Menu

FOOTBALL

Answering key NFL questions after Week 4

Most NFL teams have completed the first quarter of their regular season. So, despite the general unpredictability of the league, some trends are starting to develop.

Let's attempt to answer key questions on fans' minds:

WHICH 2011 PLAYOFF TEAMS ARE MOST IN JEOPARDY OF MISSING THE 2012 POSTSEASON?

Well, duh, the 0-4 New Orleans Saints have to top the list. Importantly, they're already four games behind unbeaten Atlanta in the NFC South Division standings. The wild-card route would likely be the necessary playoff path, but it's probably going to take a 10-6 record to nab one of the two spots.

So, can the Saints go 10-2 the rest of the way? With head coach Sean Payton suspended for the whole season, and with New Orleans' defense as porous as it's been, that would be wishful thinking. Yes, the Saints have plenty of talent, but they still have road games left against Denver, Atlanta, the New York Giants and Dallas, and they still have home games left against San Diego, Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco.

At 1-3, the Detroit Lions will have a difficult time returning to the playoffs, too. Following their Week 5 bye, they have back-to-back road games at Philadelphia and Chicago. They could be staring at 1-5 after that, which would all but eliminate them from contention.

Even if they survive that tough stretch, they also have a Thanksgiving Day date with Houston and a Week 16 visit from Atlanta ahead. The home loss to Minnesota on Sunday really damaged the Lions' hopes. If not for a rally against St. Louis on opening day, the Lions would be 0-4.

Don't look now, but the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants are 0-2 in NFC East games. Sure, they're 2-2 overall, and they didn't play particularly badly in either loss, but when you're in what figures to be the toughest division race in the NFL, starting 0-2 in divisional games is cause for concern.

The Giants, of course, are a championship-caliber team, but they still have road games against the likes of San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta and Baltimore, and their remaining home schedule includes Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Philadelphia.

Last year, a 9-7 regular season was enough to get the Giants a championship. They might be looking at a similar record this year, but with the expected improved records of teams like Arizona, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle and Washington in the NFC, it's likely that 9-7 won't be enough to get to the postseason this time around. New York will need to win at least 10 games this regular season.

Pittsburgh is the other 2011 playoff team that probably needs to be concerned. At 1-2, the Steelers still have plenty of time to right the ship. It's just that there's a disturbing trend developing (although perhaps the expected return of Rashard Mendenhall on Sunday will solve it): The Steelers can't run the ball anymore.

No Pittsburgh player has rushed for more than 43 yards in a game this season. Imagine that. Sure, they had been a pass-first team the last few years with Ben Roethlisberger under center, but the Steelers had always been able to count on their rushing attack to close games out in the past.

If the Steelers continue to become more predictable on offense, it's going to be tougher to handle the elite teams. Pittsburgh looks like it's going to win between nine and 11 games. It's possible that nine wouldn't be enough for an AFC playoff berth.

WHICH TEAMS ARE MOST LIKELY TO WIN THEIR DIVISION TITLE, IN ORDER?

With a three-game lead already in the NFC South (as well as having a roster loaded with talent), Atlanta is certainly one of the most likely division winners this year. Top threat New Orleans is 0-4.

With an equally good chance of winning its division is 4-0 Houston, which has a 1 1/2-game lead over Indianapolis in the AFC South. Top threat Tennessee is 1-3.

New England has the third-best chance at a division crown, despite a mediocre 2-2 record. Currently, the Patriots are tied for first in the AFC East with Buffalo and the New York Jets.

Still, can anyone take Buffalo as a serious threat, now that New England rallied from a 21-7 deficit to crush the Bills, 52-28? Does anyone think that the Jets, minus all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis (and possibly top wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a lengthy time, too), can overtake New England?

Those are the only three teams that appear to be essentially a lock to win their respective divisions. Let's go with San Francisco as having the fourth- best chance. Yes, Arizona is undefeated and in first place right now, but the 49ers are just one game behind in the standings and they have the NFL's best defense.

Baltimore, in the AFC North, probably has the fifth-best chance to be a division winner. The Ravens are tied at 3-1 with Cincinnati, and perennial power Pittsburgh could still be a factor, but Baltimore just looks like the most complete team of the bunch.

The other three divisions are too close to call. The best guesses? Look for Peyton Manning-led Denver to edge perennially underachieving San Diego in the AFC West. Chicago and Green Bay will probably fight to the finish in the NFC North, and the NFC East race could involve all four teams. At the very least, Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants ought to remain in the hunt until the end.

WHICH TEAM IS MOST LIKELY TO 'EARN' THE TOP PICK IN THE 2013 DRAFT?

The obvious pick would seem to be Cleveland, since the Browns and New Orleans Saints are the league's only winless teams. The Tennessee Titans have been outscored by a league-worst 70 points, but that could primarily be attributed to their extremely difficult schedule (New England, San Diego, Detroit and Houston).

Let's not pick either of those teams. Let's go with Jacksonville. It should be said, however, that there is about as much parity as ever in the NFL. Any one of six or so teams can challenge for the worst overall record.

If Jacksonville gets the top pick, the most interesting question centers around whether it would choose a quarterback (Matt Barkley or fast-rising Geno Smith) or be content with Blaine Gabbert and ship the No. 1 selection for a king's ransom, like St. Louis did with the No. 2 selection this past offseason.

WHO WILL WIN THE NFL COACH OF THE YEAR AWARD?

Quite a few teams are overachieving, so the Vikings' Leslie Frazier and the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt are among the top early contenders for this award. However, since St. Louis, with a 2-2 record, has already equaled its 2011 win total, here's a vote for Jeff Fisher.

The Rams led in the final minute against Detroit before losing a close one. This is possibly the most-improved team in the NFL, and that's what usually wins coaching awards. The Rams have been down for a while, but they've been quietly building a strong defense. They'd need to get to 8-8 for Fisher to win the award, and it says here that they will.

WHEN WILL THE 1972 MIAMI DOLPHINS BE ABLE TO CELEBRATE?

There's an urban legend that as the only team in the Super Bowl era to complete a season as undefeated champion, Miami's 1972 alumni annually get together for a champagne toast to celebrate the final unbeaten NFL team's initial loss of a given season.

Three teams sit at 4-0: Arizona, Atlanta and Houston. History shows that each of them will probably lose a regular-season game (or three or four) before it's over. Let's figure the '72 Dolphins will celebrate no later than Week 8.

Arizona's upcoming schedule is: Week 5 at St. Louis, Week 6 at home versus Buffalo, Week 7 at Minnesota, and Week 8 at home versus San Francisco.

Atlanta's upcoming schedule is: Week 5 at Washington, Week 6 at home versus Oakland, Week 7 bye, and Week 8 at Philadelphia.

Houston's upcoming schedule is: Week 5 at the New York Jets, Week 6 at home versus Green Bay, Week 7 at home versus Baltimore, and a Week 8 bye.

It seems like there's a potential loss during the next four weeks for each of those teams. Arizona will probably drop one of its next two road games. Houston will probably split those tough back-to-back home games against Green Bay and Baltimore. Atlanta will probably be an underdog at Philadelphia.

So, if there's any truth to the urban legend, get ready to drink up relatively soon, 1972 Dolphins.