Now that we’ve reached the mid-point of the NFL’s 2011 season, it seems an opportune time to take a look at where the teams stand. Looking at the pre-season rankings, I haven’t done too badly. Some of the teams near the top haven’t been as dominant as I expected, but they’re all still in the playoff mix. I did drastically underrate the 49ers, Bengals, and Bills. Also, I kind of screwed up on my Cam Newton is going to be an abject failure prediction. Yeah, sorry about that. (Record and pre-seaon rank in parentheses.)
1. Green Bay Packers (8-0; 1): Aaron Rodgers has led both the defending Super Bowl Champs and my fantasy team to undefeated starts. While the Packers pass defense might be a slight concern, the offense just has too many weapons for teams to contain. 1972 Dolphin alumni might have to keep that champagne on ice for a while.
2. San Francisco 49ers (7-1; 24): Yeah, I definitely didn’t see this coming. Even better for the 49ers, they still haven’t played any of their horribly weak division opponents, so they can pretty much coast the rest of the way.
3. New York Giants (6-2; 7): Under Coach Tom Coughlin the Giants have been a team that has thrived under adversity, and this year has been no exception. Written off by many because of injuries and free agent losses, the Giants have relied on their depth to maintain the lead in the NFC East. Oh, and for all those who scoffed at Eli Manning dubbing himself elite before the season – if not for Rodgers, he’s the MVP.
4. Baltimore Ravens (6-2; 11): The Giants and Ravens have had similar seasons. They’ve had impressive but close wins mixed in with some perplexing losses. But the Ravens have beaten the Steelers twice now and hold the inside track on a division title as long as they can hold off the Bengals.
5. Detroit Lions (6-2; 14): Everybody’s sleeper team has exceeded even the rather optimistic projections. They might be the only team left that can stop the Packers from finishing the season undefeated.
6. New Orleans Saints (5-3; 3): Here begins a run of good but very flawed teams. At times the New Orleans offense looks as unstoppable as it did in its Super Bowl championship season. At other times Drew Brees and company look unnerved out there. Darren Sproles has been an essential cog in the offense, but they lack a reliable running game as rookie Mark Ingram has been a disappointment thus far.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (6-2; 32): The team I picked for dead last in the NFL is tied for the best record in the AFC, led by a pair of outstanding rookies in Andy Dalton and AJ Green. That said, they have yet to play either the Ravens or the Steelers and have benefited from a soft schedule. Look for the Bengals to fade in the second half, but even if they do it’s been a very good season.
8. Houston Texans (6-3; 8): The Texans finally look like they’re going to take the next step and make the playoffs. Of course there’s still plenty of time for them to blow it, but it’s hard to see any of their divisional rivals picking them off.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3; 2): If they had held off the Ravens on Sunday night they’d be in the top five. Two losses to the Ravens now means they have an uphill fight to win the division. But Roethlisberger is having one of his best seasons, and he’s surrounded by a couple of great weapons now with Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. It’s almost shocking to see the Steelers become an air-oriented team.
10. New England Patriots (5-3; 5): The Patriots are on the verge of losing three straight for the first time since – when, exactly? It must be at least a decade. What’s worrisome for the Pats is that their major issue is that they simply can’t stop anybody.
11. New York Jets (5-3; 4): They have not looked well in any of their wins except over the Bills. Of course, that is their most recent game, so that might be a sign that they are finally coming around. Darrelle Revis is the defensive MVP, and it’s not particularly close.
12. Buffalo Bills (5-3; 30): Bills have stumbled lately as their defensive weakness has been exposed. Like the Bengals, I would expect them to fade a bit in the second half.
13. Chicago Bears (5-3; 16): Jay Cutler has certainly made me look foolish. He continues to mature as a quarterback and has the Bears primed for a playoff run.
14. Atlanta Falcons (5-3; 10): The funny thing is I thought I was underrating them in the pre-season, but they’re even more mediocre than I thought they would be.
15. San Diego Chargers (4-4; 6): At some point people are going to realize that Philip Rivers is just a tad overrated. At least in previous years Rivers has been a clutch performer at the ends of games, but now he just looks like a quivering mess. He’s made Tony Romo look like the model of poise under pressure. Speaking of which . . .
16. Dallas Cowboys (4-4; 15): I pretty much nailed this one, so I’ll just copy what I wrote in the pre-season: How ’bout them Cowboys? Meh. Yeah, they upgraded at head coach in mid-season, mainly because any sentient being would have been an upgrade. And now the backwards cap wearing idiot is back behind center. And yet this team is still completely overrated and will be going nowhere again.
