NFL Reality Check: Who's Better, Worse Than We Think?

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NFL Reality Check: Who's Better, Worse Than We Think?
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As the NFL season rounds past the midway point of the schedule, which teams are better or worse than their records, or than we think?

There are still nine teams in the league with two or fewer losses, while eight teams have just two or fewer wins. The other 15 teams are all living in midseason purgatory—somewhere between three to five wins with somewhere between three to five losses, in a season that's too early to be lost, but for some, too late to be a contender.

Remember, the NFL is in the business of mediocrity. The league wants as many teams as possible to have a chance at the playoffs as the season winds to a close. This season, however, the plan may not be working.

The NFL already has a page on its website called "if the season ended today," and by the looks of the teams slated for this year's postseason tournament, there aren't a lot of open slots left.

The AFC has five potential playoff teams with two or fewer losses right now. Barring any horrific injury or otherworldly change in good fortune, the Chiefs, Broncos, Bengals, Colts and Patriots look like the class of their respective divisions in the AFC. That leaves one playoff spot open for 10 of the remaining 11 teams (excluding the Jaguars), who all wake up today with a hope and a prayer to put together that second-half run to make the playoffs.

In the NFC, things are a bit sloppier.

The Saints seem to be the cream of the crop of the NFC South, but the other three divisions should go down to the wire to determine a champion. That said, much like the AFC West, where the division crown is up for grabs between two surefire playoff teams, the NFC West expects to be the same as San Francisco and Seattle battle for the division title and potential home-field advantage in the playoffs.

If the playoffs started today, the NFC would certainly not have the six best teams in the playoffs thanks to the NFC East getting a team in the playoffs by rule (and default). Sadly, we will say the same thing in nine weeks.

With all that, despite more than 30 percent of the league boasting a winning percentage lower than a half-decent batting average in baseball—thanks in part to expected playoff contenders like the Texans and Steelers sitting at 2-5 after seven games—there are just three teams in the entire league (four if we include the Atlanta Falcons) that are completely and utterly out of it.

Everyone else still has a chance—just some more than others. With so many teams still alive, which really are better or worse than we think?

 

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New York Jets

The Jets lost 49-9 to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, and the game didn't even seem as close as the score. The Jets are 4-4 after eight games but have a point differential of minus-68 on the season. It's truly amazing.

The Jets won two games this season by way of ridiculous penalty, first beating Tampa Bay in Week 1 after a soft but correct late-hit call with seconds to go in the game to put them into field-goal range. The second flag-aided victory came when the Jets toppled the Patriots in overtime in Week 7 after a "pushing" foul gave New York another chance at a game-winning field goal.

Let's not forget the Jets got out to a two-score lead over the Falcons in Week 5 before coughing up the lead, forcing Geno Smith to orchestrate a game-winning field-goal drive to come back to win.

The Jets nearly gave another win away to the Bills as well, but they held on despite 168 yards in penalties in their Week 3 victory. The Jets are 4-4, but they could be 1-7, or even 0-8, and no one in the NFL would think twice about it.

As for the other teams in the AFC East, they're all about as good as we should expect. Miami is better this season and still has an outside shot at the playoffs. The Bills might be contenders with how hard they play, but their quarterback situation is holding them back. If EJ Manuel can get healthy, can he be effective enough to keep them relevant?

The Patriots are exactly what we thought they were—a good but not great team that will win the division and hope for a favorable playoff matchup they probably can't get.

The only real surprise in that division is the Jets, who are a truly bad football team with an incredibly fortunate, and mediocre, record.

 

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Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are still, through seven games and a bye this week, hung over from last season's Super Bowl party.

The Ravens are 3-4 on the season, squeaking out wins at home over Cleveland (when we all thought the Browns were the worst team in football), at Miami on a last-second field goal and home against Houston, which looked like a much better win in Week 3 than it does now.

The Ravens have lost to the Broncos, Bills, Packers and Steelers, the final three of which came by a total of just eight points.

Yes, Baltimore won the Super Bowl on the arm of Joe Flacco, and losing Anquan Boldin to trade and Dennis Pitta to injury has crushed the offense.

But the Ravens still have a host of healthy running backs, including Pro Bowl back Ray Rice, and they are doing nothing on the ground. The Ravens are 27th in the league in rushing, averaging just 74 yards per game. Baltimore also has the lowest yards per carry of any team in the entire league.

