With Week 5 in the books, the picture is becoming clearer as to which teams aim to contend for the postseason. The Packers, Patriots, Chargers and 49ers seem poised to make playoff runs, with a handful of teams wins away from joining them.
In a weird, through-the-looking-glass way, it has been the year of the doormats. Who among you would have predicted that the Lions, Bills, Raiders, Redskins and Texans would find themselves in the playoff hunt this far into the season?
There is of course a flip side. Every league needs a couple of whipping boys, and in 2011, some unlikely teams have fit the bill. Playoff teams, even division winners from years past find themselves mired in slow starts.
Here are five perennial contenders who will not rebound from lackluster beginnings, sending their fans in search of brown paper bags.
Let's get this out of the way. After making the playoffs 11 out of the last 12 years (including a 2006 Super Bowl win), the Indianapolis Colts probably won't make it to .500. They are the league's only 0-5 team, with no end to the losing in sight. Through five games, the Colts are ranked 30th in total offense, 26th in total defense and were just humiliated by the Kansas City Chiefs, 28-24, giving up a 24-7 lead.
What has sent the Colts prematurely to the glue factory has been the preseason loss of their talisman Peyton Manning. Few offenses have ever revolved around one player the way Indy tailored theirs to suit Manning, and the loss of their quarterback to neck surgery has spelled disaster for their 2011 hopes.
So little was their faith in Curtis Painter's ability to run the offense that the Colts picked up Kerry Collins off his couch at home and gave him the job. When that move surprisingly didn't work, they reluctantly gave Painter a chance to widespread apprehension.
After two starts, Colts fans have slowly pulled the gun out of their mouths, but even the most generous appraisers would rate Painter's impression of Manning mediocre. The former Boilermaker had a spectacular first half against the Chiefs, going 12-of-17 for 237 yards and two touchdowns but was largely infective in the second half. His knowledge of the offense is clearly superior to Collins, but he lacks Manning's ability to make it fully work.
It has certainly been a difficult start to the season, but can the Colts miraculously rebound?
No. It hurts me to say it, but, no, there is no way back for Indianapolis this season.
While some fans are no doubt cackling with mirth at the Colts' recent misfortunes (AFC South fans), I personally have not felt this bad for a team since the UCLA men's basketball lost to Florida in the 2006 title game. My heart goes out to them every time I see a shot of Reggie Wayne hanging his head or Jim Caldwell looking on the verge of tears. For me, watching the Colts choke away their lead against Kansas City was akin to witnessing a dog being euthanized.
The schedule could be worse. In their 11 remaining games, six of them are against average AFC South competition, with games against Jacksonville to be among the few wins they could get. Houston already beat them this year and will do so again, while the Titans have played decently so far after dumping castoff Matt Hasselbeck into the fountain of youth.
Outside the the division things get bleaker. Indy has games in New England, Baltimore and New Orleans on the radar, which should all be multi-touchdown beatdowns. They travel to meet a rising Bengals squad Sunday.
Bold Prediction: The Colts finish the season 4-12 and narrowly lose the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes to the Miami Dolphins.
From being lauded in the offseason as the NFL's Dream Team, to losing four straight game, few teams have failed to live up to expectations as spectacularly as the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even though they tried to immediately distance themselves from the title, the football gods saw Vince Young's hubris and condemned the team to a 1-4 start. We still don't know if Young was referring to the team of starters that takes the field on Sundays or the scout team with which he's so familiar.
Gallingly, the Eagles have suffered losses in games in which they have controlled significant portions. After starting slow against the Giants in Week 3, Philly dominated the second and third quarters, scoring 16 unanswered to briefly take the lead. The Giants then dropped 15 on them in the fourth and won 29-16, but the effort was there. In a Week 4 loss to San Francisco, Philly was ahead 23-3 in the third before surrendering three touchdowns, losing 24-23.
It's difficult to pinpoint where exactly Philadelphia, a team that has missed the playoffs only twice in the last decade, has gone wrong. The offense looks efficient one minute, then unbelievably turnover-prone the next (worst in the league with nine interceptions).
