Just three weeks into the NFL season, it is already time for a few firsts of the year: first byes, with the Packers and Panthers inactive for week 4; thefirst trip to London for a game at Wembley – which hosts two fixtures in 2013 – with the 0-3 Vikings and Steelers meeting at the home of the “other” football this Sunday; and the first time I am going to re-evaluate the teams to determine who look like contenders and who appear to be a shadow of their former selves (cough, Pittsburgh, cough).
Better Luck in 2014 Guys!
NFC: Minnesota (0-3); Tampa Bay (0-3); Carolina (1-2). AFC: Jacksonville (0-3); Oakland (1-2); Pittsburgh (0-3); Cleveland (1-2); Buffalo (1-2); San Diego (1-2); NY Jets (2-1).
The Panthers may have looked good in a 38-0 victory in week 3, but they were playing the woeful Giants and I do not see them getting past New Orleans and Atlanta to top the NFC South, nor with their tough schedule do I think they will rack up enough wins to be in contention for a wild card spot. It might seem harsh to write off the chances of the Jets, who have a winning record, but they beat Tampa Bay in week 1 thanks to a stupid penalty on the penultimate play that put them into field goal position, and last Sunday topped the Bills – who do not look like they are playoff-bound themselves – 27-20. San Diego could have been 3-0 if they had not thrown away a big lead against the Texans in their opening game, then lost a close one to the Titans 20-17 at the weekend, but despite being better than expected, they still sit two games behind both the Chiefs and Broncos in the AFC West, both of whom they have to play twice this season. Cleveland had a good 31-27 home win in week 3, but everyone is beating Minnesota these days and the Browns made their intentions clear last Wednesday when they traded running back Trent Richardson – who was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft – to the Colts for a first round selection in 2014. They need a better quarterback and they are stacking the deck to get it, that does not equal a post-season appearance in 2013.
AFC Playoff Places – 9 into 6
It might seem a little reckless to cross off 7 of the 16 AFC teams as potential playoff candidates (at least it might if there was anything riding on this) but the conference is already taking shape and the contenders seem obvious even at this early stage. The top two seeds will probably be Denver (3-0) and New England (3-0), with the meeting between the two teams in Massachusetts on November 24th a potential home-field advantage decider. Monday’s 37-21 victory over the Raiders means the Broncos have scored 127 points in their first three games, with Peyton Manning having thrown 12 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions thus far – on pace to break Tom Brady’s single season record of 50 TDs he set in 2007. Also at 3-0, and in the same two divisions as those teams. are the Dolphins and Chiefs, who have both improved greatly on last year and, if they can continue like this, should be contenders for a wild card spot. In the North, Baltimore and Cincinnati sit on 2-1 and look like having a season long battle for the division: last week the Ravens set a marker down with a 30-9 home win over the Texans; while the Bengals came out on top in a bizarre game against the Packers in which they led 14-0, then trailed 30-14, before claiming a 34-30 victory.
The AFC South might be the most interesting division in the league, with Houston, Tennessee and Indianapolis all having 2-1 records after three weeks. The Texans have been underwhelming thus far – they had to come from behind to beat San Diego in their first game, trailed by 8 in the final five minutes against the Titans, then won in overtime the following Sunday; before that loss in Baltimore. Defeat in Houston is the only blemish thus far for Tennessee, after winning in Pittsburgh and home against the Chargers; while everybody was ready to write off the Colts when they lost at home to the Dolphins in week 2, but then they went into San Francisco last Sunday and beat the 49ers, 27-7.
Before the season began, my AFC Predictions looked like this: Seeds 1. Broncos; 2. Texans; 3. Patriots; 4. Bengals; 5. Chiefs; 6. Steelers – at this point I only want to take back my Pittsburgh pick and I will replace them with the Ravens, as I expect Miami to regress slightly from their strong start.
Dallas (2-1); Philadelphia (1-2); NY Giants (0-3); Washington (0-3).
