So, we're at the quasi(4/17) quarter pole for the regular-season, thought it'd be a nice moment to take a stroll around the league.
Tier 1 - Complete Teams
Houston Texans - They appear to be the only team without a weakness in the NFL. It's been difficult to truly judge them in someways this season as their competition has not been stellar, but they have dominated their opponents. It's also basically the same team from last season except with their starting QB back and, much like the 49ers were hoping for their offense, a true off-season to develop their defense. I haven't looked at super bowl odds recently, but I'd make them "heavy" ( it's all relative in the NFL ) favorites. 4-1 or so and I don't think any other team should be better than 10-1. They have to be ridiculously heavy favorites to get home field in the AFC. They have two tough games coming up against the Packers and Pats I believe, and if they pull those off, a real shot at an undefeated regular season.
Tier 2 - Solid teams with an Issue
Atlanta Falcons - They appear to have picked up right where they left off last regular season, decimating lesser opponents and looking great from the lead. Their main problems remain the same though, they are inconsistent running and stopping the run. In certain match ups this is not much of a problem, but chances are they're going to have to beat 2 teams that can run the ball to win the super bowl and I have serious doubts they can do that.
Arizona Cardinals - Every year there seems to be a team like these guys. While the QB play was so pitiful in the preseason many were predicting them to be the worst team in the NFL, there was still a more general sense that they were an 8-8 team. We all know the talking points, they won blah blah out of blah blah to end the regular season, they just know how to win close games, etc etc. We also know that statements like that are statistical gibberish. There's no carry over from the end of previous seasons, and 1 score games tend to regress to 50%. That being said, once the game is won, it's won. If you flip a coin and it comes up heads the first 2 times, it's still 50/50 the 3rd. If we say that the Cardinals were going to have 3 easy wins, 3 easy losses and 10 coin flips, well they're 1-0 in easy wins and 3-0 in coin-flips. They're looking at 10 wins now in that scenario. I will say that all the defenses in the NFC West are underrated ( except the 49ers, which is probably a little overrated ), and because of that they can stay in any game in which the other team is not really playing lights out. I think the Cardinals are good enough to win 3 or 4 games in a row against good teams and win a super bowl. First step is to make the playoffs and they're in great shape for that.
San Francisco 49ers - We all pretty much know the story. Great on defense, good on special teams, good running game, dink and dunk passing. If they play from a head they're as good as any team, if they stumble out of the gate it's.. difficult to watch. I do think, like the Cardinals, they're capable of winning 3 or 4 in a row against good teams. The margins are small, but they're small for all teams except for the Texans I think. I'm openly curious as to whether the 49ers would be a better team short-term with Kaepernick as the starter, but think that it's better long-term if he continues to learn how to be a pocket passer in practice.
Baltimore Ravens - I feel bad for the Ravens as it feels like every year they're getting slightly better in some areas while getting equally slightly worse in others. They've never had that year where it comes together for them. The potential for the passing offense is there, but Flacco can't quite take that step. I do think they're a slightly more balanced version of the 49ers. A slightly less effective version of the Texans. They can win the super bowl, but it will take another level of play they've yet to reach on offense, or a return to a level on defense that they probably won't be able to reach without Suggs.
Tier 3 - The potential is there
New England Patriots - They still appear to be so much better than their divisional counterparts that a divisional title and a home game feel like an afterthought. At that point I can easily see them winning 4 games in a row. They still scheme as well as any team in big games, they still have Brady and his stable of practically unstoppable weapons. Their defensive draft picks seem to be doing well.
The NFC East ( sans Washington ) - They say that the real reason fans hate other teams is not because they "win", but rather because they were lucky. In our modern playoff-state it's hard not to look at every champion in every sporting league and find so many examples of just rare lucky breaks that led to it. Rare is the exception in which a dominant and talented team simply outplays and wins easily on their way to the playoff title ( the Kentucky Wildcats last year ). It has to drive the Eagles and Cowboy fans absolutely bonkers to see their equally overrated counterpart win 2 titles in 5 years when they're really no better. The Giants haven't dominated them in the regular season, they haven't dominated regular seasons in general, they haven't won consistently in the playoffs. That's just how it is though. All 3 of these teams are talented enough to make a run if the cards align. All 3 are capable of imploding just the same with their various weaknesses, like stupid decisions by QBs, injuries to injury prone players that are always getting injured, odd disastrous play calling...