While it's easy to scapegoat Michael Vick for poor decision-making, his pass protection might be the more correct culprit. Vick's offensive line has allowed 29 quarterback hits, 28th in the league in that category. It's hard to see all the options and make good throws when you're constantly under pressure.
The defense oscillates between smothering and leaky at such an alarming rate Andy Reid is considering hiring a defensive consultant to assist Juan Castillo. In his first year as a defensive coordinator, Castillo's men have allowed 26.4 points per game, tied for 26th in the NFL. They rank among the leagues worst in yards conceded on the ground, surrendering 140.2 per game.
We've seen flashes of greatness from Philly this year, but they have so far been unable to put it together week to week.
In one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, it's difficult to see how Philly can come back to make the playoffs after burying themselves in an early hole.
The schedule looks mixed going forward. Division games against Washington, New York and Dallas will be close. Apart from a home game against New England, there are some winnable games outside the NFC East. Matches against Seattle, Miami and Arizona could very well end up in the win column.
If Philly can play four quarters of solid offense and have their defense stop the run, there is some hope. The danger for them offensively is becoming so reliant on the ground game that when a team is able to take it away there's no alternative. The Eagles lead the league in rushing, gaining 165.6 yards per game on the ground, but they have yet to show a passing attack that can keep the ball.
Otherwise, it's going to be a long season.
Bold Prediction: The Eagles can't live up to their Super Bowl expectations, finishing 6-10 while Michael Vick slowly breaks every bone in his body.
No team has more effectively salvaged defeat from the jaws of victory in 2011 than the surprisingly 1-4 Minnesota Vikings. They failed to close out Tampa Bay and Detroit after holding double-digit halftime leads over both. Not only that, but in both games their opponents scored no points in the first half. Keep in mind this was a playoff-caliber team two out of the last three years.
The passing game remains an eyesore. After rescuing Donavan McNabb from Washington, it was thought the Vikes had found a solution to their airless offense; but so far that hasn't been the case. Minnesota ranks 31st among 32 NFL teams in passing yards per game (155.8), gaining a total of 779 yards through the air after five games.
Clearly McNabb is not what he once was, so the Vikings have resorted to riding Adrian Peterson with mixed results. Arguably the league's best running back, Peterson's 110 carries are the most in the NFL, as are his six rushing touchdowns. Yet somehow this has not been enough, as Minnesota is 24th in the league with 315.8 yards per game on offense.
While their rushing defense has been stalwart, the Viking secondary has not passed their frequent tests. Minnesota is giving up 271.8 yards per game through the air at a 63.4 percent completion rate. The loss of Antoine Winfield hasn't helped matters. If this continues, no amount of Peterson runs will be able to carry the Vikes into playoff contention.
They got their first win against Arizona last week 34-10, but most of that 34 came in the first quarter. Adrian Peterson scored all three of his rushing touchdowns in the first to help the Vikes jump out to a 28-0 lead, and then did little else the rest of the game.
While you would think that teams which can post 28 points in a quarter should have little to complain about offensively, the fact that Minnesota could only manage two field goals the rest of the way is disconcerting.
If Minnesota played in any other division, they could have a real shot at overcoming a 1-4 hole. Unfortunately they play in the NFC North, home to the NFL's last two unbeatens in Green Bay and Detroit.
Their next six matches are unkind to say the least. In a three-game span they have to play the Packers twice with contests against plucky NFC South foes Atlanta and Carolina sprinkled in. The up-and-coming Raiders pay a visit as well, making 3-8 or even 2-9 a real possibility by Week 13.
That kind of hole, with the Lions and Saints still to play, is surely not where the organization originally envisioned themselves; but they better be prepared for it now.
The Vikings have shown they can be explosive on offense at times, but to win at this level they need consistency more. Good quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers will have little trouble unlocking their spotty secondary, and if opposing defenses can hamper Adrian Peterson the Vikings will have little else to turn to.
Bold Prediction: Minnesota finishes a lackluster 5-11 after being forced to start Christian Ponder at quarterback.
Someone had to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East, and it fell to the Jets to do it. With Buffalo and Miami miles away in skill, only New York, led by GQ's own Mark Sanchez could hope to break the New England machine.
