The one thing you can count on from season to season in the NFL is change. Since the league moved to its eight-division format in 2002, the average season has seen just three division winners retain their titles the following season. Given the strangleholds the Patriots and Colts have had on their divisions during that time frame, the rest of the league has amounted to chaos on an annual basis.
Through the first six weeks of the 2014 season, though, a certain level of calmness has reigned. Five of last year’s eight divisional winners currently hold the top spot, a rate of consistency seen just once (2012, when six divisional winners repeated) in the past 12 years. Even the three divisions with new leaders have last year’s top dog within one game of first place. It all feels very familiar.
Of course, there aren’t any guarantees that each of the eight teams currently atop a division will finish there when the season ends; this time last year, the Cowboys, Lions, and Saints led NFC divisions, while the Panthers and Chargers — who would each make the playoffs — were 2-3. There’s still plenty of time for change. With that in mind, let’s try to look the future in the eye by sorting through those eight division leaders and what they did in Week 6, as sorted by their chances of actually holding on to their first-place spots …
8. Detroit Lions (4-2)
What the Detroit defensive line did to Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings on Sunday should not be allowed on television in the afternoon. It bordered on obscenity. On 47 dropbacks, the Lions sacked Bridgewater eight times and knocked him down 12, throwing in a strip-sack and three interceptions for good measure. The Lions had a sack or an interception on eight of Minnesota’s first nine meaningful1 drives, including a sack on third-and-long on three straight drives.
Not including the pre-halftime possession that consisted solely of a Bridgewater kneel-down. Then again, that kneel-down came right after the Lions made a field goal, so it might have been a preapocalyptic prayer.
It’s probably about time to believe that this Lions defense isn’t going to fall back to the pack. They came into Sunday as the league leaders in defensive DVOA by a comfortable margin, and while they haven’t exactly played the league’s toughest slate of offenses, they’ve shut down just about everybody they’ve faced. They’re allowing 13.7 points per game to a group of opposing offenses that have scored an average of 22.4 points in games not involving the Lions.
Although much of the personnel is the same from the unit that finished 14th in DVOA last season, new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has mixed things up to get more out of his talent. The Lions have blitzed on 27.5 percent of the opposition’s dropbacks this year, per ESPN Stats & Information, up from 19.7 percent last year. That’s part of the reason seven players recorded a half-sack or more against the Vikings.
The Lions have been better even without blitzing, because of the improvement in their young talent. They’ve posted a 26.4 opposing QBR on dropbacks when they haven’t blitzed, the best rate in the league by a substantial margin; the second-place Patriots (45.2) are closer to 12th place than they are to the Lions. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah had gone quiet since a dominant opening performance against the Giants, but with one sack against six quarterback hits in five weeks, there were signs he was getting pressure, which usually means sacks will come. They did on Sunday, as Ansah — who had to come off the field with injury issues throughout the game — abused Matt Kalil en route to 2.5 sacks.
In addition to Ansah, Detroit’s first-round pick in 2013, Detroit also has to be happy about what it’s gotten from last year’s second-round pick. After years of failing to develop a competent cornerback during Jim Schwartz’s run with the team, the Lions have finally found a keeper in Darius Slay, who has rounded into one of the conference’s best corners. Slay didn’t have his best game against the Bills, but he rebounded with a quietly effective performance against Cordarrelle Patterson. After benching seemingly every member of the secondary at different points last season, Detroit won’t need to go on a benching spree in 2014. Slay and All-Pro candidate OLB DeAndre Levy give the Lions two plus defenders in coverage for the first time in years.
Strangely, the concern for the Lions has to be their offense. Matthew Stafford looked like a new human in the season opener, but he has settled into a pretty comfortable form of mediocrity, completing 61.1 percent of his passes while averaging 6.9 yards per attempt with five touchdowns against four picks since Week 1. Some of that is admittedly due to spending time without Calvin Johnson, and it’s not clear when Megatron will be back. The Lions tried to push him back onto the field with a high ankle sprain, and he essentially served as a decoy before reaggravating the injury last week,2 which could keep him out for as long as a month. Their running game, also hit by injuries, has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry.
