NFL: Through First Five Weeks, Best Teams Still Unknown
I've watched the NFL long enough to know that, even in the salary cap era, it doesn't take long for the strong to separate themselves from the weak.
Yet this year, that doesn't seem to have happened to the degree we might be used to.
What is most puzzling is that, going into Week Five, there were still five undefeated teams, a mark that's among the best in NFL history.
But despite what seems like a record pace, all but one of those teams—Indianapolis, Denver, the Giants, New Orleans, and Minnesota—have looked extraordinarily vulnerable in at least one of their early games.
Going undefeated through Week Five is nice and all, but it's a little early for the cracks to show, by normal standards.
The Colts, Broncos, and Vikings alone already have had to depend on long pass plays late to win games they were thoroughly outplayed in.
Denver managed that feat in historic fashion with their tip-drill-esque victory against the Bengals.
The Colts were outplayed by Miami in just about every facet of the game on Monday night in week two before managing to squeak out a victory thanks to Pierre Garcon's phenomenal run after catching a short Peyton Manning pass.
The Vikings even needed a Hail Mary pass from Brett Favre before pulling out a victory against the 49ers.
The Giants and New Orleans have looked the better of the undefeated teams but the Saints' only truly convincing performance came against the Jets, who also lost to Miami, and the Giants haven't really played anybody of consequence yet.
The Saints look improved on defense despite not making many moves this offseason in that regard. They may have to score 35 points a game if they want to keep up this pace, but they just might do it.
Luckily for us fans of the league, the Giants and New Orleans happen to be pitted against one another next weekend. But until then, we're left to wonder: what happened to a good old fashioned barn stormer? What happened to teams rolling in against a good team and just blowing the doors off the joint?
The truth is that there are a lot more teams in the league that are on level footing than there have been in years.
Now, the numbers point to the fact that when it comes to playoff implications, it's unlikely any of the five teams listed above are going to miss the playoffs, but the possibility's now there for one of the most interesting stretches of the last few years.
If you keep up with the weekly features on the league, specifically the power rankings that every media outlet seems to do, there's a pretty interesting trend: teams at the top who are anything but convincing, as I talked about above, and teams at the bottom who are convincing but just not winning football games.
Take Miami and Tennessee, for a perfect example. Miami started the season 0-3, losing to the Falcons, Colts, and San Diego—three pretty good teams—but arguably played well enough to win a couple of those games.
Miami proved their supporters right last night, taking it to the Jets in Florida and earning a great deal of validation in the process.
The Tennessee Titans are a bit more of an enigma, as they currently sit winless, bottom of their division, largely a victim of a schedule that put them up against the Colts, Jaguars, Houston, the Steelers in the season opener, and the Jets.
I don't think I've seen "most talented team without a win" written so much in all my life.
The Titans have really dug their own grave, but they are a good team that's just had the misfortune of playing better ones.
It's true all across the league. The Patriots are 3-2 and could easily be 1-4, the Bengals are 4-1 and could be 5-0 or 2-3, the Colts could be 2-3, etc.
The Giants are really the only team that I would take, hands down, against every other team in the league right now.
There's a lot of reasons for this new trend. The league-built methods of ensuring parity—the salary cap, the draft, and the like—are part of it, for sure.
Part of it has also been that several of the best coordinators in the league who made unsuccessful leaps to head coach, or were languishing in other capacities across the league, have returned to the coordinator game.
Cam Cameron in Baltimore, Scott Linehan in Detroit, Mike Nolan in Denver, Dom Capers in Green Bay, Dan Henning in Miami, Gregg Williams now in New Orleans, each of them seems perfectly at home with their current responsibilities.
There are others who deserve mentioning, of course, but across the league there are a lot of guys who are doing a great job of utilizing the talent they've been given and putting their teams in a position to win.
Cam Cameron has brought a conservative physicality to the Baltimore Ravens, with a heavy emphasis on the run game. Doing so has allowed his young quarterback to blossom while still giving the Ravens the opportunity to win games.
Scott Linehan is in a tough position, but so far he's managed to put together a pretty good offense despite working with a rookie quarterback and having to play catch-up for much of the game so far.
Ditto for Mike Nolan who has Denver's defense playing simple, effective football on their end while taking calculated risks. For example, against New England, Nolan and the Broncos often put Champ Bailey on players other than All-World receiver Randy Moss, keeping their safeties over the top to limit Moss while daring Brady to try them deep.
Moss' bad back seemed to really limit him this week and while the Broncos looked like they were in for a long day at halftime, they clamped down in the second half, forcing the Patriots to go 0-7 on third down in the second half.
Dom Capers and Gregg Williams have brought aggressive schemes to their new teams and have already seen dividends. Williams looked like he would have to just tread water this year, trying to implement a blitz-heavy style with a team that didn't seem built for the transition.
Tell that to the Jets, who saw a Saints defense that has taken a lot of heat in the past 18 months pressure them right out of the game.
That's just part of the story, but whatever you want to chalk the abnormal parity up to, 2009 is already shaping up to be one of the best seasons to watch that I can remember.
And we've still got 12 weeks to go.
God, I love football.
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