Wednesday, November 08, 2006

NFL Midseason Progress Report: Only a Few Really Making the Grade

Just like schoolchildren all across America, the NFL teams are due for their midterm progress reports. Some of the students are doing quite well indeed. Others have improvement needed. And yes, some of the kids are headed for failing grades if they don’t get on the ball and turn things around by Christmas. Here’s a look at the class, division by division.

1. New England (6-2) Depite the recent loss to the Colts, the Pats are doing well indeed. They’re beating who they ought to beat in building a playoff-bound record, and Tom Brady seems better than ever. The defense still plays with heart, and Belichick has tweaked the lineup with remarkably good results.

2. N.Y. Jets (4-4) A surprise at 4-4, with rookie coach Eric Mangini making the most of the talent limitations he’s been handed. Chad Pennington proving he’s still a first-rung QB.

3. Buffalo (3-5) Things could be worse in Buffalo. Injuries on defense and J.P. Losman’s somewhat plodding development have hampered things. They don’t figure to improve much but may pull an upset or two along the way.

4. Miami (2-6) The recent upset of the Bears is the only legit bright spot in a disappointing season. The Fins were 9-7 last year, with hopes for doing even better in ‘06. But QB Daunte Culpepper has not moved forward from injury, and the team’s big off-season acquisition was a gamble that didn’t pay off. They still have a semblance of a running game and a few stars on defense. Mediocrity appears to be their fate.

1. Baltimore (6-2) The dangerous Ravens defense is back, and offseason acquisition Steve McNair looks to be the man for the QB job. Ravens looking strong for the postseason.

2. Cincinnati (4-4) For a team with playoff aspirations, .500 isn’t gonna cut it. Carson Palmer has come back from injury and looks good, but the Bengals’ high-powered offense has been stuck in second gear. Plus, they’ve had to deal with a welter of off-the-field problems with immature players making bad personal decisions. They better find their mojo fast or even a wild-card berth looks elusive.

3. Cleveland (2-6) There are so many holes on the Browns, it’s a miracle they’ve won two games. Plus, they had to replace their offensive coordinator in mid-stream. It’s a waiting game here, to see if young players emerge and to hope that sheer effort will win a few more games.

4. Pittsburgh (2-6) The SMA preseason prognostication on the Steelers was 8-8. They had lost a few good players in the off-season, and Roethlisberger was recovering from a motorcyle accident. But things got even worse. At the rate they’re going, they’ll only win 4 games. It seems likely that the Steelers will get back on the beam. There’s too much talent here for the entire season to go down the drain. They can forget the playoffs, though.

1. Indianapolis (8-0) It may be the most imperfect perfect record you’ll ever see, but the Colts are beating everybody, good teams and bad teams alike. Their defense is porous against the run, but Peyton Manning brings ‘em back on offense with such brilliance that it doesn’t seem to matter what the D does. They’re vulnerable in the same way they’ve always been: If someone’s pass-rush can get to Manning, the Colts can be slowed. Yet no one seems able to do that. Super Bowl contender.

2. Jacksonville (5-3) Still a bit of a mystery, the Jags probably will have to be reckoned with in the postseason. They’ve switched QBs, from Byron Leftwich to David Garrard, and who’s to say it’s not a good move? Fred Taylor has been running well, and if the excellent defense can recover from some key losses to injury, the Jags will challenge for a wild card.

3. Houston (2-6) They were hoping in Houston that the Texans were better than this. They‘re up one week with a decisive victory over Jacksonville, then shooting themselves in the foot against lowly Tennessee the next. David Carr is putting up the kind of numbers that get you bonus payments in your contract but don’t apparently win games. The once-dismal O-line has upgraded to dismal every other week. They’re still struggling to find a consistent runner, though rookie Wali Lundy has shown some ability. Still, they look headed for 4-12.

4. Tennessee (2-6) The same goes for the Titans. Vince Young’s struggles at QB pretty much guarantee more losses down the road. They have some talent in places, but they’re simply going to always have difficulty facing better, deeper, more developed teams.

1. Denver (6-2) The Broncos are a very gool team. They are exceedingly well coached and they play tough fundamental football. Whether Jake Plummer can take them to the Super Bowl is a whole other matter. They appear capable of beating anybody in the AFC, and that’s where all the good teams are. But they’re being stiffly challenged in their own division, and that’s never any fun. Playoff-bound.

2. San Diego (6-2) A fine team that needs to overcome various jinxes. First, Marty Schottenheimer has never won the big one. Second, off-the-field shenanigans have hurt their depth. Third, they have a virtual rookie at QB, who has nonetheless played very well and seems to be getting better with every game. LaDainian Tomlinson helps their chances mightily. The Chargers are an exciting team, but historically they go soft. We shall see.

3. Kansas City (5-3) The Chiefs are feeling their oats these days. Even losing QB Trent Green to injury hasn’t hurt ‘em, with Damon Huard proving to be a capable backup. Larry Johnson is a great runner. Defense has been their Achilles heel for a long while, and they still give up too many points. But they could grab a wild-card berth if teams like Cincinnati or Jacksonville falter.

4. Oakland (2-6) A bad team that looks rudderless (as opposed to bad teams like Houston and Tennessee that have some hope). We had ‘em at 4-12 to begin the season. That looks about right.

