By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
It’s hard to believe that the first week of November has already passed, and now every NFL team has played half of its schedule. With that, we look at the first half “ups” and “downs” as the weather gets colder and the margin of error for playoff spots gets smaller.
1) Kansas City Chiefs
2) New York Jets
3) Arizona Cardinals
Honorable Mention = Carolina, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Tennessee
There are so many teams that have either outperformed expectations or shown some flashes of hope for their fan bases that it’s hard to pick three. The last spot was a tough call for me between the 4-5 Browns and the 4-4 Cardinals, but ultimately the Cardinals have performed better against competition that’s done as expected (San Francisco and Seattle) as opposed to the AFC North that has vastly underperformed and helped to bolster Cleveland’s resurgence. Still, there’s no question that the Chiefs’ undefeated season currently ranks as the biggest surprise, and considering the debacle that was the Jets’ preseason QB situation they have to be the logical choice for runner-up. Still, there has no at least be a mention of Calvin Johnson, Tony Romo, Chip Kelly, Cam Newton, Sean Payton, and a host of other players and personnel that have helped the rest of the teams in the honorable mention category either insert themselves into the playoff discussion or at the very least give their fans hope for 2014.
1) Atlanta Falcons
2) Houston Texans
3-tie) New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers
Dishonorable Mention = Baltimore, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Washington
I predicted that Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore would all take a step backwards this year, so I can’t include any of those teams in my top three, even though the Bucs have been especially putrid. I also should have done a better job of anticipating a re-adjustment period for RG3 and the Redskins, who appear to be playing better football as of late (see below). But there is no question, based upon my preseason thoughts, that Atlanta and Houston are clear frontrunners for “most disappointing” team this season. I give the slight edge to the Falcons because they have the better QB, and in an offensively-geared passing league that is the current NFL, that should be enough to avoid huge downturns like a 2-6 start against subpar competition. Houston, though, has blown some very winnable games – and with it, any shot at a third consecutive AFC South title. The Giants and Steelers have both suffered injuries and attrition, and both have looked absolutely deplorable on defense, but both are also perennial contenders with premier coaches and multiple-ring QB’s that have been just as bad on offense as they have on defense, so there’s really no excuse for either team to be 2-6.
Who’s to Blame?
With regards to the Miami Dolphins situation, that decision is best left to people much smarter and much more knowledgeable about the situation than me. What I will say, though, is that from the information that has been made public, I would say that there are no innocent parties here in any way. First off, Richie Incognito certainly crossed the line, especially when he put down in writing the things he did. He’s a hothead and definitely needs some significant character evaluation. The Dolphins coaching staff is also at fault, and while there’s some dispute as to exactly what and how much they actually knew, they need to do a better job of understanding their own locker room. Any good coach will tell you that they always had a great feel for the pulse of the players as a whole and knew when trouble was brewing. The best coaches, like Phil Jackson, Bill Parcells, Scotty Bowman, etc. – also knew the precise moment that trouble would spill over into the public and would proactively counter it and keep it all in house. Joe Philbin and his staff clearly didn’t do any of that and thus are responsible for all of the negative attention surrounding a team competing for a playoff spot. And finally, victim or not, Jonathan Martin does deserve some blame here as well. Whether he brought on the bullying by ostracizing himself from the rest of the group in a stand-offish way, as some have characterized, or whether he really wasn’t tough enough, he needed to know that there were certain expectations he needed to meet as a player in the NFL, especially as an offensive lineman. Did he deserve the treatment he got from Incognito? Not even close! But anyone arguing that Martin is blameless is ignorant of the culture of sports. Most of what occurs in a professional locker room in victimless, good-natured hazing like picking up a dinner tab or shaving a head, and any attempt by a rookie to buck those traditions is viewed as borderline mutiny by the veterans. That’s simply the way it is, the way it will always be, and there’s nothing wrong with that kind of stuff. Martin didn’t participate in the little things, which opened himself up to the bigger things. Yes, Incognito was totally out of place and yes, the coaching staff was either willingly complicit or utterly negligent in their awareness of the situation, but yes, Martin needed to do a better job of assimilating himself into the culture of professional football. There are no winners here, only a .500 team that could very easily crumble and collapse over the second half of what could otherwise potentially be a playoff season.
If The Playoffs Started Today…
This week it’s the AFC that breaks out perfectly, without the need of a tiebreaker. I am still very confused as to just how the Jets have managed to remain relevant this far into the season (remember in the preseason preview where I picked them 4-12? Oops…) but the most surprisingly thing on this list is the absence of Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houston – three teams many people, myself included, expected to at least be in contention. Instead, those three teams are a combined 7-17, and they all might wind up watching the playoffs from home instead of the sidelines.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-0)
2. New England Patriots (7-2)
3. Indianapolis Colts (6-2)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-3)
5. Denver Broncos (7-1)
6. New York Jets (5-4)
1. Seattle Seahawks (8-1)
2. New Orleans Saints (6-2)
3. Detroit Lions (5-3)
4. Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
5. San Francisco 49’ers (6-2)
6. Carolina Panthers (5-3)
Notes: Detroit wins the third seed over Chicago and Green Bay because of conference redord (Det 4-2, Chi 3-3, GB 3-2). Carolina wins the sixth seed over Chicago because of conference record (Car 5-2, Chi 3-3). Green Bay lost out to Chicago in divisional tiebreaker because of head-to-head loss.
Washington Redskins @ Minnesota Vikings
Thu, 8:30pm, NFLN
Line: Redskins by 1
The Redskins defense isn’t very good, but it proved in a big way (and thanks to some poor San Diego play calling) that they can rise to the biggest occasion at the end of last week’s victory. The Vikings will probably score some points, as they have proven capable of doing even with their tenuous quarterback situation, but it’s actually the Vikings defense that will be the issue here. Three times this year, Minnesota has been unable to get a critical stop late in a winnable game (Chicago, Cleveland, and last week’s Dallas loss) that would have made this an otherwise playoff-contending team. Add to that the inexcusable 23 points allowed to a sloppy Giants team and the 44 points Green Bay hung on them last week, and there’s just no way the Vikings – even at home – will be able to come through late against a Redskins offense that appears to be improving week-by-week as Griffin’s health and performance both increase.
Pick: Washington 34, Minnesota 27
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