That’s not even the most dangerous possible outcome. High ankle sprains can also be precursors to more serious follow-up injuries; note that Adrian Peterson suffered his ACL tear right after returning from a high ankle sprain in 2011, while Dee Milliner, who had been rushed back from a high ankle sprain before reaggravating it and returning to the bench, reportedly tore his Achilles on Sunday.
And that’s before even getting into the kicking woes, which I covered last week. The Lions did indeed sign Matt Prater, but he was no help; the Lions went 1-for-3 on field goals and are now 5-for-15 on the season. Fortunately, unlike the Bills game, the defense was good enough that the missed field goals were only a matter of trivia.
So, why are they least likely to win their division? The competition. The Packers have the same 4-2 record as the Lions, with Detroit in first place by virtue of its 19-7 win over Green Bay in Week 3. The Packers haven’t exactly looked dominant, and needed a fourth-down conversion on the final drive and a touchdown on the final play to beat the Dolphins on Sunday, but they have Aaron Rodgers and get to play the Lions in Green Bay in Week 17. If that’s a division decider, I have to go with the Pack. The Bears also lurk a game behind at 3-3. There’s still a lot of fighting left to do here.
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7. San Diego Chargers (5-1), AFC West
You didn’t have Chargers-Raiders down to be one of your most competitive, entertaining games of the day? OK, me neither. The Raiders delivered their best performance of the year, with Derek Carr showing promising signs he might be a quarterback to build around, against what had been one of the league’s best pass defenses.
How did he do it? Well, he relied on one of the few things the Raiders have that the Chargers don’t on the other side of the football: height. The Chargers have put together an impressive secondary, especially given how bad their back four was for most of last season, but it’s a small group. Nobody in the regular rotation is taller than 5-foot-11, with resurgent starter Brandon Flowers and impressive rookie Jason Verrett at 5-9. Carr, meanwhile, threw 20 of his 34 passes to a trio of tall wideouts in 6-1 James Jones, 6-3 Brice Butler, and massive 6-4 project Andre Holmes.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Carr was throwing up lobs and looking like he was Josh McCown with the Bears in 2013; he did get one great catch on a fade from Holmes up the sideline past Verrett, but mostly, those receivers used their size and strides to separate, and Carr hit them with catchable passes in time. He finished 18-of-34 for 282 yards with four touchdowns and a pick (by Verrett on a bomb on Oakland’s final drive), and he would have had even better numbers without drops. San Diego knocked eight of his passes away, but didn’t sack or even knock down Carr once.
Of course, even if the Chargers defense puts up a stinker, the worst-case scenario for San Diego is that it’s in a shootout with Philip Rivers on its side, and that’s going to be hard to beat. Rivers continued his MVP-caliber campaign by leading four drives of 60 yards or more, and when the Raiders finally gave him a short field after a long Keenan Allen punt return in the fourth quarter, Rivers delivered a 39-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown.
He has a 117.6 passer rating through six games, the 10th-best figure through six games since 1960. Five of the nine guys who posted a better passer rating in their first six games won league MVP, and it’s a list that includes some of the NFL’s most memorable seasons by a quarterback:
Even if their fifth consecutive win required a narrow escape over the Raiders, the Chargers are one of the best teams in football. The problem on the horizon, of course, is that they still have to play the 4-1 Denver Broncos twice. They did beat the Broncos last year, but the tall Broncos receivers should be able to overwhelm San Diego’s smaller defensive backs in much the same way the Raiders did. I don’t think it’ll end up with Julius Thomas repeating his “It’s so fuckin’ easy!” celebration from Sunday, but lack of height is a potential problem the Raiders exposed.
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6. Cincinnati Bengals (3-1-1), AFC North
The Bengals may very well look back and rue the 36-yard field goal Mike Nugent pushed wide right on the final play of overtime on Sunday, as it left them with a tie that could come back to haunt them in a wildly competitive AFC North, which has surprisingly been football’s best division. Each of the four teams are at or above .500, and the AFC North has been the best group in football on its travels outside the division:
Nugent’s miss brought a wildly entertaining offensive spectacle to an end, a 37-37 tie that Brian Burke’s Excitement Index rated the sixth-most exciting game since 1999. Each team had multiple moments when it appeared as if it were about to finish the other off, only for a turnover or a big play to flip things around. There were two punts, two missed field goals, a lot of points, and the game went into overtime. And all this without A.J. Green!
