As the first half of the 2011 NFL season draws to a close, it's time to put things in perspective.
Historically, by the time Week 8 rolls around, we have a good feel for which teams are contenders and which are pretenders.
But not this year, the wildest season in the NFL to date.
At the tail end of Week 7, we watched the Ravens get embarrassed on Monday Night Football when the (previously 1-5) Jaguars gave them a physical beating in squeaking out a 12-7 victory. A game that featured turnovers from two of the league's most unlikely players to cough the football up: RB Maurice Jones-Drew and RB Ray Rice.
It was just another week in the NFL, where it seems like anything is possible nowadays.
November is right around the corner and it’s never too early to begin talking about the NFL playoffs. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
Only a few teams are essentially eliminated from receiving an invitation to the big dance. We're going to hit on 20 of them that are currently in contention for a berth, and what each must do to punch its ticket to the postseason.
Here’s a shocker: The New England Patriots are, once again, in first place in the AFC East.
Since the Tom Brady era began, New England has historically dominated the division. But recently, the New York teams are closing the gap, and are making the race interesting in 2011.
And the Patriots do have one glaring weakness: Their secondary is awful in man coverage and defensive backs play too far off receivers as a result. With the speed a team like the Bills have at the WR position, for example, that is a recipe for disaster.
But no one can discount how loaded this team is on offense. And they now have a run game, something they haven't had in recent years, providing balance to keep defenses on their toes.
The Patriots have a one-game lead in the division, one of the top head coach-quarterback duos in the NFL and a team of veterans that have plenty of playoff experience.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Patriots must…Force turnovers with their opportunistic defense to make up for the issues in coverage. The Patriots are not going to win a Super Bowl with a defense that ranks dead last in passing yards per game (322.2).
Who had the Bills starting the season 4-1 and upsetting the Patriots along the way?
I know I didn’t. But the team has proven they are a force to be reckoned with in their second season under Chan Gailey.
Loaded with speed at the receiver position, combined with a healthy dose of RB Fred Jackson both inside and outside of the tackles, the balance they have on offense is tough for any defense to stop.
The Bills are finally getting the respect they deserve, but the real question is, will the young team be able to keep up their strong play as the season progresses? They no longer have the "surprise factor" on their side, and the team will not be taken lightly by their opponents.
And the defensive unit still has looked shaky at times, especially in the second and third levels of the defense.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Bills must…Improve play in the secondary. The Bills rank No. 30 against the pass, giving up 284.8 yards per game. Both tackling and coverage in the last line of the defense are issues.
What happened to the Jets' “ground and pound” mantra?
The team that finished in the top three in rushing yards per game in the previous two seasons now ranks No. 28 this season at just 92.4 yards per game.
Still, the Jets have not had an easy schedule by any means, facing the Raiders, Ravens and Patriots in back-to-back-to-back road games.
QB Mark Sanchez got off to a rough start to open the season, but operating behind a new-look offensive line (that was also without C Nick Mangold for awhile due to an ankle injury) was a big reason behind that. The chemistry between Sanchez and WR Plaxico Burress took a long time to develop, but last week, the two combined for three touchdowns and were in sync in the red zone.
And RB Shonn Greene was bulldozing Chargers’ defenders and looked the best he has all season. He appeared to be in great form and the Jets will need him to continue his strong power-running going forward.
The Jets are on a bye week right now, but follow by playing two key games against division rivals Bills and Patriots in the following weeks.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Jets must…Improve their play on the road. The team is 4-0 at MetLife Stadium but 0-3 on the road.
When the Ravens blew out the Steelers in the first week of the season, analysts had already quit on the defending AFC champions.
But was that just an overreaction and post-Super Bowl hangover?
I believe it was, as the lockout clearly had this team out of sync, and a plethora of turnovers was the reason the score was so lopsided.
The fact remains, the Steelers are back atop the division, field a great defensive front, and are still the team to beat in the AFC North. There’s a reason they’ve won it three of the last four years.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Steelers must…Stay healthy and endure another (possibly) long season. The Steelers played 19 games last season, and they are the second-oldest team in the NFL. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish down the stretch.
The Ravens were embarrassed by the Jaguars on Monday Night Football just days ago.
And it took them until midway through the third quarter to even record a first down. We’re not even going to start on how abysmally inaccurate QB Joe Flacco was, as well as his receivers failing to get separation against a mediocre Jaguars secondary.
