Bengals, Bills and Beyond: Are These NFL Surprises a Reality or Fantasy?
In the back and forth pendulum of football favorites, teams such as the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals are proving the league's acronym to truly stand for the "Nobody Figured League." Every NFL season is filled with surprises, a roller coaster featuring more corkscrews than simple rises and falls.
While teams like the Patriots win their customary annual allotment of a dozen games, the rest of the NFL battles in the gray area, looking to secure leftover playoff slots and divisional titles in a mad scramble to the Week 17 finish.
Sometimes, the outcome is predictable. Who doesn't ultimately believe that Drew Brees and the Saints will edge out their opponents in the NFC South or that Pittsburgh and Baltimore will battle for the AFC North?
Yet, there is an annual reality that seems like surreality. Teams come from out of nowhere, garner the attention of football fanatics and become the frenzy of a success hungry media.
Some of those surprising Cinderella's get to keep their glass slippers (2004 Chargers) and achieve long term success, while others find out that miraculous turnarounds can be merely single season fairy tales. Could this apply to the 2010 Chiefs?
With the midway point of the NFL season on the horizon, there are many teams positioned to vie for shocking playoff appearances in the latter weeks. It begs the question:
Is their success a reality, a sign of things to come for the foreseeable future? Or, are their achievements a fantasy, a mere aberration covering for the struggles that are still ahead?
Oakland Raiders: A Commitment to Excellence No Longer Suspended?
Love them or hate them, the NFL is better when the Raiders are a real threat. The league, like a great story, needs its antagonists. Nobody plays the role of villain better than the Raiders. And Tom Brady. And Bill Belichick.
And...well, okay, I guess the Patriots have earned the enemy tag as well.
Known as an island of castoffs and misfit personalities, the Raiders embraced the notion of a "renegade outfit," dealing out blows and eccentrics in equal quantities.
From Jack Tatum knocking off helmets to the maniac persona of Lyle Alzado, the Raiders have a history of ruggedness.
Today, the characters need some work, but the physical, winning brand is making a slow resurgence. Respecting the Silver and Black is once again mandatory. Bowing to them is the next goal.
With the acquisition of Carson Palmer, the Raiders hope to have obtained a castoff QB in the same vein of Jim Plunkett. With Plunkett, the Raiders won championships. With more natural raw ability and a strong arm, former USC Trojan and disgruntled Bengal Palmer will hope his former cannon is still firing well. If so, the Raiders may soon develop and embrace the type of vertical passing game Al Davis loved.
As it stands, the offense currently runs through Darren McFadden, a fine option and a gifted runner. Averaging over 5.5 yards per carry, McFadden can take control of games. When needed, the Raiders' receivers are also capable of making plays, proven in a nailbiter loss to Buffalo, 35-31.
Sadly, the defense still needs improvement. With Richard Seymour up front, the team has a solid lineman, but the front still allows 4.9 yards per rush to opponents, among the leagues worst. Additionally, opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 12 touchdowns against Oakland, tied for the worst mark in football.
As Palmer grows in the offense, the unit will continue to develop, so long as a focus on McFadden's running ability is not compromised for the sake of Palmer's passing. Considering that they could easily be 5-1, it is safe to afford the coaching staff the benefit of the doubt in that regard.
With a focus on defense and solid acquisitions, the Raiders could become a true championship contender in the next few seasons. While the Super Bowl is not a realistic aspiration in 2011, the playoffs are a real goal.
Aside from the race between Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North, the sixth seed should be wide open, and the Raiders swept San Diego a year ago...can they do it again?
While I predict the Chargers to win the AFC West, Oakland should give the Black Hole something to maintain their sanity: A competitive shot at the playoffs.
Full disclosure: In my preseason predictions, I projected a fourth-place finish for the Raiders in their division.
I was wrong.
VERDICT: REALITY PREDICTED FINAL RECORD: 11-5 AFC Wild Card
Cincinnati Bengals: Are the Days of the Bungling Bengal Coming to an End?