The Ravens have a knack for staying in games, which can help as the season progresses. They just need to start winning more of them, because right now, the Super Bowl champions look like they could use a breakfast burrito and a cup of black coffee to help them get rid of this fog and wake the heck up.

 

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San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders

If the season ended today, the AFC West would have three teams in the playoffs. After eight weeks, the question we could ask is which team, by season's end, will be that third team—the Chargers or the Raiders?

San Diego is 4-3, with losses to Houston at a time when everyone thought the Texans were going to be great, a good Tennessee team when Jake Locker was still healthy and to Oakland on the road, which could be a back-breaker later in the season.

The Chargers have defeated Philadelphia—when its offense actually looked like an offense—Dallas, Indianapolis and Jacksonville. The Chargers are a good football team, and Philip Rivers is having a career year, completing nearly 74 percent of his throws with 15 touchdowns to five interceptions.

But in a division as tough as the AFC West this year, the Chargers will need to beat the Raiders and hope to steal a win from both Denver and Kansas City to make the playoffs. However, those teams look difficult to beat. Oakland is now fifth in the NFL in rushing, and Terrelle Pryor looks like he is coming into his own as a bona fide dual-threat quarterback.

OK, dual threat may be overstating it, but if his legs can open up opportunities for his arm in the second half of the season, the Raiders are a dangerous team, even in an impossibly tough division.

My prediction: The Chargers will end the season as the best team to miss the playoffs, while a less talented team in a weaker division gets in.

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Dallas Cowboys and The NFC East

Perhaps the Dallas Cowboys are exactly where they should be, mired at 4-4 after a heart-wrenching loss to the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys were torched by Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford on Sunday, dropping them to the 17th-ranked scoring defense while giving up 422.5 yards per game, the most of any team in the NFL.

If Dez Bryant wants to yell at anyone on the sidelines, it should be the defense. 

Dallas is fourth in the league in scoring and really could be 6-2 on the season if it wasn't for last-minute defeats to Detroit and Denver. Add the heart-breaker to Kansas City, for that matter, and the Cowboys are five points away from being 7-1.

Yet they aren't 7-1, nor are they 6-2. They are as middle-of-the-pack as it gets in the NFC, and they will be lucky to hold off the Washington Redskins for the division crown this year. 

Washington is 2-5 after a horrible second-half performance at Denver, but the offense is finally showing some signs of life, which should give Dallas concern in a division where only one team is making the playoffs.

The Eagles are in disarray without a quarterback in Chip Kelly's system. The Giants are on a two-game win streak and somehow still look terrible. Washington at least has shown signs of last season's success, even if its defense is giving up…holy cow…32.7 points per game.

Wow. Even with the points DeAngelo Hall and the defense are getting back this season—Washington has five defensive touchdowns through seven games—they've given up 27 of the 29 opponent touchdowns on defense or special teams.

So congratulations, Dallas, it's your crappy division to lose.

Having said that, Dallas has a treacherous final eight games. After hosting Minnesota next week, it visits New Orleans, the Giants, Chicago and the Redskins. It also has home contests with Oakland, Green Bay and Philadelphia. If they can win three of their four remaining home games, the Cowboys will need to win one of those games on the road to finish 8-8.

Dallas could realistically finish the season 10-6 or 7-9. Both might be good enough to win the division. 

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Detroit Lions

Let's flash ahead a few years and imagine the Detroit Lions have won one or two Super Bowls with this current high-octane offense leading the way. We will remember the moment Matthew Stafford fake-spiked the ball and leaped into the end zone to defeat Dallas as the instant he went from fantasy stat compiler to genuine Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.

To think that quickly under that much pressure and to have the presence of mind to try such a gutsy move and have it work is what turns good players into great ones. 

If Detroit makes the playoffs, that game will be the reason why. If it ever wins a Super Bowl with Stafford, you can bet my lede will mention that play against Dallas.

Detroit is 5-3 on the season and has no bad losses so far on the slate. Surely the 22-9 defeat at Green Bay was disappointing, but it came without Calvin Johnson. The other two losses are at the Arizona Cardinals, who look like playoff contenders themselves, and against Cincinnati, who might be the best team in the AFC right now aside from Denver.

Detroit probably has the record it deserves, but after a bye this week, the Lions have an incredibly favorable schedule down the stretch. Their four remaining road games are at Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Minnesota with home games against Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Baltimore and the Giants. 