1. N.Y. Giants (6-2) At this juncture, the Giants look like the class of a supposedly very good division that maybe isn’t that good after all but is certainly competitive. A good but vulnerable team that’s sufferd injuries and still has a lot to prove.

2. Dallas (4-4) After they beat Carolina behind young QB Tony Romo, the scribes were heralding the return of America’s Team. Then the Cowboys went to Washington and played themselves right out of a victory and a chance to pull within a game of the Giants. If they were a really good team, the Cowboys wouldn’t have let that Redskins game slip away, and if they keep doing things like that, they’ll be 8-8. (SMA pegged ‘em at 9-7 at the beginning of the year.)

3. Philadelphia (4-4) Another NFC East mystery team. If they were as good as people said they were, they’d be better than 4-4. Donovan McNabb has returned to top form, which is good news, but the Eagles have played poorly on occasion. The tough schedule doesn’t help. On the other hand, the NFC is such that, if they can get on a run, they can make the playoffs.

4. Washington (3-5) Take millions of owner Dan Snyder’s money, buy high-priced free agents, turn ‘em over to a Hall of Fame coach and an extravagantly paid staff of assistants, and what’ve you got? An inconsistent offense led by an aging quarterback and a bruised running back, and a defense that has yet to show the fire of 2005. The Redskins lost to the Titans—in Washington, for Pete’s sake. But they also beat the Jaguars and the Cowboys. It’s anybody’s guess how the Skins will respond in the second half. They have talent, but they seem fated to underperform. The chances of them catching fire for a late-season run like last year seem remote.

1. Chicago (7-1) Put a hold on that lock for the Super Bowl. Sure, the Bears are good. But they’ve also played a wimp schedule. Plus, their QB, Rex Grossman, is still learning. They can’t have a complete meltdown because the schedule won’t allow it. So look for them in the playoffs. It should be pretty interesting.

2. Minnesota (4-4) Up and down, up and down. If you’re a Vikings fan, you’re likely to toss your cookies from the rollercoaster ride. But playing .500 is a step in the right direction for them. Their defense has played very hard, and that’s helped to counteract a pop-gun offense led by Brad Johnson, who doesn’t seem able to throw a pass longer than 20 yards anymore. Chester Taylor has supplied some hope at running back, but the Vikes are gonna have to keep putting forth maximum effort to have a shot at the playoffs. It could happen, but it probably won’t.

3. Green Bay (3-5) The epitome of mediocrity. Not much else to say. If they keep playing like they have, they’ll wind up 6-10, which is exactly what we said they’d do back in August.

4. Detroit (2-6) As a testament to “any given Sunday,” the woeful Lions went out in their last game and beat the Falcons. Don’t look for them to beat another playoff contender this year. We had ‘em at 5-11 as a preseason prediction. Thanks, Lions, for making us look so smart.

1. New Orleans (6-2) Okay, we’ll cry “Uncle” on this one. The Saints have already won two more games than we predicted for their entire year. Drew Brees looks very good at quarterback, but more than that, the Saints have been performing well on both sides of the ball. Only time will tell if this is a fairy tale or not, but the Saints look for real. Divisional competition is stiff, though, and a playoff berth is not a gimme at the moment. They’ll have to keep winning.

2. Atlanta (5-3) Beat Carolina on the road, lose to the Giants at home. Beat talented Cincinnati, then lose to the awful Lions. There’s nothing worse than a good team that doesn’t know how to win. And then there’s the Vick Factor. The Falcons’ QB must be a Gemini. You can’t predict which Vick will show up. The Falcons have the talent to make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t necessarily put money on it.

3. Carolina (4-4) Another talented team trying to find itself. The mid-term report card has a notation from the teacher: “Mr. Fox and his associates need to work a little harder. With just a bit more effort, they could go very far.” Their tough schedule has hampered consistency. Look for them to be in the hunt for a wild card at the least.

4. Tampa Bay (2-6) Even more disappointing than the Redskins, the Bucs have struggled on both sides of the ball, their defense looking suddenly too old, and their offense led by rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski. They’ll aim for .500 for the year, but the schedule won’t let that happen. Tough year for Chucky.

1. Seattle (5-3) Injuries are rife but the ‘Hawks have still managed to lead their division. When Hasselbeck and Alexander return, this instantly becomes a much better team. And, with the NFC as weak as it is, they could still emerge as a postseason favorite.

2. St. Louis (4-4) SMA’s preseason prediction was 8-8. For a few weeks there, the Rams were threatening the ‘Hawks’ divisional superiority. Hard to know if reality has set in. They have an exciting offense. They play some D, some of the time. A team worth watching for at least a little while.

3. San Francisco (3-5) Even at a languid 3-5, you’d probably have to list the 49ers as one of the surprises of ‘06. QB Alex Smith is improving, and the team as a whole has responded to Coach Mike Nolan’s intensity. One more win and they equal our preseason guesstimate on their fortunes.

4. Arizona (1-7) Cards coach Dennis Green gets style points for that classic post-game tirade after his team choked against the Bears on Monday night. Very entertaining stuff, Dennis. After you get fired, you might consider a stand-up career. The hope here is that rookie Matt Leinart keeps improving at quarterback, and that Edgerrin James somehow can keep his running average above 3.0 yards per carry. Yet the Cards are so deep down a black hole that it’s hard to see them emerging for quite a while. A promising season shot to hell. At least their new stadium is impressive, even if the record is not.

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