted the Seahawks to be much of a force in 2012.
After an up-and-down 2011 season where the team lost its final two games to finish at 7-9, most did not think the Seahawks were ready to compete with the 49ers atop the NFC West in 2012. However, the Seahawks have been a pleasant surprise to their faithful fans so far this season. At 4-3, they only trail the Niners by a game. All three of their losses have come by seven points or less and with better fourth-quarter play, they could actually be 7-0.
The Seahawks' success has come through a steady dose of power running by Marshawn Lynch, who has averaged 21 carries per game and 4.4 yards per carry. Complementing Lynch has been rookie QB Russell Wilson, who seems to make just enough plays through the air each game to help the team win.
However, the true backbone of this team is their defense, which ranks third in fewest points allowed and fifth in fewest yards allowed. Leading the charge on the defensive side of the ball is Bruce Irvin, who has registered 4.5 sacks so far, and Richard Sherman, who already has three interceptions on the year.
With matchups against likely division and wild-card threatening opponents like the Lions, Vikings, Cardinals, Rams and 49ers still on their schedule, the Seahawks' fate is in their own hands.