If the Lions don't finish 11-5, someone should be fired. While everyone is talking up Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans in the NFC, would anyone want to face Detroit and that offense in the playoffs? 

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Arizona Cardinals

I know Atlanta isn't any good and is missing two top wide receivers, but the Arizona Cardinals just flat-out destroyed it this week.

The Cardinals are the NFC version of the Chargers, playing in the toughest division in the conference while showing they have what it takes to be a playoff team. A Week 1 loss to the Rams could end up haunting Arizona all year, but wins over Detroit and a decent Carolina team will help it in the hunt for the second Wild Card.

The Cardinals haven't been great on offense, but they may have finally found their running back in a committee of choices after Andre Ellington's 154-yard outburst on Sunday.

The Cardinals end the season with Seattle and San Francisco, so even if they can get to 8-6 over the next six games, making the playoffs in year one of the Bruce Arians era is going to be tough. However, this looks like a better team than its record indicates.

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Carolina Panthers

Carolina has the 12th-rated scoring offense and the eighth-rated rushing offense to go along with the second-best scoring defense in the NFL. Everything is in place for Carolina to make a playoff push under Cam Newton—except the reality of the league in 2013.

With San Francisco and Seattle both near locks for the playoffs—barring crazy injury, of course—teams like Carolina, Chicago, Detroit and Arizona are playing for one remaining playoff spot. Is Carolina better than any of those teams?

The Panthers are probably better than Chicago, especially given the situation at quarterback, but Arizona beat them 22-6 in Week 5, and Detroit looks like a class above the others right now in the NFC playoff race. (Note: If the Lions win the NFC North, the Packers are the other team looking at the final Wild Card.)

Carolina gets Atlanta twice and hosts the Buccaneers and Jets, but the Panthers have to travel to San Francisco and Miami, host New England and play the Saints twice the rest of the way. At 4-3, does anyone see six wins out of those games? Will 10-6 even be enough?

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Jacksonville Jaguars

If this is a list of teams that are better or worse than their records, why would the league's only 0-8 team be on it? Am I suggesting the Jaguars are better than their winless record?

The Jaguars are somehow worse than 0-8, if that's possible. First-year head coach Gus Bradley may have the least talented roster in the history of the NFL.

As he told Jaguars.com:

The bye week’s coming at a good time. I think we can take this time to really evaluate where we’re at as far as with our whole team – offense, defense and special teams – and recommit to take the next step. Obviously, we need to do that and figure out some for the things we’re lacking on.

Everything, Gus. You are lacking on everything.

We have reached the territory where we need to compare the Jaguars to the worst teams in NFL history. As bad as the 0-16 Detroit Lions were in 2008, that team still had Calvin Johnson, who caught 78 balls for more than 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second pro season.

In a way, there was hope in Detroit that year. What hope is there in Jacksonville? Cecil Shorts?

OK, Jaguars fans, at least you have him.

 

Kansas City Chiefs

We talked about the team with the worst record, so let's end with the team with the best.

Kansas City is playing great football, but are the Chiefs as good as their 8-0 record?

Moreover, are they the best team in football, or even the best team in their division?

Kansas City has the league's best scoring defense—giving up just 12.2 points per game—while scoring five touchdowns on defense and special teams.

Alex Smith has been relatively mistake-free this season, while Jamaal Charles is living the dream in Andy Reid's offense, leading the league in total yards with 127.2 per game (non-quarterbacks), proving to be one of the most important offensive players in the entire league.

We can rattle off pages of stats lauding the Chiefs so far this season, but really, who have they played? Has the 8-0 start showed us anything about their chances to actually contend for the Super Bowl this season?

The combined record of Kansas City's opponents in all other games is 20-33. In the last four games, it has faced Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum and Jason Campbell at quarterback.

Next week, Kansas City faces Buffalo and, most likely, Thad Lewis at quarterback. Expect it to reach 9-0.

Then, after a bye, the Chiefs get Denver twice, San Diego twice, road games at Washington and Oakland and a home game with Andrew Luck and Indianapolis.

Would it surprise anyone if the Chiefs finish the season 13-3? No. Should it surprise anyone if they end up 10-6? Unfortunately, no.

There's no telling what will happen for the Chiefs and the other teams on this list. With very few playoff spots available, it seems that some teams have more time than others.

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