It’s the midpoint of the season, sort of. Eight weeks are in the books, but only eight teams have played eight games. For the other 24, the season won’t hit the turn until next week.
And while we’re starting to get a feel for the good teams and the bad teams and the in-between teams, the any-given-Sunday vibe remains alive and well — and the fortunes of teams can change quickly, for good or bad.
Until we crown a champion, we can dabble only in a series of snapshots as to where teams are right now. Here are 10 of them, plenty of which may fade to black by the time January rolls around.
1. Super Bowl rematch coming?
In August, as teams scrambled to slap together game-ready rosters without the benefit of an offseason program or traditional two-a-day workouts, it was believed that the teams who played deep into the 2010 season would have a real benefit.
And the two teams that played the deepest presumably had the biggest benefit.
From the start, the Packers showed that they’d be able to pick up right where they left off. For the Steelers, they needed a month to find their groove, but they’ve found it in a huge way, with four straight wins punctuated by a table-turning, trend-reversing victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots, highlighted by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s long-con rope-a-dope in which he convinced the Pats based on years of stubbornness that the defense wouldn’t change despite chronic struggles against offenses that spread things out and quarterbacks that could make decisions faster than the Steelers could get to the quarterbacks.
Now, nearly two months into the season, the Steelers and Packers appear to be on a collision course for a rematch, 18 years after the last time the two Super Bowl teams got back together for a second straight year.
Yes, everything is subject to change. But when the dust settles on the 2011 season, there’s a chance that, at the very top, there will be no change at all.
2. Eagles may have something to say about that.
After Sunday night’s thrashing of the Cowboys, there’s a new team that could disrupt Green Bay’s run to the Super Bowl. And it’s the team that many were ready to hand the Lombardi without even playing the season.
The Eagles finally put it together on both sides of the ball in that 34-7 win over the Cowboys, and if the Eagles can keep it up they could beat the Packers in Green Bay in January.
Tony Dungy of Football Night in America pointed out after the game that the Eagles match up well with the Packers. Indeed, the Eagles nearly knocked off the Packers in the wild-card round last year.
This year, the Eagles would be the underdog. It’s a role they seem to relish much more than being dubbed a Dream Team.
3. Ravens may have something to say about it, too.
Yes, they lost to the Jaguars a week ago. Yes, they fell behind the Cardinals by three touchdowns on Sunday. But the Ravens still have the pieces to put together a deep run into the playoffs, and they play up (and, unfortunately for them, down) to the level of the competition.
The Ravens match up well with the best teams in the conference, as long as they can get past the Steelers. And they can go a long way toward getting past the Steelers if they can beat them next Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
Either way, the Steelers and Ravens seem destined to play again in January, for the third time in four years. And the Ravens could be the only AFC team that could defeat the Steelers come the postseason, whether the game is played in Maryland or Pennsylvania.
4. Tony Dungy said it the right way.
On Sunday, Bill Cowher said he doesn’t “plan” to coach next year, and that he “plans” to be in the same seat at CBS next year. It’s a different twist on Jon Gruden’s approach to keeping his name out of circulation during a season. Gruden signed an “exclusive” contract with ESPN, and ESPN won’t say whether “exclusive” means he can’t leave the network for a coaching job.
Neither man has said unequivocally that he won’t be coaching in 2012. Tony Dungy showed them how to do it during Football Night in America, stating without doubt or ambiguity or wiggle words that he won’t be coaching next year.
So until Cowher and Gruden follow suit, they’ll be regarded as potential candidates for coaching jobs once January comes around.
5. Chris Johnson is doing it the wrong way.
It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons for Titans running back Chris Johnson’s struggles. Apart from the holdout and the new offense and the new offensive coordinator and the new quarterback, one thing is clear: Johnson lacks the explosiveness that we used to see on a weekly basis.
It was obvious today when Johnson caught a pass and had some space with which to operate, after weeks of taking a handoff and being swallowed up by defenders before he could make it to daylight. The old Chris Johnson would have rocketed to the endzone untouched. The new Chris Johnson was swallowed up by defenders.
Something’s wrong with Johnson, and the question isn’t whether he’ll get it back this year. The question is whether he’ll get it back ever.
6. Time for a new position for Tebow.
I’ll admit it. I was caught up in the Tebow story from last week. Making the dramatic closing moments of the home-away-from-home game at Miami even more compelling was the fact that Tebow had been so terribly awful in the three-plus quarters before the offense woke up.
But Tebow managed to take down one of the worst teams in the league. Sunday’s game at home against the Lions showed that Tebow simply isn’t ready to be an NFL quarterback.
It’s easy to say that he’s a work in progress. But not every unfinished painting becomes a masterpiece. Tebow, once fully developed, could be a .500 quarterback at best.