Apparently, one of these teams does have to make the playoffs and, if they can win just five more games, the Cowboys may have enough wins to usurp the rest of this awful, tawdry division. After their opening night victory over Washington, many were hailing the Eagles new fast paced offense as a revolution in the NFL and penciling them into a Super Bowl spot, but it turns out that having your defense on the field for 40 minutes (as they did against the Chargers in Week 2) then playing four days later is not a recipe for success and Philadelphia were beaten by their old coach, Andy Reid, and the Kansas City Chiefs 26-16 last Thursday. I would love to write off the Giants and Washington, but the former are so unpredictable and can suddenly turn it on when you least expect it – as proven by their Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011; while the latter were 3-6 in 2012, before winning their last seven and topping the NFC East. Dallas, on the other hand, are the only side in the East that looks competent through three weeks, but their recent history and the tendency for Tony Romo to literally throw games away with ill-timed interceptions means you can never, ever trust them. I will not be surprised if any of these teams end up in first place in the division, but if another grabs a wild card, I’m done writing about the NFL.
Seattle (3-0); San Francisco, St. Louis, Arizona (all 1-2)
The Seahawks are taking this division because a) they will go 8-0 or 7-1 at home; and b) they have looked like the most complete team in the league thus far, not because they beat the awful Jaguars 35-17 on Sunday, but as a culmination of their three games to this point. One of the surprises of the season has been the bad start by the 49ers, especially after they beat the Packers in Week 1, but Green Bay were so focused on stopping the run – having failed to do so in January against San Francisco – that they failed to cover the one good receiver Colin Kaepernick has to target, Anquan Boldin. If they are going to turn their season around, the 49ers need to start by doing something they did not manage to accomplish in 2012, beating St. Louis. Neither the Rams nor the Cardinals look likely to be playoff contenders this season, but they are not walkovers either and at home, St. Louis will be a tough nut to crack for San Francisco.
Chicago (3-0); Detroit (2-1); Green Bay (1-2)
Having written off the 0-3 Vikings, I now need to make a case for the team I support and have picked to win the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers, to overhaul the early two game deficit they face in the NFC North. The two losses for Green Bay came in road games they could well have won and they held the lead in the fourth quarter on both occasions and last weekend’s loss in Cincinnati came with Aaron Rodgers having one of his worst performances in years – throwing two interceptions on consecutive drives when he rarely throws any at all – and with all three of their running backs unavailable by the end of the fourth quarter. Ahead of them, the Bears did beat the Bengals but that was in Chicago, as was their 31-30 success over Minnesota, while their 40-23 win over the Steelers on Sunday night was impressive, it was against a very poor Pittsburgh team. I can see this division coming down to the final weekend of the season, as Green Bay makes the trip south to Soldier Field on December 29th. As for the Lions, they have won in Washington and home against Minnesota, two of the worst teams in the Conference so far, so for them to be serious contenders, they will need to beat the Bears in Detroit this Sunday.
New Orleans (3-0); Atlanta (1-2)
In all likelihood, the Saints will claim the NFC South and the Falcons will be playing for a wild card spot (along with the Packers or Bears, 49ers and nobody from the East), but Atlanta have only lost four home games in the last three season and they are still to host New Orleans this year. However, with Sean Payton back from his year-long suspension and Drew Brees racking up impressive statistics as always, the Saints look likely not only to be in the post-season, but are a potential number 1 seed and Super Bowl contenders.
Before the season, these were my picks for the NFC: Seeds 1. Falcons; 2. 49ers; 3. Packers; 4. Redskins; 5. Saints; 6. Rams. I think now I would change it to be: 1. Seahawks; 2. Saints; 3. Packers; 4. Cowboys; 5. Falcons; 6. Bears – but I am sticking with Green Bay to go all the way to the Super Bowl.
Week 4 Predictions
Last week, 10-6; Season, 26-22
Home teams in bold
Rams +3.5 over 49ers
Ravens -3.5 over Bills
Lions -2.5 over Bears
Browns +4.5 over Bengals
Colts -8.5 over Jaguars
Giants +4.5 over Chiefs
Steelers -0.5 over Vikings (At Wembley Stadium, London, UK)
Cardinals +2.5 over Buccaneers
Texans +2.5 over Seahawks
Titans -3.5 over Jets
Cowboys -1.5 over Chargers
Broncos -11.5 over Eagles
Raiders +2.5 over Washington
Falcons -1.5 over Patriots
Saints -6.5 over Dolphins