So the all-important Week Three of the preseason is (almost) over. With next week looming as the usual bunch of tryouts to fill roster spots, we’re about as armed as we’re likely to be (barring further injuries). What can we expect in the divisions?
Note please that the order is a ranking. A loose one at this point, but what are we supposed to do, wait ’til week 8? We’ll probably be doing the same thing then anyway.
AFCE: The division touted by some as this year’s version of the NFCW of seasons past seems plenty tough. Despite their low standing in popular opinion, a quick look shows stellar interdivisional numbers over a long stretch. Part of the mirage is the presence of New England, winner of the division for 13 of the past 15 seasons. How do they really look?
NE: Besides the spectre of opposing owners using officials in unseemly ways through their puppet, New England has the usual maelstrom one wouldn’t expect from a winner, especially from a SB winner. Player turnover, injuries, you name it. Their first two games featured Tom Brady playing 2 series in each with ten subs. He was equally subpar in the third game until a brilliant 2-minute drill that ended the half. The defense is looking for a secondary, only Malcolm Butler looking solid. But it’s as likely an illusion; just before last season’s MNF debacle in KC that dropped them to 2-2 Belichick remarked that the team was, with the new CBA, only in the last week of preseason in terms of number of snaps. Nobody needs those snaps as much as New England, for reasons given above combined with system complexity. Expect the same this year. They’re 2-1 solely on the play of Garoppolo and the defensive subs right now.
BUF: EJ hasn’t looked bad so far despite having been ranked 3rd on the Bills’ depth charts. Now he’s ranked first. But this otherwise fairly stacked team wasn’t scoring points either. It’s the Rex way, and he came to the right place it seems. Time will tell whether they score enough points to complement what is usually a good defensive effort, whether one QB rises to the challenge, and whether Rex proves a defensive spark or a liability compared to predecessor Jim Schwartz, a loose cannon but a gem of a DC who remains unsigned. And they hung 41 uncharacteristic points on Pittsburgh.
MIA: I think it’s safe to say that most of South Florida thinks “it’s time.” While that vapid mantra has proven poor advice for electing presidents, it makes some sense for the Fins and in particular for Ryan Tannehill. Is the the answer? Is Joe Philbin the question? Do their acquisitions (like Suh) put them over? The team seems to have good personnel. As usual. Stay tuned. They handled Atlanta in week 3 in a close game. That might not be a good sign. Ok, it’s not a good sign.
NYJ: One might think the NY league offices and media conspired to inflate ‘deflategate’ into a scandal just to keep attention off their embarrassment of a franchise. Already the projected starter, who’s shown mostly signs of being incapable of playing effectively in Canada, is on temporary IR with a busted jaw, courtesy of a linebacker (now with Buffalo) whom he stiffed for a plane ticket and a promised appearance at the function it was supposed to carry him to. Meanwhile, against team directive, he’s been happily playing catch in his yard with his freshly rewired face. That pushed Sheldon Richardson off the front pages. We could go on but why? All class. Good luck Bowles. Good luck Revis. Still, they handled the Giants with ease.
AFCS: For once this division is looking interesting.
HOU: With both former NE backups looking competent under former NE OC O’Brien (and Hoyer having tentatively won the starter’s job) the Texans look ready to assault Indianapolis’ generally inferior personnel chart. The defense certainly has looked strong and deep. Whether vaporware Clowney ever makes an impact is a topic for conjecture, but he’s just one of many on a team that now has Vince Wilfork as added mass for a DL already featuring JJ Ballgame. Is this the year? They host nemesis NE late in the season. May be interesting.
IND: The Colts don’t look as strong as predicted at this point for a team with little turnover. Perhaps it’s their post-blowup roster catching up with them. Those first-place finishes can throw a wrench in a total rebuild. Or the fact that they have to look in the mirror to shave in the morning. Coaches dispirited by their owners can be trouble. Ask San Francisco. They’ll contend, but now they have bad karma added to their issues. Andrew Luck is being crowned king by at least the fantasy world. If Houston materializes, it may be premature. Having a dogfight with the Rams in week 3 is not a sign of power.
TEN: That offense certainly looks like Oregon. Under Whisenhunt? Well, his last success came with an Arizona team featuring Mr. Greatest Show throwing to a pack of dominant receivers. The coach seems to have wanted Mariota for a purpose. His issue is that Mettenberger looks just as good. Maybe better so far. All those picks and veterans sure could have helped. Ask Washington what it’s like to carry two young QBs. Especially if you insist on playing the one who makes the most money. Still, these guys could surprise. The question, as with also Oregon-like Philly, is whether this is a viable system or just something that defenses bring down to earth after a few weeks’ worth of game tape. Like two weeks’ worth, which Kansas City seems to have devoured along with the Titans in week 3.