It was impressive to see Andy Dalton produce without his top receiver, even if he did make a couple of critical mistakes. He was about to establish a 10- or even 14-point lead early in the third quarter before making a terrible throw to the sideline under pressure, one that Antoine Cason picked off and returned 80 yards. Two plays later, instead of the 20-10 lead the Bengals could have had, they were tied 17-17 and spent the rest of the game catching up or hanging on for dear life.
Mostly, Dalton hunkered down in the pocket and found a steady stream of Bengals on crossing routes for chunks of yardage against soft Carolina zone coverage. Cincinnati was relatively inefficient running the football, with an 89-yard touchdown run by Gio Bernard the exception; the team’s other 30 carries went for an average of 3.5 yards against a pretty mediocre run defense, and that included a Dalton keeper on the zone-read for 20 yards. That placed a lot of pressure on Dalton to convert third downs, and he succeeded, with the Bengals picking up 10 of 16 third downs. That’s quite an improvement from their 0-for-7 performance against the Patriots in Week 5.
Distressingly, the Bengals defense had its second ugly game in a row. The Panthers moved the ball drive after drive on what had been one of the league’s best defensive units before its bye, as Cincinnati forced just three drives of three plays or fewer on Carolina’s 10 meaningful possessions. The Bengals defensive line got little pass pressure on Cam Newton, who wasn’t sacked and was hit just four times in 47 dropbacks.
Even worse was that the Bengals failed to adjust to Carolina’s offensive strategy in the second half and overtime. With the conventional running game going nowhere, the Panthers relied heavily on the zone-read. The Bengals run plenty of read-option concepts on offense, so you would think that their defensive linemen would have seen it a bit in practice, but the Cincinnati front seven (notably Wallace Gilberry) repeatedly went for the running back and allowed Newton to loop around the end for steady yardage. Newton — who looked like one of the best players in football during an awesome, strap-the-team-on-my-back performance — ran the ball a career-high 17 times for 107 yards, a touchdown, and a critical fourth-and-2 conversion.3
Speaking of fourth downs, I don’t know why Ron Rivera decided to kick a field goal and settle for the best-case scenario of a tie on fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati 18-yard line in overtime. In a low-scoring game with eight minutes to go in overtime, when you’re likely to get another possession? Sure, kick away. But with 2:30 left in a game in which Newton has been unstoppable in short yardage and you haven’t gotten a stop since the third quarter? You have to go for it. This was a classic Rivera-plays-to-his-team’s-weakness decision from 2011 and 2012; the only difference is that he had much better luck this time with Cincinnati’s missed field goal.
While the Bengals have one of the deepest secondaries in football, their lack of pass pressure over the past two games is a serious concern. The Panthers and Patriots possess two of the league’s worst offensive lines, but the Bengals barely buzzed Newton and Tom Brady, which is how they’ve allowed 80 points in seven days. You would ask Marvin Lewis’s team to blitz more, but the Bengals have posted the league’s 12th-best QBR when they haven’t blitzed and the league’s 22nd-best rate when they have sent a blitz.
That Cincinnati front four needs to get to the quarterback for the Bengals to play like a dominant defense again. That seems like excellent advice for the upcoming game against Andrew Luck this week.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
5. Carolina Panthers (3-2-1), NFC South
The Panthers have been one of the weirdest teams in football this year. Narrowly beat the Buccaneers! Comfortably handle the Lions! Get blown out by the Steelers and Ravens! Then beat the Bears and push the Bengals on the road! It’s a strange team, and while Carolina was probably lucky to come away from Cincinnati with that tie, given that it needed to fade a 36-yard field goal kickers hit about 86 percent of the time, it was impressive that it battled the Bengals to a draw and probably could have won with a little bit of luck in regulation.
