Tuesday Trends

This is a weekly column on the trends in the NFL

1. The NFC North is the best division in the NFL

The only other acceptable arguments are the AFC East and AFC North. Top to bottom, though, the Packers, Lions, Bears, and Vikings are better than the Patriots, Jets, Bills, and Dolphins and Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, and Browns; outside of the division NFC North teams are 16-6 while AFC East teams are 11-11 and AFC North teams are 18-9. The AFC North, though, is aided by a comparatively weak schedule where they have match-ups with the putrid AFC South and NFC West (this is, after all, how the awful Browns have three wins). There is a decent chance that the 8-0 Packers, 6-2 Lions, and 5-3 Bears all make the playoffs; the only other non-division leaders in the NFC that is over .500 are the 5-3 Falcons.

After starting out 2-3, the Bears have won three in a row and Jay Cutler has looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He throws the ball harder than anyone in the NFL with the possible exception of Aaron Rodgers and, like Rodgers, when Cutler has protection and steps into a pass you are almost certain that it is going to be complete even as you have no idea how open the intended receiver is.

If the Falcons do keep winning or the 4-4 Cowboys, 4-4 Buccaneers or 3-5-but-not-quite-dead-yet Eagles come on and the NFC North can only have one wild card team, the battle between the Lions and Bears–who play this Sunday–for that spot will be a fascinating one to watch.

2. The AFC West is even more up for grabs than it was last week.

As the Chargers and Chiefs lost and the Broncos beat the Raiders this past Sunday, Denver moved to within one game of the division lead. This seemed inconceivable even a week ago as the Chiefs were hosting the winless Dolphins and Lions players were calling Tim Tebow an embarrassment:

“Can you believe ’15’?” one Detroit Lions defender asked after his team’s 45-10 immolation of Tebow and the Denver Broncos. “Come on – that’s embarrassing. I mean, it’s a joke. We knew all week that if we brought any kind of defensive pressure, he couldn’t do anything. In the second half it got boring out there. We were like, ‘Come on – that’s your quarterback? Seriously?’ ”

In trading their best receiver Brandon Lloyd to the Rams for a bag of footballs fifth round pick, it seemed as if the Broncos were pulling some Major League type s— and actively trying to lose with Tebow, although the plan to rebuild is less nefarious than a scheme to move the team.

My best guess is that the Chargers will get their affairs in order and win this division but it won’t happen if they steadfastly refuse to stay out of their own way. This week, the Chargers host the Raiders and the Chiefs host the Broncos so next week at this time we should have a slightly clearer picture of which team in this division sucks the least.

3. Right now the 6-2 Giants are surging but does that necessarily mean they can’t blow it?

When the Giants win, they look like one of the best teams in the league and Eli Manning looks like a top flight quarterback. When they lose, it is quite the opposite. On any given Sunday, this team is capable of beating or losing to anybody.

With a last minute touchdown on Sunday to beat the Patriots, the Giants took care of business on the first leg of their murderous schedule. Once again, though, here is their schedule over the next five weeks:

  • November 13: @San Francisco 49ers
  • November 20: Philadelphia Eagles
  • November 28: @New Orleans Saints
  • December 4: Green Bay Packers
  • December 11: @Dallas Cowboys
If the Giants go 3-2 in these five games, they are in immensely good shape to win the NFC East. If they go 2-3, they still have a pretty good shot, especially if they split the remaining two games with the Cowboys (the other is Week 17 at home on January 1). The variance on where the Giants season can go from here is greater than that of any other team in the league.

4. The 49ers keep chuggin’ along.

At 7-1, San Francisco is flying under the radar a little bit from a national perspective. Considering how good this team has been this season, they should have been much more than 3.5 point favorites against the dreadful Redskins last Sunday, even when taking into account the sort of unfair “west coast team plays 1:00 pm game on east coast” situation they were in. Having won five in a row before this game and facing a team that had lost three straight, this line should have been three or four points higher.

People clearly want no part of Alex Smith, even though he has done an excellent job as a game manager (the ultimate backhanded compliment for a quarterback) this season, completing 64.1% of his passes for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions as Frank Gore does a lot of the offense’s heavy lifting.

This week, they are favored by 3.5 in their previously mentioned home match-up against the Giants. For me, this game is the most intriguing one in a slate that features a lot of them this coming week (also: Raiders @ Chargers, Bills @ Cowboys, Texans @ Buccaneers, Saints @ Falcons, Broncos @ Chiefs, Steelers @ Bengals, Lions @ Bears, and Patriots @ Jets). A first round bye in the playoffs could very well be at stake.

5. The Colts are of course the leaders in the Suck for Luck campaign.

The amount of coverage that this storyline has gotten on ESPN has been really annoying because analysis about teams that are actually good at football is much more interesting. However, it needs to be said that it appears the Colts are doing this strategically. Obviously, the players are not complicit–they are all fighting for jobs, not only with the Colts but potentially with other teams, and all of their actions are on film–but there are things that the coaching staff and general management can be doing to make certain outcomes, like losing, more likely.

Jim Caldwell is a lame duck who may or may not ever even blink. He just stares and it is unclear if he is thinking thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him say anything during a game. If the Colts wanted to win a few games they could replace him with someone more enthusiastic and intense–someone who is alive–to try to get the most out of his players. However, they’ve been outscored 147-41 in their past four games and don’t look like they plan on playing better anytime soon.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, are still fighting as is evidenced by their 31-3 beatdown at Kansas City this past Sunday and the fact that they only lost their previous two games by a combined six points. The Rams are also still fighting, having beaten the Saints two weeks ago and lost in overtime to the Cardinals on Sunday. At two wins, Jaguars, Panthers (who don’t need a quarterback), Cardinals, and Seahawks are well out of the sweepstakes because there is no way the Colts, Rams, and Dolphins all reach two wins. The Colts appear poised to take this one and NFL fans will be the beneficiaries because it raises the chances that, if he can recover from his neck injury, Peyton Manning will be playing for a competitor within two seasons.

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