Tuesday Trends

After another wonderful week in the NFL, we are at the point where the season is taking shape. We are starting to see some real separation between playoff contenders and teams that are just about ready to start preparing for the draft. Here are my five most important takeaways from Week 11.

1. The Chargers’ window of opportunity is likely shut.

Every year, the Chargers have a rough start in September and October and every year we wonder if perhaps they have dug themselves too deep a hole this time to rebound and make the playoffs. Well, that year was last year when they finished 9-7 and the Chiefs won the division at 10-6.

Philip Rivers took over as starting quarterback for San Diego in 2006. We are going to look back on the 2006-2009 Chargers, who went 46-18 in the regular season in that stretch, and wonder how in the world they only won three playoff games with those immensely talented rosters.

Now, though, the 4-6 Chargers are on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. They’ve been riddled by injuries but good teams find a way to plug those holes–last year the Packers sent 15 players to Injured Reserve–and the Chargers have lacked the depth to do so.

Sunday’s loss to the Bears put the Chargers two games behind the Raiders and one game behind the Broncos with six games left to play. If, as is most likely, they don’t make the playoffs this season, it will almost certainly cost Norv Turner his job and the organization should think long and hard about sending general manager AJ Smith, who failed to build this roster with adequate depth and has infuriated some of his team’s best players in bitter contract negotiations, packing with him.

2. The AFC is crowded at the top

The Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, and Texans are in a four-way tie atop the AFC at 7-3. Out of the four, the Patriots and Ravens have the inside track–for the AFC North tiebreaker, the Ravens have beaten the Steelers twice while the Texans will have to transition from Matt Schaub to Matt Leinart.

For quick reference, though, here are the four teams’ remaining schedules:

  • Patriots: @Eagles, Colts, @Redskins, @Broncos, Dolphins, Bills
  • Ravens: 49ers, @Browns, Colts, @Chargers, Browns, @Bengals
  • Texans: @Jaguars, Falcons, @Bengals, Panthers, @Colts, Titans
  • Steelers: @Chiefs, Bengals, Browns, @49ers, Rams, @Browns

None of these schedules are particularly difficult so it is reasonable to assume that these four teams will ultimately be seeded 1, 2, 3, and 5 (the AFC West winner, which right now looks like it will be the Raiders or Broncos, will be seeded 4). At 6-4, the Raiders might be able to pass the Texans. There is a huge difference between being ranked 3 and 4 in the AFC this year because the 4th seed will have to play the Ravens or Steelers, both of whom are substantially better right now than all of the AFC Wild Card contenders (in descending order by current ranking: Bengals, Broncos, Titans, Jets Bills).

3. Tied at 6-4 atop the NFC East, the Cowboys and Giants still get to play each other twice.

Currently, the Cowboys have won three in a row while the Giants have lost two straight. Both of these teams have incredibly high variance for how the rest of the season could go; either could conceivably miss the playoffs or win the Super Bowl.

The Cowboys could quite easily be 8-2 had they not self-destructed in fourth quarter collapses to the Jets and and Lions (although by the same token they benefitted from a fourth quarter comeback to hand the 49ers their only loss of the season). If you separate out their blowout at the hands of the bi-polar Eagles, the Cowboys lost their other three games by a combined 11 points.

The Giants have a hellacious schedule the rest of the way. In addition to playing the Cowboys twice, they must play the Saints, Packers, and Jets. Their only respite the rest of the way is a home game against the Redskins. I think that if the Giants are going to win this race, they need to beat the Cowboys twice.

4. Is this Carson Palmer renaissance to be believed?

Carson Palmer has once again looked like an elite quarterback in his past two starts, road wins against the Chargers and Vikings. In those games he was 31-43 for 363 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. It is one thing to ascribe this success to his learning of the Raiders offense but his arm strength has appeared to be better than it’s been in years. He’s making throws that only Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Roethlisberger, and Cutler can make. Maybe this wasn’t the most egregious trade in the history of ever?

Obviously, two games isn’t enough to declare that Palmer is back to old form on a sustainable basis but the only other times I’ve seen a quarterback go from great to awful to great like this were Kurt Warner and Brett Favre (Favre had an AWFUL second half of his Jets season before playing in 1995-1997 form in his first year with the Vikings).

Is it wrong to question if he might have had, um, extra help? From watching how hard the NFLPA is digging its heals for HGH testing implementation, don’t we have to view situations like this one with at least some degree of suspicion? I want to be clear that I’m not saying that Palmer unequivocally took performance enhancing drugs to return to form. But I’m saying there’s a chance.

5. Cam Newton has greater upside but Andy Dalton is better right now.

Newton has a slightly higher completion percentage (60.0-59.3%), more yards passing (2885-2239), and is obviously a much more formidable runner but Dalton has more touchdown passes (15-12), less interceptions (12-14), and a better record by four games.

Currently, Newton has a little bit of late-era Brett Favre in him where he gets frustrated when the team is behind and tries to muscle throws into tight coverage, often resulting in head-scratching interceptions. His talent level is vastly superior to Dalton’s but Dalton is more calm and collected and I would trust him much more right now with the game on the line.

If Newton becomes more patient, though, without compromising his ability to make throws that few others on the planet (really just Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and this bizarro version of Carson Palmer) possess the arm strength to complete, he has a chance to be perhaps the best quarterback in the league. We have never seen someone a quarterback with the size, speed, and strength of Newton and I can’t wait to see if he develops into one of the best of all-time.

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