As I mentioned, Carolina relied heavily on Newton, who made perfect throws seemingly all day and carried the load on his own in the running game. The problem is that, outside of rotation contributors like Kawann Short, he’s really the only player producing at that level. Last year’s dominant defense is missing. After allowing seven points to the Lions in Week 2, the Panthers have allowed 30-plus points in four consecutive contests. Only the Saints got to 30 against Carolina last year.
That’s an issue with the secondary, which is a mess. Melvin White, the undrafted free agent who emerged as a key contributor as a rookie last season, was benched earlier this year and got beat again for another long touchdown on Sunday. Thomas DeCoud, signed from Atlanta to play free safety, took an ugly angle to open up Bernard’s 89-yard touchdown run. Roman Harper and Antoine Cason were liabilities in coverage during their last stops, and they’re hardly holding up here.
Carolina needs a great pass rush to make that secondary look competent, and it just doesn’t appear to be coming. It did force that pick with pressure on Dalton, which should underline how important it is to attack the opposing quarterback, but otherwise, it sacked him just once and knocked him down four times in 45 dropbacks. Realistically, the Panthers badly miss Greg Hardy, with replacements Mario Addison and Wes Horton failing to look like the deactivated star.
So why isn’t Carolina more likely to lose its spot? Because it’s hard to find an NFC South team that looks much better. Tampa Bay might be the worst team in football, Atlanta has dropped three straight games while allowing a combined 98 points, and New Orleans’s two wins are over teams that are a combined 3-7 against their other opponents. The Panthers have four weeks to go in their hell stretch, with Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, and Philadelphia still to come. If they can go 2-2 (or 0-0-4, I guess), they should be favorites to retain the NFC South.
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-1), NFC East
The Eagles delivered their most impressive performance of the season on Sunday night, dominating the Giants from start to finish in a 27-0 blowout. It wasn’t just that they won by a comfortable margin; it’s how they won. For really the first time all year, Philly dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage, which allowed them to play up their strengths while hiding most of their weaknesses.
It’s fair to say the Philadelphia pass rush won the game. I don’t say that in the sense that the two teams were otherwise equal and that the pass rush served as the margin of victory, but instead that the Philly pass rush was so good that the Eagles could have gotten replacement-level work from the rest of their roster and still won. Eli Manning had no time to throw, as he was sacked six times and forced to scramble for little gain for what amounted to sacks on two more plays. (Ryan Nassib was sacked an additional two times.)
The Eagles prevented the Giants from running downfield route combinations, blew up screens, and left the Giants befuddled and overwhelmed.4 Three of New York’s five starting linemen committed holding penalties, and a fourth, Weston Richburg, picked up one of the stupidest unnecessary roughness calls of the year for a diving head-butt after a play.
The one exception, of course, was when the Giants got a short field off a Nick Foles interception and Manning found an open Victor Cruz on fourth down in the back of the end zone, only for Cruz to tear his patellar tendon while trying to make the catch. Every injury in the NFL is awful, of course, but Cruz’s was especially painful — backup receivers at UMass don’t find their way into the league very often, and Cruz developed into a pretty special slot receiver. I’m happy he got to achieve longtime financial security with a contract extension before the injury, because it’s tough to say whether he’ll return looking like his former self. Cruz joins the lengthy list of homegrown Jerry Reese products with serious knee injuries, while backup slot receiver Jerrel Jernigan is already on IR with a Lisfranc injury.
More impressive and perhaps more exciting for Eagles fans is what Philly did on the other side of the football. LeSean McCoy got on track for the first time all season, running 22 times for 149 yards. He picked up eight first downs on the ground after accruing just 18 first downs on running plays during Philly’s first five games.
Some of those steady gains were due to absolutely awful tackling from the Giants around the line of scrimmage, but McCoy making people miss is nothing new. His line finally delivered a blocking performance that left him enough space to make magic happen, nut stunt be damned. Chip Kelly dialed up far more sweeps than he had in the past, trusting that his line could get outside and move without Giants defenders sweeping into the backfield for losses, and he was right. The Giants also spent most of the competitive portion of the game in their nickel alignment, which left McCoy one-on-one against the likes of Trumaine McBride on the edge most of the time, matchups he easily won.