JAC: Things seem to be progressing in the swamps. Bortles doesn’t seem to be facing a sophomore slump, and looks more confident reading defenses. The Jags’ biggest issue may be that they, like the Browns, find themselves in what could be a strong division inhospitable to developing teams. Time will tell. If the Titans don’t truly make a jump over last season, a door is open. If either Houston or Indy fails to meet expectations, a lot of doors may open. They outplayed the Lions in week 3. That’s something to look at.
AFCN: The conference’s own black and blue division had so much parity among good teams last year that the entire shebang nearly went .500. Can’t happen again, can it?
BAL: Like the Colts, bad karma haunts them. Unlike the Colts, they probably don’t care. This team had enough bad karma to sink a battleship already. Harbaugh will whip them into contention somehow, but unless they’ve improved in the offseason how long it takes is in some question. They may not be able to afford to wait around again. You don’t always wake up with the season 3/4 over and everybody around .500. And you probably shouldn’t get whomped by metroplex rival Washington in week 3 of the preseason.
CIN: They’re a team built to win in the division, but so far we’ve seen few signs that Andy Dalton or AJ Green are ready to take a giant step. Their combo stock is plummeting, and the formidable Cinci D may not be able to get off the field enough. This edition may have peaked. Why they aren’t better than they are has a number of possible answers and Marvin needs to find them fast. Week 3? They beat the Bears convincingly. But that’s the Bears.
PIT: The Steelers need to show something to vindicate Tomlin, who’s seen his team go from SB champ (really Cowher’s team) to SB chump to also-ran. They’ve already lost their star center. The question is whether they’ve amassed depth and a defense. Ben will score points somehow. But he can throw for 300 yards at will, and they lose those games as often as not. Air Ben hasn’t been the answer. Defense is the answer. This may be their year back. It better be. If not it’s probably so long Mike. Handing 41 points to Buffalo isn’t exactly indicative of the return of the Steel Curtain.
CLE: Der Alte und der Junge. That’s what West Germans called Adenauer and Brandt around 1961. The old man and the kid. Das Brauns have their own such combo at QB with nicht in between. The organization is not renowned for its stability. Their defense has been solid of late. They are a total question mark. Yet they absolutely trampled Tampa in their own house in week 3, minus any Johnny-baggage, and held both Tampa QBs under 50% completions. Not bad. Hope for the future or distraction? Hmm. I want to pick them over Pittsburgh at this point. I just can’t.
AFCW: Here’s a division with an aging dynast, two fairly capable challengers and a dark horse that may have something. Or not.
DEN: Manning looks older by the second. Do these guys have a strong enough supporting cast? They didn’t even want Manning. All the earmarks of a blowup, but even half a Manning may be good enough to prop them up for a while. As their puntfest versus an again-inept SF offense showed, the days of simply watching the TD clock tick with Manning on the field may be over. He’s still good, but his teams have relied on more than that. A lot more.
SD: The Chargers may remain a day late and a couple of players short despite the presence of Phil Rivers. At least that’s a long-term prognosis. Eventually their lack of depth ought to do them in despite Rivers’ heroics and good coaching. But intact, they can go toe-to-toe with anybody and they never give up. They looked the equal of Seattle in week 3. Luck be a lady.
KC: This should be the strongest team in the division. But they sure weren’t last year. Will they come around this season, or is Reid out of gas? You tell me. They manhandled the Titans, who had been manhandling teams up to this week. Another mystery team. They could be blue sky or rock bottom. I can’t get a handle on them.
OAK: Carr looks good, lots of stuff looks good, but it’s the Raiders and something will go wrong. Or maybe not. Maybe everything will go wrong. O ye of little faith, you say. Faith in the Raiders? Tonight they play a tough Arizona team. Gimmee somethin’.
NFCE: The league’s most intriguing soap opera may not produce the best football in the NFL this year, but it’s going to be must-watch football for sure.
PHI: Chip Kelly. Malevolent genius or psychotic? We will find out fast. So far, the Oregonigles have stormed out with an unexpectedly decent defense and an offense that makes opponents look lost. Like Oregon. We saw inklings of that in Kelly’s first season and the flash was doused by game tape after a while. But so far they look like the class of the division. Kelly should be happy he didn’t sell the farm for Mariotta. It looks like he’s got several guys who can run his offense now. That, of course, begs the question of how complex his offense really is. If it’s real these guys could be something. If not… they fade. Lookin’ good so far. Real good in fact.
DAL: Minus a few cogs, the Boys return. They were powerful last year, a near SB team. For some reason it’s hard to picture that happening again. But if (that word) a few things turn out positive, it could happen. The core should be strong. Murray will be hard to replace, a rarity for RBs in this age. Their loss to Minny in week 3 was more of a tossup. But they have to be better than that.
WAS: I said this last year and I’ll say it now. When your QB gets hammered and the team goes nowhere with or without him on his back, then the replacement comes in and the same team suddenly marches up and down the field through the same defense like a hot knife through butter, a bell or two ought to go off. Instead we get excuses from the media. Now they’re blaming Gruden. Earth to media. Blame RG3. He’s another college phenom who can’t play in the pros. He’s got more apologists than global warming. Enter week 3: RG3 is hurt (we think) and the Cousins/McCoy combo didn’t just beat the Ravens, they ran it up. The only question to this scribe is whether a light bulb goes on.
