The Contenders and Pretenders of the 2011 NFL Season

Andrew McCluskeyCorrespondent INovember 2, 2011

The Contenders and Pretenders of the 2011 NFL Season

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    We are one week away from the midpoint of the 2011 NFL season. 

    At this point the playoff picture is starting to take form, and we can see which teams will be in the running as we head in to the second half of the season. Just like any other year we have our fair share of surprises, as well as some of the usual suspects. 

    However, this is the time where some teams that may have gotten off to hot starts will start to show their true colors, while those who struggled at the season's beginning will begin to right the ship.

    The real fun is identifying which teams will fall in to their respective patterns and which teams have already shown us who they really are. 

    Here are three contenders and three pretenders to watch heading in to the second half of the NFL season.

Contender: Philadelphia Eagles

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    The most talked-about team this offseason came in to the 2011 regular season with unrealistic expectations. 

    Everyone was expecting the Eagles' offense to looks like they were playing Madden on rookie mode while the defense wasn't going to allow anyone to complete a pass. 

    Obviously the 3-4 start to their season suggests that expectations may have been a tad too high. 

    However, the Eagles have won two straight divisional games, including a dominating performance over the Dallas Cowboys. Michael Vick hasn't been the MVP-caliber player he was last year, but it appears he is beginning to improve. 

    Question marks will always surround his ability to stay healthy, but it is clear the Eagles' offense is a force when they are on. They have the top-ranked rushing game in the league, and the ninth-ranked passing game. Their defense hasn't been dominant, but they are still 10th in pass-defense, which is more than respectable. 

    The Eagles did have an incredibly difficult start to their schedule. Their four straight losses came at the hands of teams with a combined 20-8 record thus far this season. 

    The rest of their schedule isn't quite as imposing; there are only four teams left on their schedule with winning records. 

    If Vick and the Eagles' offense can maintain their high level of play, I expect them to give the New York Giants all they can handle for the NFC East crown.

Pretender: Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Bengals have to be one of the biggest surprises this season. 

    They came in to the 2011 season with long-time starting quarterback Carson Palmer threatening retirement if he was not traded. They drafted wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton to be the new faces of their offense. 

    No one was expecting a 5-2 start. 

    Looking a little closer at this record reveals the crucial pieces of information. The five teams the Bengals have beaten this season have a combined 12-25 record. 

    Their biggest win was a squeaker over fellow breakout team, the Buffalo Bills. 

    Don't get me wrong, the Bengals have played great football. They have a top 10 defense, including having the second-best rush-defense in the league. 

    Dalton has had a fantastic season for a rookie quarterback, and Green appears to be a force in the making.

    However, the chances the Bengals are a real playoff threat are slim. 

    They have yet to play their division rival Ravens or Steelers yet this season. That is four incredibly difficult games for the Bengals to win. The Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans will also prove to be tough tests for the young Bengals. 

    I do believe Cincinnati is headed in the right direction—I just don't think this is their year. 

Contender: San Francisco 49ers

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    The NFC West was by far the worst division in football last year. 

    We came in to this year once again having no idea who would take over as the favorite. The St. Louis Rams looked like the favorites with young Sam Bradford at the helm, but they have been a disappointment this year. 

    Then came Jim Harbaugh's new San Francisco 49ers. 

    The 49ers have turned in to an old-school ground-and-pound team. They play hard-nosed defense and rely on ball control on offense to win games. 

    It has worked out well for them, as they are sitting pretty with a 6-1 record. The second-place team in the NFC West is the Seahawks with a lackluster 2-5 record. The division is essentially locked up already. 

    From the outside, you would jump to the conclusion that the 49ers have simply been beating up on a bad division. However, they have only played one divisional game thus far against the Seahawks. That leaves five matchups against terrible teams. 

    Not only are the 49ers looking like a lock to win the NFC West but they should also be looked at as a potential No. 1 or 2 seed in the NFC. 

    If San Francisco can continue finding success in the run game and Alex Smith continues to thrive in his role as a game manager, the Niners have a chance to make a deep run in to the playoffs this year. 

Pretender: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    One of last year's surprise teams hasn't made the same splash many expected they would. 

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the sexy picks heading in to the 2011 season. Many experts had them as a team that would rival the Saints and Falcons for years to come with Raheem Morris as their head coach and Josh Freeman at quarterback.

    The Buccaneers have made it to a solid 4-3 record heading in to their Week 8 bye.

    However, they haven't been anywhere near what they were last year. 

    Their defense is ranked well in the bottom half of the league, and their offense has been nothing to marvel at. The Bucs have managed to pull off close wins over good teams like the Saints and Falcons. Their other two wins came over the Vikings and Colts, who have a combined record of 2-14. 

    Tampa Bay has plenty of young potential on that roster. I do feel Morris is the right coach for the job—I just don't believe they are quite at "consistent contender" status yet. 

    The Bucs have some tough tests ahead, as they will have to go to New Orleans and Green Bay over the next few weeks.

    With the difficulty of their schedule remaining and their current level of play, I see the Bucs being exposed for what they are: a young team with loads of potential that just isn't ready to compete with the big dogs yet. 

Contender: Houston Texans

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    It feels as if more people are talking about how awful the Colts are without Peyton Manning rather than how well the Houston Texans have been playing. 

    The only statistical category where the Texans as a team are outside of the top 10 of is passing; they are ranked 11th in the NFL.

    The Texans have been fantastic on both sides of the ball, and no one seems to be talking about them. Houston is leading the AFC South with a 5-3 record and a 3-0 record in the division. 

    The Texans are the team to beat in the AFC South and is one of only two teams that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Texans could finish this season with the best record in the AFC. 

    While that may sound crazy to some, you have to see how weak their schedule is heading in to the second half of the year. 

    Houston's toughest tests record-wise will be against the Bengals and Buccaneers, who as I mentioned earlier are both pretenders in my book. They will have a tough test when the Falcons come to town Week 13, but they are far from elite this year either. 

    Even though everyone else is, don't sleep on the Texans.

Pretender: New York Jets

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    It is a good thing Rex Ryan isn't an NFL expert on one of the big networks because the Jets would never live up to his expectations. 

    Ryan has predicted that his team will win the Super Bowl consistently the past few years, including this year.

    However, their performance thus far this year doesn't exactly scream "Super Bowl contender."

    The Jets have one of the worst offenses in the NFL. They are ranked 22nd in passing and 28th in rushing so far this season. Ryan's preseason plan of "opening up the passing game" didn't exactly work out as planned. 

    It has been no secret the past few years that the offense wasn't the strong point of the Jets' team. We all know the defense is where they have won their games. 

    Yet, they have been a letdown on both sides of the ball this year.

    Their passing defense has done well, ranked seventh in the league, but their rush-defense has been terrible, as they are ranked 25th. If teams are able to pound the rock and keep the ball away from an already bad offense, it will be very difficult for the Jets to put up points. 

    Their schedule won't be easy, either. The Jets will have to take on division leader Buffalo twice, as well as another game against the Patriots. Then division leaders Kansas City and the city rival Giants await later on in the season. 

    The Jets need to find a way to move the ball, especially if their run-defense is playing to their potential. 

    If they don't, we won't be hearing much from Ryan come playoff time.