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The NFL season at the halfway point
BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

While all of New England has been panting, pontificating, praying, and, most recently, mourning the fate of its beloved Red Sox, the National Football League has been grunting and groaning along at its usual pace. And just as Red Sox Nation is emerging from its bereavement period, the NFL has already reached its halfway point in the 16-game schedule. While bye weeks technically create a 17-week season, and a good number of teams have not actually played the requisite eight games to reach the halfway point, it’s close enough for a mid-season term report on how all 32 teams are faring.

AFC East: No, it’s not necessarily a surprise that New England (6-2) is atop the division, since many prognosticators thought they’d be decent. The shocker comes from the fact that this Patriots team leads the division, because it is missing many of the cornerstones of the much-improved defense that was going to lift the team back into the playoff picture. The team has lost eight starters to injury since the start of the season, and coach Bill Belichick has been forced to plug many of those holes with rookies. Yet since the 31-0 opening-day shellacking the team suffered in Buffalo, the Pats have won six of seven — including impressive wins over such imposing foes as Tennessee, the Giants, Philadelphia, and Miami. The remaining schedule isn’t all that imposing, either, so New England could conceivably win the division at 12-4 without too much trouble. Miami (4-2 heading into Monday night’s game against the Chargers) has taken care of business, but has had two shocking home losses already: to the second-year Texans in week one, and last week’s overtime loss to the Patriots. Given the struggles of the division mates below them, Miami should still be playoff-bound, but it still has tough upcoming match-ups with the Colts, Ravens, and Eagles at home while meeting the Titans, Cowboys, Pats, and Bills on the road. Given the Fins’ history of late-season collapses, this team — with a hobbling Jay Fiedler at the helm — could again fall short. Buffalo (4-4) had the highest of hopes after its whitewashing of the Pats in the season opener, but since then the Bills have done little to impress, as the team has lost four of its last six, including a 35-5 trouncing at KC in prime time on Sunday. In its last three road games, Buffalo’s supposed high-powered offense has averaged just five points a game, and Drew Bledsoe is ranked only 20th among NFL starters. Even if the Bills rebound in the coming weeks, they still finish the season against Tennessee, Miami, and a licking-their-chops New England team bent on revenge. Finally, the Jets not surprisingly struggled during QB Chad Pennington’s injury recovery, but at 2-4 it’s unlikely NY can make another late-season run as they did last season. Pennington’s back, but that doesn’t change the fact that the team is already three-and-a-half games back in the division (with three teams ahead of it) and still must face the Giants, Raiders, Colts, Titans, Bills, Steelers, Pats, and Dolphins. See ya next year.

AFC South: It’s a dogfight between the Colts and Titans, as most people predicted, and while they’re winning in different ways, both squads appear to be playoff locks. Indianapolis (6-1) leads the conference in total offense (354.9 yards per game), and QB Peyton Manning is second in the AFC in passing yards. Pair that offense with a much-improved defense (Indy’s moved up from last in 2002 to ninth in team D this season), and you have a well-balanced and explosive team. Tennessee (6-2) is right there in the hunt as well, although it still has some ’splainin’ to do about its two defeats (33-7 at Indy and 38-30 at NE). Still, Steve McNair is the AFC’s passing leader and the balance of the schedule isn’t too imposing, so barring injury the Titans should be playoff-bound despite the fact that their defense isn’t nearly as ferocious as it was last season. Houston (2-5) has played a lot of teams tough this season, but it also has a penchant for getting blown out (see the three-TD losses inflicted by the Saints, Chiefs, and Titans). The Texans are still building, but they’re losing because the AFC’s fourth-ranked offense is cancelled out by the conference’s cellar-dwelling defense. Finally, Jacksonville (1-6), under new coach Jack Del Rio, was expected to be a little better than this, but it turns out that they’ve really got a long way to go. Only a one-point loss at Carolina and a six-point win over the Chargers have been morale-boosters, and the next five weeks on the schedule are brutal. This team could emerge with the NFL draft’s number-one pick by season’s end.