In an interesting conversation in the employees' break room, my peers were in a discussion about the state of the Bengals. This was a back-and-forth between two unbiased parties:
"You have to be happy for Andy Dalton and those kids out there just coming in, but they're certainly overachieving."
"They're not overachieving! Here's what they did: Addition by subtraction. Cutting the fat! Terrell Owens, Ocho-stinko, and a quarterback who didn't want to be there! Out they go, and now the team is infused with new blood!"
"Sure. It's a better situation, but they shouldn't be 4-2. They've played Navy and Temple, practically."
"No, they played NFL teams and won four games. They're going to lose some, but they're better than last year. Remember when the Bengals didn't have those loudmouth receivers playing in a game last season? It was their best game of the year!"
"Right, but changes have happened all the time. Now, they may just end up with two marquee draft choices. Peter Warrick. Kijana Carter. Always the bungling Bengals! The names and faces change, bu the results will not change"
"Tell you what—let's put $50 on it. The Bengals will finish with a winning record."
Ladies and gentlemen—the handshake happened!
So, are the Bengals a better team for cutting ties with two heralded receivers and bringing in youthful enthusiasm? Or, are they about to sink, having only stayed afloat on the calm waters of the Colts and Jaguars?
A win over the Bills proves that Cincinnati is not a sure out for anybody. Likewise, a 13-8 loss to San Francisco was competitive despite Andy Dalton's worst game to date during his fine rookie campaign.
In the future, the Bengals are in optimal position in the future, having finally dealt Carson Palmer for ideal draft selections (which would be a genius move by ownership if fans didn't know any better that it was coincidental). They're already winning, putting them ahead of schedule.
Perhaps even more important than Andy Dalton's rookie aplomb and A.J. Green's receiving heroics has been the defense. Surprisingly, despite offseason losses, the Bengals are ranked second in the NFL in total defense.
Still, the league's top three defenses are all in the AFC North. Which two would most fans take?
With experienced passers, proven track records, and elite defenses, Baltimore and Pittsburgh should ultimately prove the AFC North to be a two team race. Positioned well for the future, Bengals fans should not be disenchanted by the inevitable losses that are ahead against superior opponents.
After all, they have to play the "big boys" twice each, comprising nearly half of their remaining schedule.
At 4-2, Cincinnati has doubled the total wins projected by many for their season, but the stress of a tougher schedule and long NFL season will eventually bring them back down to Earth. The opportunism of the young season will not last forever, and the franchise will have to address their needs to rise from mediocrity—or worse!
VERDICT: FANTASY PREDICTED RECORD: 8-8
Detroit Lions: Megatron, Motown, Mega-Success
36 catches for 564 yards and 9 touchdowns. Six games.
Only in a video game, right?
No wonder they call Calvin Johnson by the nickname "Megatron!" His impact is mega-impact.
Likewise, Matthew Stafford has flourished in the offense, staying healthy and tossing the pigskin for 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns. Jahvid Best has ran the ball well, a beautiful counterpunch to the deadly aerial assault.
The defense has forced 13 turnovers, but their play has been hardly "bending and not breaking." Ranked in the top third of the league in total defense, the Lions lead the NFL in defending opponents on third down, allowing only a 29 percent conversion rate.
Before losing to the 49ers in a surprising game of the week, Detroit entered last weekend undefeated, the lone such team aside from division-rival Green Bay.
This season, when the Packers travel to the Ford Field, the turkey and mash will not be more interesting than the action on the field.
For the first time since Barry Sanders, the holiday audience will get a visual treat when they watch the upstart Lions playing in their most meaningful game in nearly two decades!
VERDICT: REALITY PREDICTED FINAL RECORD: 11-5, NFC Wild Card
San Francisco 49ers: Are the Niners a True Contender for Jim Harbaugh?
The 49ers won five Super Bowls in just over a decade, and they continued winning into the early 2000's. Eventually, talented players left or aged, and the team eroded from bonafide title contender to practical pushover.