Baltimore’s offense is predictable and completely dependent on RB Ray Rice, as this game showed; yet he received only eight carries for 28 yards on Monday night.
The Ravens have some big wins this season against quality opponents, but they are too inconsistent to be labeled as contenders right now.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Ravens must…Learn to win on the road. Baltimore is 1-2 on the road this year, with its only win coming against the awful Rams.
Coming into the 2011 season, I pegged the Bengals as a team that was rebuilding and would win no more than four games.
I could not have been more wrong.
Rookie QB Andy Dalton has been a tremendous upgrade over the injury-riddled, immobile Carson Palmer, and the team is finding ways to win games.
And the defense is stout: Many do not realize the unit ranks No. 2 in total yards allowed (278.5 yards per game).
While the Bengals have had the benefit of an easy schedule thus far, a .500 season could be in the books, and it appears the franchise is moving in the right direction.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Bengals must…Win their divisional games. They’ve only played one thus far, and it was against the bottom-feeding Browns. If the Bengals want to assert themselves as contenders, they must beat the Ravens and Steelers.
The Texans have never won the AFC South in the history of the franchise.
And this year, with QB Peyton Manning out of the picture due to injury, the door was left wide open for them. But can head coach Gary Kubiak guide them through it?
The Texans are loaded with weapons on offense, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has completely turned the defensive unit around. Last season, the secondary was the worst in the NFL and couldn’t cover worth a lick.
The team has a completely new identity, and they are the clear favorite to win the division from here on out.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Texans must…Find a way to close out games late. For whatever reason, over the years, both Kubiak and Schaub have found ways to lose games in the fourth quarter. They must break free of the losing mentality if they want to mount a postseason run; otherwise, it could be Kubiak’s final season as head coach.
The Chargers are trying something new this year. They’re actually winning games in September and October and are off to a great start.
Their timing is impeccable, as lame-duck head coach Norv Turner is on the hot seat, and anything less than a AFC Championship appearance will probably result in him being fired.
But it should be an easy road. With QB Jason Campbell and RB Jamaal Charles going down due to injury, the division is, once again, theirs for the taking.
QB Philip Rivers, however, is off to a shaky start this season. He has tossed just seven touchdowns to nine interceptions, and fumbled four times as well. The Chargers are still racking up yards at will, but finding ways to kill drives and failing to score points.
And the defensive unit is old and full of veterans. Let’s see how the Chargers are playing in December and January.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Chargers must…Get better play from Rivers and find a way to finish drives with touchdowns. The defense is not good enough to hold opponents to low offensive outputs.
The Raiders won just five games in 2009, but head coach Hue Jackson has the team only a half game back of the division lead in 2011.
But with Carson Palmer at quarterback, who, just two weeks ago was sitting on his recliner watching the Sunday games, I don’t expect them to compete for much longer.
Palmer tossed three interceptions in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs, and there’s a reason few other teams were interested in his services. If Jackson had not worked with him years ago in Cincinnati, it’s likely that Palmer would still be seen tailgating at USC football games.
Still, with a great run game and an aggressive defensive front that can give any quarterback hell, don’t count the Raiders out just yet.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Raiders must…Shorten their routes in the passing game to simplify things for Palmer and make his job easier. Without a decent threat through the air, opponents will simply stack the box against the Raiders’ run-heavy gameplan.
Kansas City started the season off on a bad note, beginning 0-3 and getting outscored by a margin of 109-27. Fans and analysts alike were already calling for head coach Todd Haley to be fired.
And things didn’t get any easier for the Chiefs when they lost RB Jamaal Charles to injury along the way.
But they’ve now won their last three games, and must now depend on QB Matt Cassel to lead them to victory; something he hasn’t been able to do since being a member of the New England Patriots.
Still, the Chiefs are just one game behind the Chargers for the division lead, which makes the upcoming Monday Night Football matchup between the two teams extremely important.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Chiefs must…Get better play from QB Matt Cassel to make the offense less predictable. The team ranks No. 30 in passing yards (173.7 yards per game).
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has completely transformed the 49ers franchise. The team that won just six games in 2010 is getting it done with some old-fashioned smash-mouth football, which the NFC has not seen in some time.
San Francisco is off to an excellent start and has already built a three-game lead in the NFC West. And with the lackluster play from the division’s other teams, this lead appears nearly insurmountable.
Barring some sort of anomaly, the Niners appear headed to the postseason. The real question is, can the team continue to win big games and secure a first round bye to make their job easier?
