Is seven weeks into the season too early to declare home-field advantage wrapped up? Probably. But let’s be real about the state of the AFC right now: It’s the Texans and everyone else.
The Texans are so much better than the rest of the AFC that only a string of major injuries to key players (like Houston had last year) can prevent them from clinching home field for the playoffs, probably with a couple games left in the regular season. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Houston.
Entering Sunday, the Texans and Ravens were tied for the best record in the AFC at 5-1, and their meeting at Reliant Stadium looked like a possible AFC Championship preview. But on Sunday the Texans absolutely humiliated the Ravens, jumping out to a 29-3 halftime lead and coasting through the second half to win 43-13. If the Ravens are the second-best team in the AFC, then I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between the first and second-best teams in either conference in NFL history.
The Texans are such a complete team. They pass the ball well with Matt Schaub throwing to receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels. In Arian Foster they have one of the NFL’s best running backs. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is my choice for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL right now. Johnathan Joseph has been slowed by a groin injury this season, but when he’s at full speed he’s among the NFL’s best cornerbacks — and he looked like he’s getting closer to full speed when he picked off Joe Flacco and returned the interception 52 yards for a touchdown on Sunday.
All of that is half of the reason the Texans are so far ahead of the pack in the AFC. The other half is that every other team in the AFC is deeply flawed. Only the Texans, Ravens and Patriots have winning records, and it’s looking like a year when 8-8 may be enough to make the playoffs in the AFC. All those AFC teams hovering around .500 may look to some people like just the kind of parity everyone likes about the NFL, but it looks more like mediocrity to me.
The Texans’ loss to the Packers a week ago is a strong demonstration of how much better the NFC is than the AFC this season: If the Texans were in the other conference, they wouldn’t be the favorites to earn home-field advantage. But as the one and only really good team in a mediocre conference, the Texans have the clearest path to the Super Bowl of any team in the NFL.
Here are my other observations from the seventh Sunday of this NFL season:
Chris Johnson may be the most inconsistent player in NFL history. Johnson was absolutely sensational for the Titans in Sunday’s win over the Bills, carrying 18 times for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including one 83-yard run on which he looked like he could give Usain Bolt a competitive race. Johnson’s game-breaking ability is unmatched; previously in his NFL career Johnson has had touchdown runs of 91, 89 and 85 yards, and he’s the only player in NFL history with four career touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer. But for the Titans, it’s maddening that a player with the talent to run like that has so many absolutely terrible games. In the first six weeks of this season, Johnson had four different games in which he failed to gain even 25 yards. In those four games, Johnson’s total stat line is 48 carries for 69 yards and zero touchdowns. How can a player who’s good enough to gain 195 yards on 18 carries in one game be bad enough to total just 69 yards on 48 carries in four other games? It’s inexplicable.
Browns rookie defensive lineman Billy Wynn committed one of the dumbest penalties of the year. On a fourth down from the Colts’ own 22-yard line in the second quarter, the Indianapolis offense stayed on the field. Obviously, all they were going to do is try to draw the Browns’ defense offside: No NFL team ever goes for it on fourth down in that situation. Which obviously means that all the Browns had to do was not jump offside. And yet Wynn jumped offside, giving the Colts a free first down. Penalties don’t get much dumber than that.
Wynn’s penalty wasn’t even the Browns’ dumbest fourth-down decision. Browns coach Pat Shurmur made one of the bonehead calls of the year when he sent out his punter on fourth-and-1 from the Colts’ 41-yard line while trailing 17-13 with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter. That’s a situation where you have to go for it. You simply cannot give the ball away because you don’t trust your offense to gain one yard with the game on the line. The Browns, of course, ended up losing by that same 17-13 score. Shurmur is coaching for his job right now, and these are the decisions that get coaches fired.
We’re running out of superlatives for Robert Griffin III. Even in defeat, Griffin is doing amazing things as the Redskins’ quarterback. After Griffin completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, plus 89 yards rushing, players on the Giants’ defense declared Griffin the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora described Griffin as “flat-out unbelievable.” It’s amazing how good this guy is, at just 22 years old.
Last year we were running out of superlatives for Cam Newton. If you want to make the case that no one should get too excited about Griffin, all you have to do is point to Newton. Last year Newton was doing many of the same things Griffin was doing, making plays with his arm and his feet in an unbelievable rookie season for the Panthers. But this year Newton just doesn’t appear to be the same player. It’s not that Newton has been terrible, but in games like Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, he just hasn’t been able to make plays when the Panthers need him. Becoming a great pro quarterback is a lot of work, and while Newton may achieve greatness eventually, he’s not there yet. Maybe a full year of film on Newton has better prepared NFL defenses to stop him, or maybe Newton let all the fame get to his head last year. But he’s not playing as well as he did in 2011.
The Jets aren’t going down without a fight. After they lost their best player, Darrelle Revis, to a season-ending knee injury and then lost their next game 34-0 to the 49ers, I thought the Jets would be one of the worst teams in the league the rest of the season. But I was wrong. The Jets are playing tough, competitive football. On Sunday in New England the Jets were (at least according to the Vegas lines) the biggest underdogs in the NFL. And yet they took the Patriots to overtime. Rex Ryan turns a lot of people off with all his bluster, but the guy is a damn good coach.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano had the biggest win of the day. Not because his team beat the Browns to improve to 3-3 and surpass last year’s win total, but because he was sent home after four weeks in the hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. For Pagano, that’s an important step to getting where he wants to be: Back to coaching his team.