NFL midterms

By Adam Salmon

Ahhh, Week 11 in the NFL. Time to separate the men from the boys. No more bye weeks to look forward to, no time to rest nagging injuries, no more 60 degree games in Buffalo and New England. No, the reckoning nears. Some midterm thoughts and opinions on who will shake out this season and who’ll be playing into January.

Teams that just plain stink: San Francisco. Just painful to watch. They’re too inconsistent, cough up too many turnovers, have far too many gaping holes in terms of personnel all over the field. The Niners look at least three or four seasons away from contending for a playoff berth.

Teams that have already had too many setbacks: Miami, Tampa Bay, Tennessee. Ricky Williams’ retirement is almost entirely to blame for the disastrous collapse in Miami, a team that might have had a shot at a Super Bowl this year by looking at their roster in July. Tampa was forced to jettison the contracts of most of the marquee players from their Super Bowl championship run a few years back and are in full-on rebuilding mode. The Bucs have played well in spurts, but a playoff run at this point seems very unlikely. Tennessee will probably not play a healthy Steve McNair again this year, they’re banged up everywhere else, and they’re in the AFC. Even if they get it together a little and get back to playing .500 football, it won’t be enough.

Youth Movements: Cincinnati, Chicago, New York Giants, Washington, Buffalo. The Carson Palmer era in Cincy hasn’t been a total bust. Injuries (especially on defense) have forced Marvin Lewis to play rookies who, by his own admission, probably aren’t ready. The Bears’ plan was to get Rex Grossman some game experience this year, but lost him to injury and they’ve skewed even younger with Craig Krenzel at quarterback (Yes, Craig Krenzel). The Giants are starting rookie Eli Manning over Kurt Warner this week, and the ‘Skins will go with second year man Patrick Ramsey over Mark Brunell. The Bills have been playing well of late and their gamble on drafting an injured Willis McGahee in the first round in 2003 seems to be paying off. They won’t have enough to make a playoff push, and you’ll likely see J.P. Losman more and more at QB for the Bills in the coming weeks. All five teams will finish up this season giving valuable experience to a large number of first and second year players, giving up the ghost of making the playoffs in favor of preparing for bigger and better things in the near future.

Stumblin’ right along: Dallas, Oakland, Cleveland, Carolina. This is a motley crew. The Cowboys and Panthers both made the playoffs last year, and both teams appear to be taking a big step in the wrong direction this season. The Browns and Raiders made some personnel changes in the off-season that haven’t worked to their advantage. Worst of all, all four teams feature veteran quarterbacks who throw the ball to the other team too often. Each of these four clubs is in the bottom half of the league in turnover margin. The main focus the rest of the way is trying to spoil playoff bids by other teams.

Encouraging start but at least a year away: Arizona, Detroit, Houston. Young quarterbacks, great young talent at the offensive skill positions, and proven NFL head coaches give all three franchises plenty to be excited about, but some seasoning is still needed. Detroit has the best shot of the three to sneak into the playoffs this year. That Roy Williams is unbelievable.

Jekyll and Hyde: New Orleans, Kansas City. I’ve been scratching my head about these two teams for about four years now. The talent’s all there, but one wonders. The Saints and Chiefs can light up a scoreboard. They can also make you want to throw your television out the window. You have no idea what from week to week. Neither team seems to know how to tackle. Probably the two enigmas headed into the playoff drive—both can make the postseason and maybe win a couple of games, or both might fall flat on their faces. Bet on the latter.

The Troublemakers: Jacksonville, Atlanta, New York Jets, San Diego. The Falcons are 7-2; the rest are 6-3. Good, solid starts for all four, especially the Chargers. These are the teams who weren’t supposed to be in the playoff hunt, but all four are sitting pretty right now. They’re all reasonably healthy, or will be when former Marshall stars Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington are back under center for the Jags and Jets. They all run the ball, and they all stop the run (all four teams are currently in the top 7 in the league in Rushing Defense). Isn’t that what all the pundits say you have to do in pro football? One or more of these teams will make a Cinderella run, probably Atlanta in the NFC.

NFC Old Reliables: Green Bay, Minnesota, St. Louis, Seattle.

AFC Old Reliables: New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Denver.

All of these teams make the playoffs and lose, mostly for the sake of this column. All have question marks. Can the Packers and Patriots patch holes in their secondaries? Are the Rams and the Seahawks the same team? They look and play eerily the same. Can the Colts run? Can the Ravens pass? Does Jake Plummer still do stupid things with the ball? Will Randy Moss get healthy before things get out of hand for the Vikings?

Which leaves us with….

Super Bowl XXXIX: Pittsburgh Steelers v. Philadelphia Eagles: The Battle for Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh, it’s all about the ground game. Ben Roethlisberger has been fantastic, but mainly because he isn’t asked to do much more than complete routes over the middle and bomb it down to Plexico Burress when they get single coverage deep. He’s a great looking young quarterback, don’t get me wrong, but when you can hand the ball off on 3rd and 7 and feel good about picking up a first down, passing gets a lot simpler. Philly can’t stand up to that sort of punishing rushing offense, but they have a pair of aces in the hole with Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens. The Steelers destroyed Philly in Week 9, and will win again with a little more scoring out of T.O. and the Eagles this time around, call it 31-24. Hines Ward, the best blocking receiver in the NFL, takes home the Super Bowl MVP hardware, while Roethlisberger is named Offensive Rookie of the Year for bringing home a fifth Lombardi trophy to the Steel City. n