For their impressive performance, the Eagles were surely met by the Cowboys, who are tied for the division lead at 5-1.5 While the Eagles dominated as 1.5-point favorites at home against the Giants,6 the Cowboys headed into Seattle and came away with a stunning 30-23 win as 9.5-point underdogs.
The Eagles hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their 2-0 division record, while the Cowboys have yet to play a divisional game.
Which, given that the Vegas line is supposed to represent a home-field advantage of about three points, suggests that the market thought the Giants were actually a better team than the Eagles on a neutral field.
I wrote about the stunning no-name Dallas defense two weeks ago, but what it did Sunday was beyond even most Cowboys fans’ wildest expectations. Going to Seattle and staying competitive is one thing, but the Dallas pass defense against Russell Wilson & Co. was incredible.
Wilson was 14-of-28 for 126 yards and a pick in one of his worst games since the first half of his rookie year, with 10 of Seattle’s 23 points coming off Dallas’s special teams miscues. Even Monte Kiffin got to feel good, as Wilson’s game-sealing pick came on a classic Cover 2 look in which Rolando McClain ran 25 yards up the seam with tight end Luke Willson to end the game.
The Seahawks helped Dallas out, though, by abandoning the run. The Cowboys came into the game with the league’s 32nd-ranked run defense, but the Seahawks barely ran the ball. Marshawn Lynch had just two first-half carries and finished with 10 rushing attempts, which went for 61 yards. Lynch, Wilsson, and backup Robert Turbin combined to run the ball 14 times for 83 yards. Receivers Bryan Walters and Percy Harvin took four carries and gained a combined minus-3 yards. Harvin had an awful day from scrimmage, as his three catches produced a total of zero yards.
Dallas did its part by not letting Seattle’s offense ever see the field. The Cowboys were 10-for-17 (59 percent) on third down, and in the matchup of the league’s most prolific rushing offense versus its highest-rated rushing defense, the offense won. DeMarco Murray carried the ball 29 times for 115 yards and a touchdown, with a 15-carry, 69-yard line in the second half. Dallas held the ball for nearly 38 minutes, and even that feels conservative for anyone watching.
The Cowboys also took advantage of Seattle’s pass defense. They repeatedly lined up Dez Bryant in the slot and ran him across the field on corner routes, daring the Seahawks to line up Byron Maxwell or Richard Sherman in the slot. The first such route produced a narrow incompletion on Maxwell, but also resulted in a high ankle sprain that should keep Maxwell out for a few weeks. Next, Sherman lined up in the slot, but Bryant beat him on the same route for 23 yards, with a tripping call on Sherman tacked on the end. Later, with Bobby Wagner out, the Cowboys found Jason Witten in the end zone after he beat Wagner’s replacement, rookie Brock Coyle.
Eagles-Cowboys is shaping up to be a titanic tilt. They will play twice in 17 days, with the Cowboys at home on Thanksgiving followed by the return trip in Week 15. I give the slightest edge to the Eagles because their offensive line should be healthier than it is now, and that should get their running game going on a more consistent basis. If you thought the Cowboys were better than the Eagles, though, it would be hard to say you’re wrong.
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3. Arizona Cardinals (4-1), NFC West
No Calais Campbell was no problem for the Cardinals, who weathered the storm of losing their best defensive player by getting quarterback Carson Palmer back for the first time since Week 1. Palmer looked comfortable and competent during his 28-for-44 performance against Washington, showing no signs of the sleepy nerve that had kept him out for Arizona’s three previous games. It was a relatively boring game for the Cards, who led 14-13 at halftime and had a positive win expectancy the rest of the way.