NYG: Eli has more picks than Las Vegas over the past few years, but you never know with these guys. You just have a pretty good idea. Losing to the Jets in a preseason week-3 game that actually ought to mean something isn’t a good sign. At all. Getting picked apart by Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t either.
NFCS: The ultimate sad sack last year, the division just has to get better. It really wasn’t that bad. Was it? Ok, it was. In the NFL it’s execution, execution, execution. Another year like 2014 and the entire division may face execution.
NO: If the Saints’ defense can stop anyone, Brees ought to be able to put up enough points to pull off some wins. Hell, he’s got six division games to play with. It’s that or the Saints really are headed for an as-yet postponed rotisserie restoration. A look tonight at their proficiency against what should be a powerful Houston defense might give us a hint, but it’s still on the defense.
CAR: One of the league’s best optical illusions, the 2x-consecutive division winners had a defensively inspired 13-3 season in 2013 as Cam played like a game manager for once. He reverted to form in the playoffs and it was bye-bye. His reversion continued last year, and the result was a humiliating 7-9 division title. He’s driven his car off a ramp and had a locker room brawl as his two most memorable recent moments. It’s time for these guys to sink back to the depths methinks. Unless that D can hide a multitude of sins. They lost at home to the tryout-happy Patriots, not a strong sign. But that division… location, location, location.
TB: Lovie has put together what at least looks like a strong D in Tampa. What could do the team in is RG3 Syndrome. Right now, Glennon is more effective than Jameis. That’s to be expected. But if they insist on playing their bonus baby, the defense may not be enough. Unless he improves radically. He ought to improve, but reading Ds in the NFL doesn’t come easy to everyone. Glennon, in his 3rd year, may be ready to do it. Winston is unlikely to catch up in his first year. And in an unexpected turn of events, neither looked ready to do anything against the Browns. What to think?
ATL: They have a new coach, they should have a decent core, but there’s just something about these guys that suggests they’ve peaked and may be on an irreversible slide until major changes are made. You get that feeling after consecutive 4-12 and 6-10 seasons. Don’t you? I do. Losing to Miami in a snorer didn’t change my mind.
NFCN: Here’s a division with some potential for a race. Who’s in it looks obvious. Or does it?
GB: No Jordy Nelson. For teams built on an irreplaceable core (besides QB) that could be the end. But the Pack are probably more flexible than that. Are they also flexible enough to handle no Cobb? More than any other team in a QBcentric league, they depend on Rodgers. The ball needs an open destination. Without one he tends to take matters into his own legs. We’ve seen how that works. In week 3 they were Philly’s latest systematic victim.
DET: If these guys have grown up finally, and if Caldwell is a disciplinarian and not a wet blanket, they may have the stuff to unseat Green Bay. What escapes them is consistency, so it’s hard to pick them for first. Playoffs? Could be. Their week 3 effort against an admittedly improving Jacksonville wasn’t a promising tuneup for a title run.
MIN: Considering Cris Carter’s use of Bridgewater as a willing prop during his ‘get a fall guy’ screed which nobody but some imbeciles (e.g., one C.J. in the Minny papers) seems to think is any semblence of good advice, one starts to wonder about Teddy Inc.’s character. So far though, he’s been good on the field. But the team was 7-9 last year. Did he get that much better? Maybe. Not better enough to catch Rodgers and Stafford you’d think. They did go toe-to-toe with Dallas in week 3 though.
CHI: Da Bears were a shambles last year. They changed coaches but they didn’t change teams. Do you see any signs?
NFCW: The division that was the Gold Standard two years ago hit either a speed bump or a brick wall last year. This year we find out which it was.
SEA: At some point these guys will put it together and take the division. I think. They’re not there yet, but they deserve some cred. There’s no overpowering sign of a west coast flip flop like the one that bit SF.
ARI: If they have enough healthy personnel (stay tuned) and if Arians still has the magic (he probably does), the Cards ought to have another run in them. Not enough to win a title, but a run. Let’s see what they do in Oakland.
SF: From powerhouse to flunky. How did they do it? If the reason was a dispirited coach, that problem is solved. Maybe. If the problem was a QB who simply cannot read a defense, they’re in trouble again. A strong defense might bail them out in some divisions, but here everybody’s got a strong defense. Their offensive performance against Denver provided no positive omens.
STL: The Rams’ main problem appeared to be that Nick Foles looked utterly lost. When Case Keenum is outplaying your starter by going 7/16 you got issues. Mariotta and Mettenberger both sliced and diced the Ram D in week 2. Maybe the Titans will make a lot of teams look silly this year. They made the Rams look silly. Wait a minute. So did Oakland. But they did play Indy even until garbage time, and Foles looked anything but lost. Good signs? Another Frisco collapse could mean an open door.