Due to the NFL lockout, it has been hard to judge teams' performances through the first few weeks of the season. Two weeks ago teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers were dead and buried, if you listened to pundits and experts.
Two solid wins later, the veteran unit is again playing like the Super Bowl contenders they are expected to be. The Steelers and seven other teams are rounding into form just in time for the middle of the season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are finally getting back to the brand of football their fans are accustomed to. The Steelers are running the ball, stopping the run and getting timely plays from Ben Roethlisberger.
Rashard Mendenhall broke out in a big way against a tough Jacksonville defense. The controversial back nearly doubled his season rushing total with 146 yards on the ground. After a brutal start, the offensive line seems to finally have gotten to the level that the offense has time to operate.
Pittsburgh gets another easy game against the Arizona Cardinals then enters a two-game stretch that will define their season. To prove they are still a Super Bowl contender, the team can do no worse than a split against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.
To say the Philadelphia Eagles have rounded the corner is a stretch, but the corner is in sight. The team finally got the game plan down that was supposed to make them a Super Bowl contender.
The team forced Rex Grossman into four turnovers, and shut down a running game for the first time this season. They finally relied on explosive LeSean McCoy and the running game rather than putting the offensive burden on Michael Vick.
By beating the Washington Redskins and staying two games behind the New York Giants, the team may have saved their season. Still, the Eagles need a quick winning streak to cancel out their four-game losing streak. If they can get to 5-4 before their date with the Giants in Week 8, the dream may still be alive in Philadelphia.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the youngest team in the NFL but with talent on both sides of the ball, are expected to win now. They started out sluggish, and the team’s 48-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was baffling.
Tampa Bay restored order and threw caution to the wind in defeating the division-rival New Orleans Saints. The Saints were hot coming off a four-game winning streak, and again gaining mention as one of the NFL’s Super Bowl contenders. Josh Freeman had his best game of the season, and Earnest Graham ran all over the Saints defense filling in for LeGarrette Blount.
There may indeed be a Super Bowl contender in the NFC South, but it could prove to be the young guns, not the 2009 champs.
Another trendy Super Bowl pick, the Atlanta Falcons seemed unsure how exactly to take advantage of all their new toys. In their 14-point victory against the Carolina Panthers, the team went back to basics.
Michael Turner ran for a season-high 139 yards and added two touchdowns. The defense was solid, forcing Cam Newton into three interceptions. They limited the Panthers rushing attack, as running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for just 96 yards.
The Falcons brought in a lot of new talent this offseason, but the key is to build on their success against the Panthers. Committing to Michael Turner early will open up big plays to Roddy White and Julio Jones, and allow Ray Edwards and John Abraham to chase the quarterback as the opposition plays catch-up.
Could New England’s defense finally be catching up to their offense? Not quite, but there are definite signs of life. After letting Tom Brady chase the record books for the first few weeks, the team has slowed the pace and re-committed to the ground game.
This is letting the defense catch its breath, and there has been some improvement of late. Tony Romo became the latest quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the secondary, but they held Dallas to only 16 points. That makes three straight opponents they have held to 21 points or under, and after shutting down the Dallas ground game (then again, who doesn’t?) the rush defense is climbing up the rankings.
The New York Giants head into their bye week 4-2, and on top of the NFC East. With the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, the Giants were the forgotten team in the NFC East.
Their loss to the Seahawks was confounding, and the team cannot afford a similar meltdown against the Miami Dolphins coming out of their bye. After that things get tough, as they close the season with a brutal schedule.
Between the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers, there is not an easy game left for the G-Men after the Dolphins game. Due to the hot start and with the rest of the division hovering around .500 (or worse), the Giants may only have to go 5-4 the rest of the way to win the division and make a return to the playoffs.
The New York Jets finally started to play like the Jets teams that made two straight AFC Championship game appearances. They went back to ground-and-pound football on offense, and a dominant defense to get a blowout win against the hapless Miami Dolphins.
Mark Sanchez again played mistake-free and made plays when he needed to. The three-game losing streak was ugly, but this team is no stranger to bad streaks. The Jets dropped three straight on two occasions in 2009, and lost three of four towards the end of the season last year. It is certainly not too late to recover from another bump in the road.
To everyone’s surprise, the young breakout team in the AFC North has not been the Cleveland Browns, but the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals dropped two of their first three games, including an ugly loss to the Denver Broncos, but have not lost since.
Led by a suffocating defense they go into their bye week one game behind the Baltimore Ravens. Cincinnati has not played either of the AFC North’s big boys but Cincinnati has sent a message: They are young, hungry and not the same old bungles.