The Cardinals did get a little bit of luck. All three fumbles in the game went Arizona’s way, including a pair of offensive fumbles that would have given Washington the ball in Arizona territory and an Andre Roberts fumble (during his revenge game, rats) that gave Arizona a short field. Roberts’s fumble was one of four Washington giveaways in the fourth quarter, as Kirk Cousins followed the fumble with interceptions on three of Washington’s four final meaningful possessions, including a meaningless game-sealing pick-six that Rashad Johnson probably shouldn’t have tried to return.7 Picking off Cousins isn’t necessarily luck, but the Cardinals did very little on offense to take advantage of those takeaways and allowed Washington to get close before the pick-six.
Amazingly, this happened in two games Sunday, as Denver’s Aqib Talib returned a Geno Smith interception deep in Jets territory for a pick-six with 15 seconds left when kneeling would have ended the game. Both plays wreaked havoc in Vegas, as they produced backdoor covers by the favorites (Cardinals anywhere from -3 to -6, Broncos in the -8.5 to -9.5 range) and took both games from under their respective point totals to over. You’ll never guess which sides I had in my Friday picks column!
Arizona’s win, combined with Seattle’s loss, gives it a bit of a cushion atop the NFC West. The Cardinals are now 4-1 and travel to Oakland next week. The Seahawks are a game behind at 3-2, and even if the 49ers win Monday night to go to 4-2, they’re a half-game back, with Arizona holding the tiebreaker.
The cynic in me says the Cardinals are probably going to see these injuries add up and notes that they’re yet to win a game by more than 11 points. At the same time, they’ve played an ungodly tough start to the season and come out of it 4-1, and that loss came only after they were forced to turn to Logan freaking Thomas in the second half on the road against the defending AFC champion. The Cardinals can play.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
2. New England Patriots (4-2), AFC East
I have the least to say about the two teams with the best shot at winning their respective divisions. In part, that’s because I’ve written at length about the Patriots each of the past two weeks. It’s amazing to see just how quickly this has turned for them. They looked like underdogs in the AFC East two weeks ago after getting stomped by the Chiefs, given that they already had an intra-division loss to the Dolphins on their résumé.
Since then, they’ve gone 2-0 and the rest of the division has gone 1-4. The Jets lost twice, the Dolphins lost with seconds to go to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at home, and the Bills came up with an unlikely win over the Lions before being outshined by the Patriots in Terry Pegula’s official debut as team owner. The Patriots have a one-game lead (and the tiebreaker) over the Bills, with three consecutive home games against the Jets, Bears, and Broncos coming up.
The Patriots will be worried about the injuries coming out of Sunday’s win. Jerod Mayo and Stevan Ridley left the game with serious knee ailments, with concerns that Ridley suffered a torn ACL. Of the two, he would be much easier to replace if he’s out long term; the Patriots can always scrounge up running backs, as a Ridley injury could mean more time for fourth-rounder James White or the return of former Patriots bruiser BenJarvus Green-Ellis, currently a free agent.
Mayo wouldn’t be as easy to replace. He tore his pectoral muscle in Week 6 last season, and the Patriots spent the rest of the year shuffling their linebackers around in an attempt to find a combination that would at least emulate Mayo’s athleticism and range of abilities. And that’s without considering that Mayo moved to the middle linebacker spot to replace Brandon Spikes after playing the weak side last year. If anything, his role has become even more integral to New England’s success on defense.
Jamie Collins will likely have to make the same shift to take over for Mayo, leaving another hole on the weak side. With Dont’a Hightower missing the last two games with a knee injury, the Patriots are getting perilously thin at linebacker.
1. Indianapolis Colts (4-2), AFC South
Although they had to desperately hold on to their lead during a frantic fourth-quarter comeback attempt from the Texans, the Colts pulled out a 33-28 win over their divisional rivals Thursday night, giving them an enormous edge in the AFC South.8 They now lead the Texans by one game, have the tiebreaker in tow, and will host the rematch in Week 15. It would be a major shock to see Tennessee or Jacksonville go on any sort of winning streak, let alone the long winning streak it would take to usurp the Colts atop the AFC South. The Colts haven’t exactly sealed up the division yet, but that big win on the road means they’re comfortable favorites with 10 games to go.
If you’re looking for more detailed thoughts on this game, Robert Mays and I discussed it at length on Friday’s Grantland NFL Podcast.