Forget everything I wrote in my preseason previews. The 2013-2014 NFL season is in full swing, with every team except the Carolina Panthers (1-2) and Green Bay Packers (1-2), who had Week 4 bye weeks, finished with a quarter of their regular season schedule. It’s the first really appropriate time to judge how teams are doing, though a full analysis will be far from truly accurate. Still, some items have made themselves obvious. The five most important are discussed below.
5. The Trent Richardson trade did the opposite of what we thought it would do to Cleveland.
Dog bites man: The Indianapolis Colts now have a true feature back in second-year running back Trent Richardson, whom the team acquired for a 2014 first-round draft pick from the Cleveland Browns. Man bites dog: The Cleveland Browns are 2-0 since trading away their best player. After an ugly 0-2 start to the season, the Browns executed one of the most surprising trades in NFL history by sending Richardson to Indy, and many thought they were blowing up the team and jockeying for draft position next year. Much to everyone’s surprise – perhaps even the Browns’ surprise – Cleveland charged back from behind to beat Minnesota, then stifled Cincinnati. (Maybe it’s more noteworthy that the Browns’ two wins were led by Brian Hoyer at quarterback, not Brandon Weeden, who is nursing a thumb injury.) Tight end Jordan Cameron is the breakout star of the year, leading all tight ends with five receiving touchdowns.
4. The New York Giants are the worst team in football.
How controversial of a statement is that? I need to take a break from ragging on the woeful 0-4 Jacksonville Jaguars, who, in all fairness, scored more points on the Seattle Seahawks’ defense than Carolina and San Francisco combined could manage. And Ben Roethlisberger, after his winless Pittsburgh Steelers failed to beat formerly-winless Minnesota, said, frankly, “You could say we’re the worst team in the league.” I appreciate the honesty, Big Ben, but the Steelers were at least competitive in the game and only lost 34-27. The Giants look like nothing we’ve seen from them in the past ten years. If it were not for one long touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Victor Cruz last Sunday, the Giants would have been shut out two weeks in a row. Their offensive line is dreadful. The secondary used to be the main problem on defense, but their entire defensive unit is among the worst in football. Yes, a lot of this is due to injuries, but Manning has to take some of the blame for leading the league in interceptions (nine). This being New York, whispers for Coughlin’s job will turn into shouts soon enough.
3. Houston, Green Bay and Atlanta have playoff-quality teams, but not playoff-quality records.
The Houston Texans started 2-0, but even those two wins were close calls against the San Diego Chargers (31-28) and Tennessee Titans (30-24, OT). Then the Baltimore Ravens made them look silly, and the Seattle Seahawks made them look incompetent. Yes, two good opponents – but Houston was supposed to be of a caliber to beat some of those good opponents. After losing their second straight game, Texans’ fans burned Matt Schaub jerseys in the stadium parking lot. The Packers only have three games to show for this season, and their two losses are to good San Francisco and Cincinnati teams. They need time. Atlanta (1-3) needs a feeding tube. All three of their losses – to unbeaten New Orleans, previously unbeaten Miami and unbeaten New England – have been lost on failed last-minute Atlanta drives, but that only worsens the reputation of Matt Ryan and his supposed inability to win in the clutch. Fortunately for each of these teams, their schedules were front-loaded with tough games, and it does get easier moving forward.
2. Surprise, we’re 3-1: The Dolphins, Titans and Lions are contenders.
Until a Monday night loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Miami Dolphins were among the unbeaten, looking impressive in victories over Indianapolis and Atlanta. But they had several key injuries on defense, and the high-octane Saints’ offense took advantage. The Dolphins’ schedule doesn’t get any easier here on in – they have yet to play New England (twice), Baltimore or Cincinnati. The Tennessee Titans co-lead the AFC South with Indianapolis, after beating bad teams and losing to Houston, now 2-2 and below them in the division. The downside in Nashville: Jake Locker’s hip injury will keep him out of action 4-8 weeks. Perhaps the most convincing of the 3-1 surprises is the Detroit Lions, who torched the previously unbeaten Chicago Bears for 40 points last Sunday. If their defense can keep it together (they have allowed some big plays, though to the likes of Adrian Peterson) and they fare well against Green Bay this week, Detroit might be the most “for-real” out of these contenders.
1. The Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks are on a crash course for East Rutherford.
Let’s break it down like this: There are five 4-0 teams in the NFL, none of which have been more explosive offensively than the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning is on pace to throw an impossible 64 touchdowns and zero interceptions at his current rate. No team has been as overall impressive since the 2007 16-0 New England Patriots. Before convincingly beating the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday night (during which they lost stalwart nose tackle Vince Wilfork to a torn Achilles tendon, likely for the season), the New England Patriots struggled against two weak division rivals, the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets. The Kansas City Chiefs beat both Jacksonville and the New York Giants, the aforementioned two worst teams in football, en route to 4-0. Clearly Denver is the team to beat in the AFC.
One can make the case for the New Orleans Saints being the better team in the NFC, but people quickly forget how handily the Seattle Seahawks took care of their bitter rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, 29-3 in Week 2. The main criticism people have of Seattle is their struggles playing on the road, when they can’t rely on a rowdy CenturyLink Field crowd. What I saw from the team Sunday was a team, on the road in Houston, make a second-half comeback from being down 17 points and achieve a gritty win in overtime. We talk about other good teams showing they can conquer “adversity” like this, so why shouldn’t this also be considered a positive for the Seahawks? Besides, at the rate they’re going, Seattle won’t need to play any playoff games outside of South Alaska to get to the big game.