It’s that time of the season when we can really start detecting which teams will be able to make deep runs into the playoffs. This is what the NFL is really all about. The average NFL fan can’t remember what the matchups were in the conference championship games, let alone the Wild Card round. If you are not able to win a game in the playoffs, your season will likely be forgotten by the masses. When I deem a team to be a contender, I simply mean they have the ability to win at least one playoff game. A pretender is a team that looks like a playoff team but that I believe will either miss the playoffs entirely or almost certainly will be one and done.
Dallas Cowboys: Contender
This is a team about which I have a lot of conviction. I had predicted to friends that they would upset the New England Patriots this past Sunday. I was wrong of course, but I place the total blame on head coach Jason Garrett. His trust in Tony Romo has obviously wavered because of the losses to the New York Jets and Detroit Lions. The difference is, Garrett’s lack of confidence in Romo in this game directly correlated with very conservative and questionable play calling.
Dez Bryant has not caught a ball in the second half in three different games, and the Cowboys are 0-3 in those contests. He should have at least been targeted twice in the red zone during the Cowboys’ attempt to put at least a touchdown lead on the board. It was inevitable Tom Brady would drive down the field for at minimum three points, so as Garrett ran the ball three straight times up three points, he was basically accepting the fact that the game would go into overtime, or the Cowboys would lose. Those were the only two outcomes that were truly feasible in that situation for Brady.
The good news is, after Jerry Jones’ comments, Garrett has no choice but to trust in Romo, and it will start paying dividends. Romo is a playmaker. Sure he makes mistakes, but he is a competitor who will do what is necessary to be the deciding factor in the football game. To me, Dallas, is the second-best team in the NFC, which was easily detectable with the eye test when they dominated the Jets and Lions for three quarters and gave the San Francisco 49ers their only loss. The Cowboys will win the NFC East and advance in the playoffs.
Detroit Lions: Pretender
I felt strongly about this one week ago, but this last game verified it for me. The Lions have a few issues that I’m concerned about. Their defensive line, although loaded with talent, is not a fierce run stopping defensive unit at all. Teams move the chains pretty easily against the Lions and it will get even worse for Detroit when they start playing the elite teams on their schedule. Wins against Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City and Tampa Bay have not impressed me all that much. Their victory over Dallas was such a fluke. You cannot expect that to be duplicated again if they matched up when it matters. The Lions still have to travel to Green Bay, Oakland and New Orleans, and they have to host Atlanta, San Diego and Green Bay. Those six games will prove much more to me then their first six. I definitely don’t see them making a run at the Packers in the NFC North with those teams still on the slate.
The Lions’ second issue that is going unnoticed is that they do truly run the college type ‘spread’ offense. In fact, I am a proponent of it, and believe it can and will translate into NFL passing games. ‘Passing’ is the key word there. Running the ball out of the shotgun in the NFL cannot be a consistently effective tool. Their one big run against Chicago was completely Lance Briggs’ fault in gap responsibility. When the Lions reach the red zone on offense, it really is either pass the football in for a touchdown or kick a field goal. Long-term, this will create a major problem, especially when it is crunch time in a playoff game against a team like they faced this past Sunday.
Houston Texans: Contender
I was quite impressed with the fight in the Texans this past Sunday. Take away Andre Johnson and Mario Williams and it will be a different team. With that said, Johnson will be back, and Williams, as dominant as he is, is replaceable to an extent. Johnson is the much more valuable of the two. The Texans’ offense is highly dangerous with the best running back in football in Arian Foster and possibly the top backup running back in football in Ben Tate. Even without Williams Sunday, the Texans were very stout against the run.
Bottom line here is that there is no other team that is going to win the AFC South, and the Texans will be hosting a playoff game. The Texans had New Orleans and Oakland on the ropes in the second half and already beat Pittsburgh. They will likely win their first round game in the playoffs and play within a touchdown of any team in the AFC, even on the road, if Johnson is fully healthy.
Washington Redskins: Pretender
Pretenders with a caveat here. If the Redskins announce John Beck has taken over for Rex Grossman this coming week, then Beck will likely get them 2-3 more wins then they would have accumulated with Grossman under center. Beck is more aggressive in getting the ball downfield, is more accurate, can throw from more platforms in and out of the pocket, and most importantly, is athletic enough to avoid pressure in the pocket. Beck can even move the chains or run for a touchdown as he did against Philadelphia last weekend.
The Redskins will have every chance to win the NFC East, as four of their five toughest games remaining come at home. Philadelphia will host Washington in Week 17 which will likely have playoff implications. It was do-or-die for Philadelphia Sunday, Grossman threw four interceptions and the Eagles still could only muster 20 points against the Redskins’ defense. Despite a bad showing last week, Beck and company will be in the thick of things in the end of the regular season, and if they can get a home playoff game, this is a true contender of a team.
Oakland Raiders: Contender
I am actually starting to become a little bit of a Raiders’ fan. They have a good formula for success, are getting the most from their players and now have made a move that will change the future of the franchise one way or another.
Did the Raiders give up too much for Carson Palmer? Probably so. Two first-round picks are a lot to give especially when you are already lacking draft picks in the coming drafts. With that said, if Palmer is the difference between multiple playoff births or home playoff games in the next few years, then the trade will go down as one that both the Raiders and Bengals gained from. To me, Palmer is not the player he was in 2005, but he still is a quarterback who right off the bat gives the Raiders an advantage at that position over the likes of Baltimore, New York Jets, Buffalo and Cincinnati – all teams who will be fighting for playoffs spots the rest of the season.
I am not completely convinced the Raiders pass defense has what it takes to beat the truly elite teams in the NFL, but they are young in the secondary with a lot of growth to be expected. A home game against Kansas City this week is winnable with Kyle Boller, but then the Raiders get a bye, which sets up perfectly for Palmer to ease into things in a another good matchup at home against Denver in Week 9. The Raiders’ schedule sets up perfectly for an AFC West division title.
One player I feel that is a perfect sell-high this week is Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells. His bye week has already passed and managers who cannot afford to eat another bye might be looking for answers. Wells, although a Top 10 back to-date, will have some tough sledding the rest of the way, starting with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the next two games. Then in the weeks that matter the most, Weeks 14-16 he will line up against two of the toughest run defenses in the NFL, in San Francisco and Cincinnati. Get the value for him while you can.
As far as buying low goes, Chris Johnson tops my list. This shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp either. Johnson has one of the top offensive lines in football, and you have to expect Johnson to get his legs back under him for the next 10 weeks. There are plenty of Johnson owners out there to be had who are highly frustrated.
Another great buy-low piece to the puzzle is Washington tight end Fred Davis. Davis will benefit from more opportunities with Chris Cooley out, and if John Beck is the starter the offense as a whole will receive a major boost.
It may even be time to consider trading for and stashing Percy Harvin as a WR3 or WR4. Christian Ponder will be starting soon, and if he is to have any success, easy throws to Harvin is a good way to get him started.
Have a great week everybody, and don’t take football for granted … the weeks truly do fly by during the best time of the year … the fall.