And that means it’s time for the Broncos to consider their alternatives. The ultimate team player probably would move to a new position, especially if no other team wants to let him play quarterback. But maybe it simply won’t work to take a guy who had been a quarterback and move him to a new spot on the same team. Maybe the Broncos simply need to dump him after the season.
Either way, this experiment is well on its way to failing. After a few more weeks — and a few more damning columns in the hometown paper — the Tebowmaniacs in Denver likely will agree.
7. Temporary end of the bye-week blues.
Through Week Seven, teams emerging from byes were 3-9. In Week Eight, the teams with byes last Sunday won five and lost only one.
It was believed that the five days off mandated by the labor agreement had been a factor in the 25-percent winning percentage. But now, with the total success rate up to 40 percent, it’s hard to tell whether the time off actually hurts.
It definitely didn’t hurt the Eagles, especially since Andy Reid is now 13-0 after the regular-season bye.
Moving forward, count on the teams that lost to look at the things done by the teams that won in the hopes of finding a way to win after the bye week in 2012.
8. Breaking a “Suck for Luck” deadlock.
So with the Colts at 0-8 and the Dolphins at 0-7 and their paths not crossing in 2011, plenty of readers have asked for more information about the procedure that would apply if the two teams finish 0-16.
Several times in recent years, draft order has been determined by a coin flip. So could the ability to draft Andrew Luck be determined by a rudimentary game of chance?
In this case, that most likely won’t happen, since the Colts and Dolphins are in the same conference.
First, the strength of schedule would be compared. That means the total wins and losses of the Colts’ opponents would be compared to the total wins and losses of the Dolphins’ opponents. If the numbers are the same, the process would move on to the next step.
Second, the division or conference tie-breakers apply, if applicable. In other words, the various steps that would be used to determine a wild-card berth would be employed to determine the “better” (and thus the “worse”) team. This would ultimately bring into play the following specific and detailed factors that surely would produce a winner (i.e. loser): best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed; best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed; best net points in conference games; best net points in all games; best net touchdowns in all games.
If each of those steps results in a tie, the final step would be a coin flip. But, surely, the two teams won’t tie on each of those specific factors.
Coin flips for draft picks happen when the two tied teams are in different conferences. In those cases, the factors are strength of schedule and coin flip.
So in a Colts-vs.-Dolphins showdown for Luck, someone will “win” the pick based on losing as to one of the various factors listed above.
9. ‘Skins could make a run for Luck.
Though they have three wins, the Redskins’ performance over the past several weeks suggests they won’t have many more. And that could cause the Redskins to plunge toward the Andrew Luck splash zone.
Even if the Redskins lose the rest of their games, they most likely won’t “earn” the top pick. Still, the closer they are to the top of the order, the less it will take to finish the climb via trade.
And if Luck decides he doesn’t want to play for the team that finishes in the first spot, and if he determines that he’d like to play for the Redskins, who knows? Mike Shanahan could get the best quarterback since the one with whom Shanahan won a pair of Super Bowls in Denver.
10. League needs to expand reviewable plays.
As the NFL gradually expands its use of instant replay, the league needs to be willing to consider whether further changes are needed. The most recent tweak to the system seems to cry out for a more radical overhaul.
Late in the Patriots-Steelers game, with New England trailing by six, quarterback Tom Brady was hit, forcing a fumble. During the scramble for the ball, safety Troy Polamalu dove for it, deftly slapping the thing hard across the goal line. The ball ultimately rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety. In real time and at full speed, it was hard to see that Polamalu whacked the ball toward the two-pointer. The replays revealed that Polamalu had indeed pushed the ball into the end zone.
But when referee Mike Carey reviewed the play, since it involved a score, Carey had no power to overturn the non-call on the field as it related to Polamalu’s punching of the ball, because that specific action is not on the pre-set list of reviewable plays.
Though the play would have been subject to a booth-initiated review even if it had happened before the 2011 season, given that it happened in the final two minutes of the game, the league’s expanded commitment to getting it right compels the league to ditch the list of specifically reviewable actions and to make everything reviewable, with specific exceptions carved out.
If the overriding goal is indeed to get it right, the league should exempt from review only those judgment calls made based on a three-dimensional observation of the action that can’t and shouldn’t be second-guessed by a two-dimensional representation of it. Other than pass interference and the question of whether a receiver was in the vicinity of a pass being assessed for intentional grounding, there are few (and possibly no) pure judgment calls. Thus, once the referee goes under the hood to review a play, he should be able to change the outcome based on anything he sees that should have been seen in real time.
The concern about prolonging the game shouldn’t matter. If, on scoring plays and all plays occurring with fewer than two minutes in each half, the referee watches the entire play for anything that could be overturned, the delay already has been injected into the process. The only remaining question is whether the referee will be permitted to fix any error that he sees.