To clinch a postseason berth, the 49ers must…Do exactly what they’ve been doing. Finding a way to win close games against formidable opponents, and blowing out the abysmal teams in their division.
The Saints are a nightmare for any opposing team, no matter how stout the opposing defensive unit is.
The speed they have on both sides of the ball is tremendous, and they’re built to create big plays at any time during a game.
And having one of the most creative head coaches in the game (Sean Payton) calling the shots certainly helps matters.
Unfortunately, they play in the vaunted NFC South, which is filled with parity from top to bottom, and it won’t be an easy road for them. The division race will likely come down to Week 17.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Saints must…Keep playing turnover-free football while allowing QB Drew Brees to rack up yards at ease; spreading opposing defenses out and letting him go to work out of the shotgun. Brees has passed for 270 or more yards in every game this season.
The Saints and the Packers are the class of the NFC right now. And Week 1's game, in my opinion, was a 2011 NFC Championship preview.
The media's coverage makes it feel like the Falcons and Saints are the only competitive teams in the NFC South.
But the Bucs don’t see it that way.
They’ve quietly posted a record of 14-9 since the beginning of the 2010 season, and barely missed the playoffs that year. Unfortunately, the 7-9 Seahawks went in their place after winning the abysmal NFC West.
The Bucs are a young, aggressive, opportunistic team, but they struggle with consistency, as young teams often do. Penalties, blown coverage and route-running are all issues with this team.
The team must limit their penalties. Tampa Bay ranks second-to-last in the NFL, committing 8.4 penalties per game.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Bucs must…Find a way to win on the road, as they’re 1-1 but were lucky to beat the Vikings. They likely won’t win the division—so they must find a way to win away from home to gain a Wild Card berth.
The Falcons are one of the most inconsistent teams I have ever seen.
I’ve never witnessed a team with so many weapons on offense look so stagnant some weeks, then play up to their potential in other games.
And quietly, QB Matt Ryan is having arguably his worst season in the NFL. The quarterback is throwing into coverage, making bad decisions with the football and looks terribly inaccurate. He looks like a rookie and has posted a 79.5 QBR thus far.
Still, the Falcons are loaded with weapons on offense, but can the defense get stops when it counts? The tackling and coverage in the second and third levels of the defense can get very dodgy at times.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Falcons must…Be more consistent, week in and week out. This team has struggled immensely in the postseason in recent years, and they need to build up momentum before clinching if they want to make a run.
Are the Packers even going to lose a game this season?
The defending champions must not have received the memo about a Super Bowl hangover. Because it certainly didn't affect them. They've picked up where they left off last season, as QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are averaging a deadly 9.4 yards per pass attempt, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL.
Green Bay is a nightmare matchup for any defensive coordinator. They spread defenses out and run short, intermediate and vertical routes. A receiver, or two, or three, is always open.
Oh, but don't forget about the three running backs they can line up in their backfield.
It's very tough for defending champions to repeat nowadays in the NFL. But right now, the Packers are the best team in the league, and good luck to the team that finally beats them.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Packers must…Keep doing what they're doing in demolishing every opponent they've faced.
Their one glaring weakness is the team's secondary, which ranks No. 31 in the NFL, giving up 288.9 yards per game. And with FS Nick Collins out for the season due to injury, they will be tested.
The Detroit Lions have officially restored the roar.
Head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew have finally undone all of the damage that former CEO/GM Matt Millen caused.
With the Tigers in the 2011 MLB Playoffs and Justin Verlander on the mound roughly weeks ago, Detroit finally had something to brag about. And then their team won in dramatic fashion on Monday Night Football over the Bears, and the city celebrated the Lions becoming 5-0 for the first time since 1956.
But they would follow that performance by dropping their last two games at Ford Field, each by a touchdown or less. And QB Matt Stafford averaged a QBR of 81 in those losses.
And in each of those games, they suffered a critical injury late: RB Jahvid Best (concussion) in the fourth quarter of Week 6's game and QB Matt Stafford (who has had a history of ankle injuries) during the final play of Week 7's. While Stafford did practice this week, his health will be something to watch as the season progresses.
Is the bad luck turning against the Lions yet again?
With the Packers demolishing their competition this year, it's going to be tough for Detroit to keep up. They will have to hope good luck turns back in their favor and attempt to sneak in as a Wild Card team.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Lions must…Get healthy on offense. With Best out, it will be up to running back castoffs Keiland Williams and Maurice Morris to carry the load. And if Stafford is unable to go this week, the reins will go to QB Shaun Hill.
