The Oakland Raiders are 2-0 in the preseason and seem to have all the earmarks of a team on the rise. As unlikely as it sounds, the Raiders could be a dark horse winner of the AFC West and return to the playoffs after a seven-year absence.
At the very least, Oakland’s defense seems to have come together—recording a preseason-high 12 sacks through two games. In turn, this has created quite a buzz around the NFL, no doubt giving Raiders’ fans a reason to feel confident about their team’s chances in 2010.
Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks wrote about his winners and losers halfway through the preseason. Banks describes the Raiders as a club that has finally turned the corner.
“Against the Bears on Saturday night, the Raiders flashed another facet of their emerging defensive improvement in a 32-17 win, sacking Chicago quarterbacks six times. Five came in the first half, when both teams were still playing their starters. Newly-acquired Oakland outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley was the star of game for the Raiders, abusing Bears offensive tackle Chris Williams with an eye-opening four sacks of Jay Cutler. (Two quick thoughts on that: When's the last time you can remember anyone amassing four sacks in a preseason game, and how about the Raiders for a change picking another club's pocket in a trade, which it looks like they did with the ex-Brown Wimbley?"
Confidence is high in the Bay Area, as both the Raiders and Niners have the look of a contender. The same can be said in Baltimore, New Orleans, Green Bay, New England, and New York (Jets).
However, there are several teams that may be wondering if the playoffs are a possibility this season—already there's doubt creeping in at Houston, Denver, Chicago, and even Minnesota.
With the start of the 2010 regular season less than two weeks away,10 teams are sweating a very important question: Is it time to panic or show patience?
The reason to panic in the Steel City is because of the impending suspension facing Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. For now, Roethlisberger will be suspended for the first six games of the regular season.
Going without Big Ben is a scary thought for Pittsburgh. However, backups Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon combined to lead the Steelers on three long touchdown drives in a 24-17 defeat of the New York Giants in Week 2 of the preseason. At the very least, the Steelers proved they are capable of surviving the regular season without their star quarterback.
Pittsburgh's first month of the season isn't that tough. After hosting the Falcons in the season opener, Pittsburgh plays winnable games at Tennessee and Tampa Bay, before returning to Heinz Field for its annual grudge match with the Baltimore Ravens.
Analysis: No panic here. Pittsburgh will be fine without Big Ben.
The Houston Texans have been knocking on that playoff door for a few seasons now, but Coach Gary Kubiak's team always seems to find a way to come up just short.
Largely considered a finesse team, the Texans could still use a big boost on defense—namely, another pass rusher to support Mario Williams.
The biggest disappointment came with the loss of rookie rusher, Ben Tate. The former Auburn star was supposed to give Kubiak's offense a boost—now that job is left to Steve Slaton and Arian Foster. Slaton has shown flashes of brilliance, but fumbling issues have put him in the doghouse.
Defensively, the Texans struggled to pressure the quarterback in '09. Williams led the team with nine sacks, but he didn't get much help from the rest of the defense. Now linebacker Brian Cushing, Defensive Rookie of the Year, will be suspended four games for violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
Adding to the Texans' defensive woes is a Week 1 matchup with Peyton Manning and the defending AFC Champion Colts. Last week, the Saints put 38 points on the board and ran up 409 yards of total offense against the Texans.
Will defense continue to plague Kubiak's team in 2010? It sure seems like it.
Analysis: There's reason for panic if the defense continues to be an after thought.
The Washington Redskins continue to be the reigning offseason champions of the NFL. They brought in offensive wizard Mike Shanahan and saddled him up with Donovan McNabb—not exactly Elway Part II, but close enough.
The Skins also have a massive headache on their hands with Albert Haynesworth. Rumor of trade, suspension, and even a mysterious disease. The disgruntled defensive lineman may be the one everybody points to if the Redskins turn into also-rans.
However, the combination of McNabb and Shanahan has proven to be an upgrade this preseason, although Washington struggled against a stout Ravens defense in a 23-3 loss at FedEx Field. Losing to a Super Bowl-caliber defense is no reason to panic.