Last season, experts picked the team to win the NFC West considering their talent, but the team imploded. An 0-5 start caused the panic button to be pushed, and Mike Singletary was out as coach following utter disappointment.
As it turns out, expert projections were simply a year too early. With the right coach, talent is motivated to succeed; Jim Harbaugh is proving this truism in San Francisco in 2011.
The biggest name on defense is star linebacker Patrick Willis; few debated the ability of the San Fran defensive unit, which has held runners to 3.6 yards per carry and limited opposing passers to as many interceptions as touchdowns in an aerial season.
The real reason for resurgence is simple: the improvement of Alex Smith based on the effect of Harbaugh. Plain and simple.
Pop quiz: What is Alex Smith's quarterback rating this season?
If you said 95, you are correct!
Pop quiz: What is Alex Smith's completion percentage?
Oh, and he's thrown eight touchdowns against two interceptions.
While it is obvious that his tight end has been a safety valve, the quarterback has been remarkably efficient with nearly seven yards per attempt gained and few turnovers. In fact, Smith has completed 24 passes in the 28 targets of Vernon Davis this season, a remarkable conversion rate. Also assisting Smith is the emergence of Michael Crabtree, finally looking to blossom into a reliable NFL receiver.
Frank Gore is running for five yards per carry, helping to take the load off of Alex's previously underachieving shoulders. So far, the Jim Harbaugh regime has been one of second chances and resurgence.
After serving as the media darlings of the 2010 offseason, the 49ers are the actual darlings of the NFC West in 2011. Being realistic, their western opposition makes for an easier schedule, and the improved 49ers will only continue to reap the benefits.
That said—their win over Detroit proved that their success is not just the result of mediocre competition.
VERDICT: REALITY PREDICTED FINAL RECORD: 11-5, NFC West Champion
Buffalo Bills: Will the Bills Continue to "Circle the Wagons?"
Ryan Fitzpatrick has played remarkably in 2011, from key fourth down touchdowns in sensational comebacks to the routine throws that make or break the NFL passer. His 95.3 rating is the mark of a quarterback playing with great aplomb.
Fred Jackson is averaging nearly six yards per carry, while Steve Johnson has continued his production as advertised in being an elite NFL receiver.
The biggest key to their success has not been rampant offense, however. It is opportunism.
With 12 interceptions, Buffalo's secondary has been a turnover producing machine. With key shifts in momentum at perfect times, the Bills rallied to blow past the Patriots in the second half. Observations from the contest were encouraging and alarming simultaneously; with four picks at home (good), the Bills won by only three points (not good?).
This was one week after another 21-point turnaround, coming back to defeat the Oakland Raiders. In the 35-31 win, Buffalo scored touchdowns on all five second half possessions. While the Silver and Black continued to make big plays offensively, Fitzpatrick won the game on a fourth down pass with seconds remaining, giving Buffalo the coveted title of "clutch."
With credit for making these exciting plays on defense, Tom Brady—deflected passes or not—is typically not throwing four interceptions in a month, or a season. Likewise, the offense cannot be expected to score on every drive against any opponent.
This is worth mentioning as the defense is ranked 31st in the league, and their play—aside from the credit of opportunism—has reflected this deficiency. Winning the turnover battle is key to winning football games, but the mistakes that lead to turnovers are not something that all teams are going to offer. On an even scale, with no turnovers on either side, how would Buffalo fare?
Last week, the Bills lost the turnover battle. They also lost the game, as Ahmad Bradshaw ran roughshod over them.
Fans who doubt that the defense has been troubled remember the dreary route that the Patriots game was taking before those batted Brady passes. They also remember Denarius Moore's amazing individual effort against the secondary when the Raiders retook the lead late in their classic contest.
With a trip to Foxboro ahead and already trailing in the division by a game, the Bills must hope for a wild card entry into the postseason. With trips also including San Diego, Dallas, and New York, Buffalo's offense should keep them in most games.
But, will their defense prevent them from losing when the turnovers don't come?
VERDICT: FANTASY PREDICTED FINAL RECORD: 8-8