AFC North: The conference’s most mediocre division sees a 4-3 Baltimore team with a one-game lead. The Ravens, as expected, are winning with defense, but the AFC’s fourth-best unit has not been able to overcome the shortcomings of its mediocre offense — as evidenced in disappointing losses to Pittsburgh and KC. That leaves the door open for a rejuvenated squad like Cincinnati (3-4) to perhaps make a run at it, especially given the lackluster seasons thus far put forth by division mates Cleveland (3-5) and Pittsburgh (2-5). The Bengals, behind new coach Marvin Lewis, have already surpassed last season’s victory total, and their wins against the Browns, Ravens, and Seahawks have hardly been flukes. Cleveland’s QB problems have exacerbated the situation there, as the Tim Couch–Kelly Holcomb merry-go-round has resulted in the AFC’s worst-ranked offense. The Steelers, meanwhile, have lost four straight despite the conference’s second-best defense. Pittsburgh can get back in the race only if it takes advantage of its creampuff schedule down the stretch.

AFC West: Hard to dispute the fact that Kansas City (8-0) is the NFL’s best team at the moment. Its defense is still nothing to boast about, but the well-balanced offense is averaging nearly 31 points a game — tops in the league. When will they lose? Maybe they won’t! The ’72 Dolphins might shudder at that thought, but KC’s remaining eight games are versus the Browns, Bengals, Raiders, Chargers, Broncos (a red flag), Lions, Vikings (if not Denver, then here), and Bears. Denver (5-3) luckily got off to a hot start, winning its first four before losing QB Jake Plummer to injury. While the Broncos don’t match up well with the Pats in next week’s Monday-night tilt, they should be able to stay afloat in the playoff race despite ending the season at Indianapolis and Green Bay. Oakland’s 2-5 and pretty much already out of it (boo-hoo), and now injured QB Rich Gannon may be out for a few more weeks. Already near the bottom of the AFC in offense and defense, the Gray-ders have an upcoming stretch where they will meet the Vikings, Chiefs, Broncos, Steelers, Ravens, and Packers. Call me crazy, but methinks that Oakland won’t be in Houston this January to defend its AFC title. San Diego (1-5) started its season with five straight losses, and may not see another one until they play at Detroit on December 7. Not too much to say here, other than this is a tough way for Doug Flutie’s career to wind down.

NFC East: Dallas (5-2) has been the league’s biggest surprise despite its 16-0 reality-check loss at Tampa on Sunday. Still, you’ve got to admit that that old goat Parcells can still motivate a team, and based on the talent level, five wins was about anyone would expected for this bunch to compile in the entire season. Let’s see, though, where the Cowpokes stand after upcoming games with Buffalo, New England, Carolina, and Miami, plus their rematches with their three division-mates. Meanwhile, Philadelphia (4-3), the NY Giants (3-4), and Washington (3-4) have all been bumbling along, mixing and matching impressive victories with incomprehensible losses. If I was a betting man, I’d ultimately put my money on the Giants, who have a much superior offense compared to the other squads, and while their defense has yet to rise above mediocre, they’ve got a history of tightening up down the homestretch. Philly’s won four of five after an 0-2 start, but it looks nothing like the team that has been to the last two NFC title games. The Redskins, meanwhile, have lost three straight and have shown signs of some infighting as they return from their bye week to meet Tuna & Co. this weekend in Big D.