It's hard to believe the Bears were just one game away from being crowned NFC Champions last season. Hell, they were one late touchdown away, even.
And with the unstoppable Packers currently steamrolling along in first place in the division, and the Detroit Lions resurrected and winning; Chicago, after faring poorly in the 2011 free agency period, had nowhere to go but straight down, right?
The Bears are 4-3 and still competing in the division. RB Matt Forte ranks No. 3 in the NFL in rushing yards, just behind RB Maurice Jones-Drew, with 672 yards. He is the cornerstone of their offense, and why not?
Chicago ranks in the middle-of-the-pack in many categories, and I think that speaks volumes about what they are: good, but not great. They still have a shot at competing for a Wild Card berth, though.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Bears must…Get better play in the secondary, namely from their safeties (where they are shifting guys around). Poor coverage in the third level of Chicago's defense is the reason they rank No. 27 in defending the pass (271.9 yards per game), which is pretty awful for a unit that employs a Cover-2 scheme.
In May 2010, head coach Tom Coughlin was reportedly on the hot seat and his job was in jeopardy. Now, his Giants are 4-2 and in first place in the NFC East, one game ahead of both the Cowboys and Redskins.
But is this team for real or have they just been beneficiaries of a weak schedule? In recent weeks, the Giants played the Seahawks and Cardinals—squeaking out a victory in one and losing the other. They now get the “suck for Luck” Dolphins who likely won’t be giving 100 percent in Sunday’s game, that’s for sure.
The battle is going to be uphill from here on out for Big Blue, though. After their matchup with the Dolphins, they face a team with a (currently) .500 or better record in every game. It won’t be easy.
Regardless, Coughlin has done a good job thus far this year finding a way to win games despite injuries to his team. Furthermore, the offensive unit seems to have come together after a rough first couple weeks of the season when QB Eli Manning and his receivers weren’t on the same page.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Giants must…Improve in coverage and defend the big play better. FS Antrel Rolle as well as CB Aaron Ross are susceptible to getting beat bad vertically. The secondary's statistics are skewed due to an easy schedule, but the team is about to endure a tough second-half due to the opponents they will be facing.
The Dallas Cowboys have been arguably the worst fourth-quarter team in the NFL this year and all three losses resulted from leads blown late. Yet they still sit at .500 and are right in striking distance of the division lead.
Even with some key injuries at the beginning of the season and a plethora of Tony Romo blunders, the Cowboys are now getting healthy and could be primed to make a run.
The defensive unit is still one of the top five in the NFL, and the recent emergence of RB DeMarco Murray could spark the offense and help open up the passing game during Felix Jones' injury. Dallas does have a lot of targets for Romo to throw to, and when he’s on, they are a tough team to stop.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Cowboys must…Get more consistent play from Tony Romo. He must adjust to game situations better, because heaving the football into coverage with a lead in the fourth quarter rather than throwing it away won’t bode well for his team. Dallas will go as far as Romo takes them this season.
And head coach Jason Garrett must run the football more in the second half to keep the ball out of Romo's hands.
I predict Dallas will find a way to win the NFC East this year, in a thrilling race that comes down to Week 17’s game against the Giants in MetLife Stadium.
Remember, when the Redskins were in first place in the NFC East?
Yeah, we all knew that would be short-lived.
The quarterback controversy that haunted the team in previous years has returned.
QB Rex Grossman tossed four interceptions in the Week 6 loss to the Eagles, and while John Beck was a significant improvement last week, he missed a lot of throws. And really, what has he proven in his career? His resume is invisible. Let’s wait to pass judgment on the 30-year-old QB until he starts a game in this decade against a more formidable defense.
And don’t expect things to get any easier with two of their top offensive weapons—RB Tim Hightower and WR Santana Moss—sidelined with injuries that will keep both out of action for awhile. Hightower is out for the season and it will be up to another injury-prone running back, RB Ryan Torain, to step up.
To clinch a postseason berth, the Redskins must…Run the football and make sure Beck (or whoever is quarterbacking the team) doesn’t have to carry the team on his back. That won’t end well for Washington.
Sorry, Washingtonians, but I think the Eagles jumping out to a 20-0 lead two weeks ago was the beginning of your perennial collapse; and your team will finish third or fourth in the division when it’s all said and done. It's going to be a rough second half of the season for this team.