Green Bay Packers - Speaking of alignments, it has really felt like things have been aligning against the Packers this season. I'm just waiting now for the inevitable injury to Rodgers or Mathews. Losing either would end their season. The officials took one game from them and almost took another, but to some degree, why were those games close? The Saints look absolutely horrible, and playing on the road in Lambeau, why was that game close enough that a non fumble on a kick off return almost decided it? Why couldn't the Packers block for 2 seconds against the Seahawks? Last year when the Packers were truly firing on all cylinders on offense it was amazing. I kept telling people that when teams do it so early in the season it always fades by the end and it did. This season, it's not there yet, perhaps they can get into a stride later in the season and carry it into the playoffs. I think they need to focus more heavily on Nelson and Cobb and stop mixing up the targets so much.
Tier 4 - Not bad, but not good enough
San Diego Chargers & Denver Broncos - To be short, two ok teams who are seemingly very consistent in their output. They dominate poor teams, they play close with ok teams, they lose to good teams. One will win the West and host a playoff game against,.. maybe the other one.. or maybe the Steelers or Bengals. Plenty winnable. Can one steal enough easy wins to get a bye? I can't see either beating the Texans and then winning the super bowl. Just don't have the ceiling.
Cincinnati Bengals - I still really like Dalton. He was "figured out" toward the end of last season, but he has come back strong. Last year at this time it was basically the opposite, but now it seems their defense can't even slow down mediocre offenses. They should still be able to walk to a 5-1 record and even though their second half schedule is difficult, could still slip into a 9-7 wildcard. The AFC is going to produce two mediocre wild cards.
Pittsburgh Steelers - Separate from the Bengals because they're in such different positions. Their defense is a year older ( I'm sure they would have liked a much later bye week ), thoroughly defeated by the Broncos, beat the hapless Jets ( yea 49er fans, the Jets are hapless ), and lost to the Raiders. The Raiders. Just to add to it though. If the Steelers are a below average team, which they appear to be. What does that say about the AFC? It's kind of shocking that of all the expected-them-to-be-bad teams in the AFC, they all appear to be actually bad.
Minnesota Vikings - They fit a pretty traditional archetype for a football team. Solid, albeit not spectacular defense, inconsistent offense that relies heavily on short passes. We 49er fans may have a bit of a skewed view on them as they had perhaps their best-case scenario against the 49ers at home. I know some people were saying how good they must be by following up their victory with a lead-the-whole-way victory over the Lions, but their offense was completely ineffective the entire game. They appear to be very similar to last year's 49ers, only the NFC North this year is not as bad as the NFC West was last year and the 49ers defense was elite rather than solid. I think this is the annual team that starts off with a good record then slowly collapses back down to earth record wise.
Washington Redskins - RGIII looks great, though I still think these coordinators that push bad long-term instincts for short-term gains are not intelligent. I'm already worried about the number of hits he's taking and he's 4 games into his career. The NFC East is ripe for the taking and the Redskins can do that. I just wonder how long they can survive without their best defenders and how long it'll be before coordinators have enough on RGIII to start forcing him into positions which he currently is avoiding. That is not a knock on RGIII, rather an inevitability for all young players in all sports. Or worse, when he takes a hit at the wrong angle and hurts his wrist or his elbow or his ribs.
Tier 5 - The Rest
Chicago Bears - Cutler holds onto the ball.. way.. too long.. otherwise, they're a solid team. If they had spent the off-season really working him on a 3 and 5 step timer I think they'd be a potential-is-there type team, but Cutler is going to get killed. They're going to struggle against any team that can get a pass rush with 5 guys, let alone 4.
Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints - Talented teams that haven't won any of their close games. It's a literal worst case scenario for the Saints and they've lost their games by 8,8,3 and 1. Losses are losses, but it says something when the worst case scenario doesn't even include a blow out. I think they need a rather big overhaul on defense, but it can be done in a year or two. The Lions lack of running ability continues to hurt them. Otherwise they appear to be a somewhat average team that is going to be in a lot of close games. I'm not entirely sure what their fix should be. Unfortunately for teams with weak offensive lines, and 49er fans know this, there's no quick fix. Usually takes 2-3 years to develop guys at best.
Miami Dolphins - Watching Tannehill give away the game against the Cardinals makes me believe he won't be able to get it together, but again we're talking about what might end up being a 9-7 wildcard spot. Can the Dolphins go 9-7 with their schedule? Absolutely. It's unfortunate they went with Tannehill instead of Moore. He could have waited a year. They seem to have an ok team otherwise, and with a few opportunistic moments ( rather than the reverse ), could easily be the surprise.
Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Whatever good parts these teams have they're heavily outweighed by the bad parts. The Seahawks, like the Dolphins, could probably have a shot at the playoffs with competent.. we'll call it "Kolb" level QB play. Their gifted win aside, they may still be able to scrap together a season by shutting down opponents in Seattle. The Panthers have no defense. The Bucs are so terribly inconsistent. The Rams have no offense. People keep waiting for Bradford to turn into someone else. They have a real chance to build a deep team over the next couple drafts I just think that when it's all put together, they're going to bring in a new QB to drive it.
Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders - I'd put the best odds on the Colts/Luck to be able to come out of this, they will probably lose to the Packers next week, but then could rattle off 5 straight victories. They also play the Texans twice in the last 3 weeks, the Texans may have already wrapped up home field by then. Buffalo appears to be so completely 1 dimensional I have no idea how they win more than 5 or 6 games eternally. Defense is poor and the offense takes too many risks to put up the points they do.
It's strange to say, but I think all of those teams are worse than the worst team in the NFC in general. The worst 8 teams. Now I realize people will argue against that when Kansas City defeated the Saints, in New Orleans. That's completely fair, I just don't personally subscribe to the Parcells "you are what your record says you are" or ends-justifies-means history keeping. The Chiefs upset the Saints, and I firmly believe that. I don't think they are the better team. At 4 games in I feel fine saying the Saints are better than teams that have a victory, if they go 1-15 and the Chiefs go 4-12, probably not at that point. ( The Saints will win eventually, and I do think sadly that the 49ers will get the Saints best game of the year )
Matt Schaub, JJ Watt, Arian Foster - The 3 best known and key players on the best team. This tends to lean QB these days, but it's a difficult climb for Schaub when the Foster was the most heralded player on the team and the defense played so well last year and this year. JJ Watt a solid candidate for DPOY. I know a lot of people wanted him for the 49ers instead of Aldon, but just imagine. He probably still would only be a rotational backup and Aldon of course is the key pass rusher on the 49ers.
Clay Mathews - With a couple of monster national performances to start the season he is neck and neck with Watt in sacks and, let's face it, national game sacks tend to win the DPOY award. 49ers are going to have a stretch of prime time games coming up and if Aldon or Justin Smith can shine in those games they'll be put into the conversation as well, but as of right now I'd say Mathews and Watt are the two at the quarter pole.
Matt Ryan - Here is a prototypical MVP candidate. His running back is old, his defense is nameless, it's just him and his receivers getting the media attention. He can lean back and heave a jump ball from his own end zone and they come down with it. He's played well and received breaks. That being said, there almost always seems to be a young QB putting up big numbers getting MVP talk this early and almost always fades due to inconsistency while older bigger name guys elevate themselves with huge stats due to bad defenses.
Robert Griffin III - A prime candidate for ROY and OPOY. He's putting up gaudy stats, getting all of the goal line TDs and his team will likely not be in it at the end.
The Old Hats - Roethlisberger, Peyton, Brady - None has been amazing, but all 3 have been solid enough. Peyton had 3 ints against Atlanta, but still 8TD-3Int at this point, Brady and Roethlisberger are 7-1 and 8-1 respectively. Ryan is the leader thus far, but if he stumbles one of these three will probably be ready to steal it.
Aside from the standard 49ers predictions, how do you guys see the rest of the season going? AFC seems pretty set, while the NFC looks to be rather up in the air.