AFC South: It’s likely that two of the NFC’s six playoff berths will come from this division, as Carolina and Tampa Bay have established themselves as solid contenders. The Panthers have continued their return to respectability with their 6-1 start, although their defense hasn’t been quite as stellar as most predicted. Still, they’ve won three overtime games already, and will benefit from a fairly easy ledger the rest of the season. The Buccaneers (4-3) are looking a lot like the Patriots of a year ago, who as defending Super Bowl titlists roared out of the blocks, only to be sidetracked by a host of hungry teams eager to knock off the champs. Home losses in OT to both Carolina and Indy were head-scratchers for the Bucs, but their superior talent and a comfortable schedule come December should return the Scarlet and Pewter back into the post-season. To date, New Orleans (3-5) has been very disappointing, as it has beaten only Houston, Chicago, and Atlanta this season while incurring whopping losses to Seattle, Tennessee, and Indy. Even if the Saints had a cushy schedule the rest of the way (which they don’t), it would have been unlikely that they could have overcome the Panthers or Bucs in this division anyway. As for Atlanta, Michael Vick’s leg injury has taken much longer than expected to heal, and while the mercurial QB continues to mend, the team has lost six of its seven games to take up residence in the division cellar. Even if Vick does return soon, the remaining schedule does the Falcons no favors, and even Vick’s presence does nothing to resolve the matter of the NFL’s worst-ranked defense.

AFC North: A lot of people (myself included) figured Minnesota would improve on last season’s 6-10 mark, but who could have predicted a 6-1 record right out of the gate? Counting the three wins to close out the 2002 campaign, the Vikes won nine straight before suffering their first loss yesterday at the hands of the Giants. Minnesota’s defense hasn’t been awe-inspiring, but Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, and the rest of the NFC’s second-ranked offense have sparked the Vikings to a truly impressive start. The downward spiral of the Green Bay Packers (3-4) continues, as the team once considered unbeatable at home has already lost twice at Lambeau this year. Once the team returns from its bye week, the Pack will face the Vikings, Eagles, Bucs, and 49ers as it struggles to get back into playoff contention, and at this point it’s a very iffy proposition. Perhaps they miss Terry Glenn. Chicago (2-5) seems to be doing little to alleviate the broken hearts of the city’s Cubs fans, as the team bears the ignominy of the NFC’s worst offense and 11th-ranked defense, all the while getting accustomed to a completely revamped Soldier Field. Finally, the putrid Detroit Lions (1-6) have lost a remarkable 20 straight road games, and even with former 49er mastermind Steve Mariucci at the helm, Detroit is unlikely to break that streak soon, considering its remaining road games include visits to Seattle, Minnesota, KC, and Carolina.

AFC West: It’s really become just a two-team race in this division, although surprisingly, one of those teams is not the 49ers. Seattle (5-2) looks to be a team that’s for real despite the fact that it’s lost two of three (including Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati). The Seahawks are not familiar to folks around here and they don’t have too many big-name players, but former BC quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is sixth in the NFC in passing, and the team is in the top six in both offense and defense. Four of the Hawks’ next five games are against sub-.500 teams, so they look to be headed in the right direction for their first playoff berth since 1999. St. Louis seems to be another team on the road back, as the Rams have won four of their last five even without the services of QB Kurt Warner and all-purpose back Marshall Faulk. When that pair, along with defensive back Jason Sehorn, return from their injuries, the Rams should be playoff-bound, especially considering what has to be considered the NFL’s easiest second-half schedule (SF, Baltimore, Chicago, Arizona, Minnesota, Cleveland, Seattle, Cincy, and Detroit). San Francisco apparently misses Mariucci more than it thought, and the Niners (3-5) reached the nadir of their disappointing 2003 campaign with an overtime loss at Arizona Sunday. The once-proud franchise is facing the real possibility of missing the playoffs, despite the NFC’s second-ranked defense. And to wrap this thing up, Arizona has had a couple of impressive wins (Green Bay, SF), but it is winless on the road, and in fact got smoked by the toothless Lions on Opening Day. Four of Arizona’s five losses have been by 17 points or more, and the Cardinals have done little to counterpoint the popular consensus: they stink.

Yep, it’s nice to get back to football talk again, now isn’t it?

What’s that? That rascal Grady Little’s in the news again? Whatever could that be about?

Sporting Eye runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com, and Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com


Issue Date: October 27, 2003
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2003 |2002
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