McNabb—who admittedly is still learning the offense—can still zip the ball and win games solely with his arm. That said, the rest of the Redskins' skill positions must step up accordingly. Specifically, receivers Devin Thomas and the surprising Anthony Armstrong.
A much more fluid situation exists at running back. Is there anything left to salvage from Clinton Portis, Willie Parker, and Larry Johnson? If anyone can do the job, Washington has a chance.
Analysis: Be patient and wait for McNabb to bring the offense along.
Will Brett Favre regret coming back?
That's the question he must be asking himself after news came down regarding star receiver Sidney Rice's impending hip surgery. The All-Pro could miss half of the 2010 regular season. Ugh.
How do Greg Camarillo (via trade from Dolphins) and Javon Walker sound? Frankly, not very good--especially with Percy Harvin's status still questionable.
If there's a reason for Favre & Co. to warm up the panic button, it begins on Week 5.
Minnesota faces a brutal stretch, facing four consecutive Super Bowl contenders (at Jets, vs. Dallas, at Packers, and at Patriots). Yes, they host Dallas in Week 6, but that's no reprieve on this murderer's row-like schedule.
And it wouldn't be out of the question to see Minnesota rack up some losses here. If Favre's surgically repaired ankle limits his mobility—he may become the Vikings' scapegoat for a season gone wrong.
Analysis: I kind of smell some panic in the Twin Cities. Favre's last year may end like it did with the Jets—bruised and battered.
Apparently, the curse still lives...
More often than not, the losing team from the previous year's Super Bowl lays an egg the following season. Or is besieged by some disastrous event—like losing your starting quarterback to a horrific knee injury (see Tom Brady).
Already without veteran center, Jeff Saturday, and 100-reception tight end Dallas Clark—the Indianapolis Colts got more bad news when starting tailback Joseph Addai left the exhibition game in Green Bay with a concussion. Addai would later say "it was nothing."
What was something was the precision in which the Packers' offense sliced and diced the Indianapolis defense.
Behind the capable arm of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay rolled through the Colts' first-team defense with ease. Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and 195 yards in the 59-24 rout of the suddenly-bad Colts.
However, as long as Peyton Manning is healthy and has weapons to go to like Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, and Addai—Indianapolis won't be going away anytime soon.
Analysis: No panic yet. Then again, there is that post-Super Bowl curse.
When the Bears acquired quarterback Jay Cutler from the Broncos at the start of last season and then picked up prized free agent Julius Peppers this offseason, many thought the Monsters of the Midway would be making a return visit to the Windy City.
Not so fast...
After two lackluster performances in the preseason, Bears' fans are less optimistic about their team's chances of turning things around in 2010. With poor pass protection, bad special teams play, and virtually no playmakers at wide receiver, other than Johnny Knox—it's definitely time to panic in Chicago.
Defensively, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is injured (calf) again, and Peppers has yet to make an impact as a high-priced disruptor.
Yet, the real problem remains upfront. In the team's second exhibition game, Oakland's pass rush was relentless—getting to the QB six times with four sacks alone from Raiders linebacker Kamerion Wimbley—casting a dark cloud on the Bears season.
Cutler said it was an "unacceptable" amount of sacks to give up and they have to improve. Certainly, but the rest of the blame should be directed at Mike Martz's complicated offensive schemes. It takes time to learn his system and that's something the Bears' offense clearly hasn't got a handle on yet.
Analysis: Widespread panic here. Lovie Smith needs to figure out something quickly or he may be the first coaching casualty of the year.
Now how do the San Diego Chargers get on this list?
I mean, the last time I checked, Ryan Mathews—San Diego's first-round pick out of Fresno State—was about to pass Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton as the greatest running back in NFL history.
And according to just about every NFL expert on the planet, Mathews will be the difference-maker this season for the Super Bowl bound-Chargers.
But wait just a minute. If memory serves—didn't a guy by the name of LaDainian Tomlinson have some pretty good seasons in San Diego—and where did that get them?
Okay, so the Chargers had the 31st-ranked rushing attack in 2009 and Mathews is going to shore up that aspect of Norv Turner's offense.
I get that, but I don't think that will matter and here's why.
