November is the time in the NFL where we separate contenders from pretenders. This week, I focused on the NFC. My power ratings have the Giants, 49ers and Falcons as the top three teams in the conference. Who among the rest can challenge for NFC supremacy? Read on to find out.
This offense just isn't working. Facing a bottom tier defense, Jay Cutler still couldn’t find any receivers open downfield. They committed their 17th false start penalty in the first quarter here, by far the most in the NFL. Starting a drive from their own ten yard line, a false start immediately followed by an illegal hands to the face penalty resulted in a safety. Chicago is ranked #30 in the NFL in passing despite facing a soft early schedule; not what we're used to seeing from Super Bowl contenders in the modern age of football.
Chicago’s blocked punt TD is just one more example of how good these special teams right now. Devin Hester's punt return inside the Titans ten yard line is another, setting up the Bears second score. And a good part of the reason why their passing numbers are so weak is because they've been leading throughout the second half during most of their 7-1 start.
When your defense forces turnovers in bunches on a weekly basis, stuffing the run and notching 25 sacks (2nd most in the NFL), it can mask a lot of offensive weakness. But Cutler was taking hits even in max protect schemes, just poor blocking fundamentals. Don’t be fooled for a moment by the 51 points the Bears hung here – this offense isn’t capable of producing points in bunches.
Tampa’s got injury problems on the offensive line with pro bowl guard Carl Nicks going on IR this week. They’ve got attrition in the secondary, dumping Aqib Talib at the trading deadline and facing an Eric Wright suspension. But none of that seemed to matter here, because this Tampa Bay offense has suddenly sprung to life.
I wrote about this the last time I wrote about Tampa, but it's worth repeating, because it’s completely changed the personality of this team. QB Josh Freeman finally has legitimate playmakers that he trusts at wide receiver, which allows him to chuck the ball up and let his guys go get it. That exact type of pass was the Bucs first TD, a floater into the end zone for Vincent Jackson. With rookie RB Doug Martin developing into a star, this is a potent offense.
There’s good and bad when we talk about this defense. Tampa controlled the line of scrimmage; stuffing the Raiders running game. DE DaQuan Bowers is finally healthy and contributing, and they got their sixth sack of the year from Michael Bennett too. The Bucs defense has a whopping 66 plays of negative yards, most in the NFL. But trying to protect a fourth quarter lead, this pass defense fell apart, much like it did in a similar spot against the Giants earlier in the season. Still, this team didn't get included in the 'NFC contenders' article by accident, a potential second half ATS juggernaut.
I had some questions about including the Lions in a column about NFC Contenders -- after all, Detroit entered Week 9 with a losing record and a losing overall record since their 5-0 start in 2011. But this team is poised to make a second half run.
Two things are dramatically improved for Detroit compared to last year. First, they can run the football even in the red zone, something they couldn't do at all a season ago. Mikel LeShoure punched in an easy rushing TD in a first and goal situation for the Lions first score, and did it again on their second. Joique Bell had room to run all day too -- this OL is finally starting to jell.
And make no mistake about it -- Detroit's defense is not a bottom tier unit any more. Both the stats and the results show it clearly. Detroit had 13 first downs, 224 yards of total offense and two TD's (not even counting Jason Hanson's missed field goal) before the Jaguars had a first down.
Last week, the Lions converted on an NFL season high 12 third downs, and here, they were 8-12 on third down tries. With the emergence of Titus Young and Ryan Broyles as threats along with Megatron, this offense is going to be very difficult to get off the field.
From a betting perspective, the vast majority of NFL skill position players are easily replaceable. However, that doesn't seem to be the case in Green Bay. Greg Jennings has been hurt for most of the season. Jordy Nelson didn't stay on the field long enough to complete the first drive of the game. And frankly, the Packers downfield vertical passing game hasn't been working as well, even with Aaron Rodgers throwing his 16th red zone touchdown pass of the year (most in the NFL) on Green Bay's first drive.
Randall Cobb is developing nicely; JerMichael Finley remains an elite pass catching tight end; James Jones is good, but this offense is clearly affected. They had as many drops (four) as completed passes (also four) by midway through the second quarter. Of course, Rodgers then proceeded to throw a perfect end zone strike to Cobb for his second TD.
Since Green Bay’s loss to Seattle on Monday Night Football, Rodgers has thrown 21 touchdowns and only three interceptions, as good as any QB in the NFL right now. And there was a concerted effort to run the football here; an area where the Pack have been noticeably lacking for several years. Using that strategy, the Packers had four ‘three and outs’ and a two yard field goal ‘drive’ as they tried to kill clock with a lead in the second half.
Green Bay leads the NFL in sacks, and the pass rush was in John Skelton's face all afternoon. But when the pressure didn't get there, this secondary got picked apart, really missing Charles Woodson's presence –there are lots of open spaces in their zone coverages.
This supposedly dominant run defense hasn’t faced many top notch running backs this year. They’ve faced two in the last three weeks – Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson – and were absolutely torched both times. At times, this defense looked like USC against Oregon on Saturday Night, with Peterson repeatedly gaining eight or nine yards before getting touched. And let’s not forget how this pass defense got torched at Detroit last week. Seattle’s highly ranked stop unit is good, but not great.
Special teams miscues from a Pete Carroll coached team is something of a surprise, but this team had a ton of them. I can't recall the last time I saw a punt returner take a punt from two yards deep in the end zone because he had no idea where he was on the field, but that’s exactly what Leon Washington did here. A blocked extra point in the NFL is a rarity, something that can’t be allowed to happen. And a poorly executed squib kickoff left a scoring opportunity for Minnesota right before halftime.
This was the first game all year that Seattle didn't score first -- this team is used to playing with a lead. They did just fine playing with a sense of urgency from behind. Russell Wilson’s QB rating at home this year is more than 50 points higher than his QB rating on the road – I can’t think of a team with a sharper home/road dichotomy than these Seahawks.