17. Oakland Raiders (4-4; 20): The spirit of Al Davis lives on, embodied by the preposterously bad trade for Carson Palmer. On the bright side, it looks like they won’t be giving up that second number one pick.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4; 19): As predicted, Josh Freeman has taken a bit of a step back this year. They’re good enough to be in almost any game, but not good enough to win most.
19. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5; 9): Oh sweet, sweet schadenfreude. And to think I completely overrated this mess of a team in the pre-season. What has to be the most satisfying thing about the Eagles’ implosion is how the “experts” thought this team was going to roll after beating two terrible division opponents. Guess not. Well, at least Philly has that World Series triumph to gloat about. Oh. Wait. Awkward.
20. Tennessee Titans (4-4; 21): Is Jeff Fischer really gone? This feels like a Jeff Fischer team – a team held together by duct tape and glue and still over-achieving somehow. Imagine if Chris Johnson was remotely living up to his hype.
21. Carolina Panthers (2-6; 31): As I said, I whiffed on Cam Newton. He’s been brilliant, and he’s actually surrounded by quite a few weapons. The Panthers record might be about what I thought it would be, but their performance has far exceeded expectations.
22. Washington Redskins (3-5; 23): Oh sweet, sweet schadenfreude, take two. It was worth it to watch this team fluke its way to a 3-1 start just to see the delusional kool-aid drinkers in this city start hopping aboard the “best team in the east” express. It made the inevitable collapse even more enjoyable to behold. And yet there are still people clinging to this belief that Mike Shanahan is some kind of genius. Am I really the only one who notices that he hasn’t won jack squat since Elway retired?
23. Minnesota Vikings (2-6; 27): I was prepared to rank the Vikings much lower, but 1) there are a lot of truly awful teams, and 2) they’ve actually played fairly well. They blew big leads in their first few games, and have remained competitive even after their season went down the toilet.
24. Cleveland Browns (3-5; 13): I think I mixed up the Browns and Bengals, because Cleveland was supposed to be the team to take a big step forward. Their offense is just woeful, and it’s somewhat shocking to look up and see that they have somehow managed to win three games. One of those was perhaps the most boring game in the history of the NFL. And boring is an apt word when discussing the Browns.
25. Kansas City Chiefs (4-4; 18): They may be 4-4 but I have qualms about ranking them this high. They have the third worst point-differential in the NFL, and have somehow managed to steal a few wins. It wouldn’t shock me if their failed to win another game. Unfortunately for them they’ve already taken themselves out of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
26. Miami Dolphins (1-7; 25): Even though the Dolphins only have one win, they’ve been in most of their games. Reggie Bush is quietly having a very nice season, and Matt Moore is doing just enough to keep the offense afloat.
27. Denver Broncos (3-5; 26): You wanna know why people hate Tim Tebow? After the Broncos beat the Raiders on Sunday I heard Jimmy Johnson lavishing praise upon Tebow. Oh, sure, he wasn’t responsible for the punt return touchdown or for Carson Palmer’s interceptions or for Knowshon Moreno’s running, but he “inspires” his teammates. Really? I mean, really? Tebow is a terrible quarterback who has produced two incredibly flukey wins. Nice guy, and the subtle (or not so subtle) anti-Christian bias annoys me. But let’s get real.
28. Arizona Cardinals (2-6: 22): It’s a sign of just how bad the teams behind them are that I’ve ranked them even this high.
29. Seattle Seahawks (2-6; 28): I was going to make a crack about how I can’t figure out how they even have two wins, then realized that one of those wins was on the road against the third-ranked team. Yeah.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6; 29): They play Indianapolis twice, so they still have a shot at Luck. I suppose they’re content with Blaine Gabbert so that might not even be an issue., so they might actually be motivated to win those games. I just pity the poor souls forced to watch those games. They might make Browns-Seahawks look like Chargers-Packers.
31. St. Louis Rams (1-7; 12): I was going to say that they’re not as bad as their record suggests, but then saw that they have a -111 point differential. So yes, they are as bad as their record suggests. Steven Jackson is having a very nice season, so at least they’ve got that going for them.
32. Indianapolis Colts (0-9; 17): We all knew they would be bad without Manning, but this bad? Could this be like the 1996-97 Spurs? David Robinson missed most of the season and the Spurs wound up with the number one overall pick, which they used on Tim Duncan. They went on to win four NBA championships. Now Manning and Luck couldn’t play together a la Robinson and Duncan, but of all the seasons for the Colts to be without Manning, they couldn’t have picked a better one.