While I like the upgrade at running back, San Diego has been too immature for too long. Yes, Philip Rivers is an elite quarterback, but his antics on the sidelines or with fans in the stands demonstrate why he's not a winner.
And that's the team's biggest problem—they can't seem to win the "big one." A rookie running back will not solve that issue and without tackle Marcus McNeill and star receiver Vincent Jackson—both in holdout situations—San Diego is missing two irreplaceable starters.
Throw in the departure of starting corner Antonio Cromartie, and the release of the mammoth run-stopper Jamal Williams—and suddenly you've got a problem.
Analysis: Due to an easy schedule and lack of competition from within the AFC West, it's smart to be patient with the Chargers. However, if the Bolts don't get off to a quick start, they could easily find themselves in a dogfight with Oakland.
Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
I'm not sure if anything or anyone can save the Broncos from the gloom and doom coming their way in 2010.
Gone is sack artist Elvis Dumervil (he'll miss the majority of the season with a torn pectoral muscle). Shelved is No.1 pick Demaryrius Thomas. The wide receiver reaggravated a foot injury and could miss the remainder of the exhibition season.
And did I mention Brandon Marshall is in Miami? That'll leave a mark.
Last year's good-looking back, Knowshon Moreno, suffered a slight tear in his right hamstring earlier this month. He'll miss most of camp, and also down with a bad hammy is backup Correll Buckhalter.
Bring in castoffs LenDale White and Justin Fargas—and now the Broncos have the makings of a good UFL team.
The good news is their best lineman, Ryan Clady, has returned to practice after suffering an injury playing pickup basketball. And yes, Tim Tebow seems to be making progress with his sore ribs.
The bad news is this: None of it matters.
If the past provides any indication of the future—then Denver can give one giant Mile High salute to the 2010 season. They just have too many key injuries to overcome.
That is, unless Kyle Orton and Eddie Royal somehow become an unstoppable force of nature.
Analysis: Panic at the highest level in Denver. It could be a very rude awakening for the Broncomaniacs. How does 5-11 sound?
When you change quarterbacks halfway through the preseason, is that a bad thing?
I just don't know about this move. Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt said it could be just temporary too. Yes, a starting quarterback in the NFL has to generate first downs, which Leinart failed to do Monday night in Tennessee. But unless Kurt Warner is busting through those doors sometime soon, then the Cardinals are in a laughable situation.
OK Matt Leinart—you grab some bench and we'll put in the guy that was beaten out by Brady Quinn. Huh? You might want to start rookie Max Hall, I mean he did throw the team's only touchdown that night.
If new starter Derek Anderson can move the ball and take command of the offense, then Leinart's hot tubbing schedule with college coeds may have to be updated.
In the big picture, this offseason wasn't kind to the Cards.
Not only did the team lose its best signal-caller in Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, but it also took some big hits with the departures of playmaking wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Carlos Dansby, and safety Antrel Rolle.
Analysis: The Cardinals may be saying it's not time to panic, but believe me, it's time to panic in the desert.
On comes America's Team.
With a chance to play the Super Bowl in its own backyard. And what a backyard it is—Cowboys Stadium is indeed the Taj Mahal of NFL venues.
Can the Dallas Cowboys handle the pressure? They're a bonified Super Bowl contender and picked by many to represent the NFC in the NFL's biggest game.
However, early on in this preseason, Tony Romo and the Cowboys' first-team offense has struggled. The biggest culprit is a shaky offensive line. New left tackle Doug Free takes over for former Pro Bowler Flozell Adams (waived by Dallas) and suddenly, Romo can't find the time to complete a pass.
In the Cowboys' third preseason game of the year at San Diego—Romo was very pedestrian—hitting on just four of 11 attempts for 30 yards and a touchdown. And Romo's lone TD toss was set up by safety Barry Church's 80-yard interception return.
Now, do the Cowboys have a suspect offensive line? Yes, it was exposed by the Vikings in last year's divisional playoff game and it could be the biggest reason why the Cowboys fall short of Super Bowl XLV.
And won't that be fun to watch, as Jerry Jones stews about it all season long.
Analysis: Just be patient. Dallas will make the playoffs. Whether it can advance to the Super Bowl is another question for another day.