Or so we thought.
As it turns out, the Jets have their own problems to solve before worrying about Tom Brady and the Pats. After two consecutive AFC title game appearances, New York seems poised to miss the playoffs altogether at 2-3.
The reason seems to be their mediocre offense that ranks near the bottom in the NFL (297.4 total yards per game). While there are worse teams through the air (Minnesota), only Tennessee surpasses their ineptitude on the ground. The Jets average a paltry 76.2 rushing yards per game, low-lighted by Shonn Greene's 240 yards on 72 carries.
With no help on the ground, Sanchez has struggled to keep his team competitive and it has showed. He currently holds a modest 80.4 quarterback rating and completes only 56.1 percent of his passes in an offense that needs to pass frequently.
On a three-game skid (including a loss to New England), can the Jets pull themselves together offensively long enough to stay competitive?
It doesn't look that way.
In each of their last three losses, New York has given up 30-plus points; but they play Miami next week so that streak should end. Assuming they do defeat the Dolphins, the Jets would be back at 3-3 but still finding themselves behind the Bills and Patriots.
The rest of the schedule does them no favors. New York will have to face New England again, the Bills twice and a pair of contenders in San Diego and Washington. Kansas City, Philadelphia and the cross-town Giants should all provide stern tests.
The problem is their running game. Teams have begun to figure out that the Jets are struggling mightily running the football and have schemed accordingly. Rex Ryan needs to find an answer quickly or risk becoming dangerously predictable.
Bold Prediction: New York finishes 6-10 with Ryan descending into incoherent tirades after every loss.
Lost in Green Bay's Super Bowl victory was the seeming resurgence of the Chicago Bears. Winners of the NFC North, Chicago went 11-5 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Coming into 2011 they were the Packer's anticipated foils, a team reliant on a stifling defense and decent offensive production to get by.
Off to a 2-3 start, including an embarrassing Monday Night loss to Detroit, the Bears are unlikely picks to make the playoffs. Against the Lions, we saw exactly why.
Offensively, the Bears flat cannot protect Jay Cutler. I had never seen a game before Monday's in which I believed a quarterback would be sacked every time he dropped back for a pass. If not for his commendable individual effort in avoiding the rush, Cutler wouldn't have made it through the game. You could count on one hand the number of time he was able to actually set his feet before throwing. He would have had the same amount of time to throw had the offensive line stayed on the sidelines. It was unreal.
To his credit, Matt Forte has played well. Against Carolina he went for an incredible 205 yards, almost double his rushing total from his previous three games combined. Even against the Lion's ferocious front seven he gained 116 yard on the ground. Without Forte's play the Bears are easily sitting at 1-4.
Once the pride of Chicago, the Bear's defense has become shockingly poor. Teams are averaging 419.6 yards of total offense against a defense anchored by two of the best linebackers in the game in Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
What's most disheartening for Bears fans is that neither veteran seems to know why they're struggling, other than it has something to do with a lack of collective effort. After Jahvid Best gashed the Bears for an 88-yard touchdown dash Monday, we were treated to sideline shots of Briggs stunned, resting his head on his fingers while Urlacher demanded to know what happened. Has any exchange been so telling?
Just like the Vikings, the Bears have the misfortune of playing in the NFC North this year, giving them little chance to make the postseason. They will have to play the Packers and Lions again, both of whom they have already lost to. Games against the Vikings will be a struggle if they cannot slow down Adrian Peterson.
Outside of the division there are winnable games against the Broncos and Seahawks, but other than that wins seem few and far between. Chicago will play two good running teams in Oakland and Philadelphia on the road, and will take on the Bucs in London, which could go either way.
While there seems to be no protection help for Jay Cutler in the near future, the defense will need to get better if they want to stay in games. It seems unlikely that Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs will allow their defense to stay this poor, but the improvements will likely come too late. The Bears may be able to put up points through Matt Forte and the ground game, but if the defense can't stop anyone it will come to nothing.
Bold Prediction: The Bears finish 7-9, after Jay Cutler takes out a hefty life insurance plan.