30 of 32 NFL teams have played four games. NFL coaches often break down their games into quartiles, and I do the same. Once a team has played four games I no longer look back on 2014 data. The following represents a look at all 16 NFC teams. This review will include a look back at some key statistics and player performances as well as a brief look ahead. Comments are always welcome.
ARIZONA: Even Bruce Arians is human! I’ve already named the coach of the year award in his honor, and the Cardinals despite the home loss last week are 3-1 and still leading the NFC West. Carson Palmer is a top ten QB when 100% healthy. For the 1st time in maybe eight years or more the run game is relevant. The defense is adequate on the stat sheet but opportunistic overall, especially in the secondary. Unlike many NFL teams this year, the placekicker is an asset. The Next Quartile: The next four games won’t be easy. The three road games are at Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland on a short week. The home game is a highly interesting Monday night affair hosting Baltimore. To stay ahead of Seattle the Cardinals may need to go 3-1. Certainly this team is worthy of playoff status but winning the Division is hardly a guarantee.
ATLANTA: In the AFC report I wrote that new coaches who have early success tend to parlay that into a winning 1st season. Atlanta is 4-0, seemingly getting stronger each and every game. Philly missed a makeable field goal and the NYG imploded, meaning Atlanta was lucky not to be 0-2 right out of the gate. Being 2-0 certainly helped their morale and their resolve to erase an early deficit playing at Dallas week #3. A closer look at the stat sheet shows a defense that has issues. Atlanta has allowed 20 or more points in every game. They have a run defense that is above the NFL average (sitting at 4.45). The pass defense is at 65+%. One change offensively has been Atlanta’s ability to score in the red zone, and score late in games. That did not happen under the former regime. Julio Jones is a top three WR. The Next Quartile: Momentum might be sustained with Atlanta hosting Washington, at New Orleans, at Tennessee and hosting Tampa during quartile #2. Not noted above is that the Falcons have only five defensive sacks, but this has never been an Atlanta strength and I only projected 29 this season. Teams will continue to have time to throw, meaning don’t look for the secondary to lower the pass D% anytime soon. Still, the confidence this team has right now cannot be understated.
CAROLINA: Like Atlanta, Carolina sits at 4-0. All wins were deserved. Cam Newton continues to improve and I now have him listed as a top ten QB. It’s early, but even the pass defense is “thriving” after years of poor marks. Ron Rivera has long been an undervalued head coach. The team has a subpar offensive line, no WR’s of note, and a secondary that strikes fear in no opposing QB’s eyes yet they continue to win. The margin of error is slim but there is no question Carolina can battle with any team on their ’15 schedule. The Next Quartile: Carolina is off this week before playing at Seattle. You won’t find a more focused team in the NFL on October 18th as the Panthers want to prove they are every bit as good as the Seahawks. The next week they host Philly (Sunday night) in another entertaining game. With home games vs. Indy and Green Bay up next this 2nd quartile is awfully tough. I’m quite sure the pass defense will regress after facing this set of opposing QB’s. Carolina’s goal is to split these games. Anything more would establish them in my eyes as the clear favorite to win the NFC South.
CHICAGO: Was the ’15 season saved with that last second win vs. Oakland? Chicago was holding a fire sale prior to that game, with more roster changes sure to follow if the Bears continued to lose. Teams in this scenario usually try hard that 1st game, but if it doesn’t work out they become resigned to losing. At least Chicago now feels they have a fighting chance to avoid total disaster. Statistically, the sack ratio is poor at 6-9, the pass defense is very poor, and lead WR Jeffries is not 100%. Matt Forte is carrying this offense right now. I projected 41 defensive sacks this season. That won’t happen. The Next Quartile: Imagine how the Bears would have approached this 2nd quartile if they now stood at 0-4! The games are at KC, at Detroit, home to Minny and at San Diego. Based on recent history this would be 1-3 or 2-2. 1-3 sounds about right based on this season’s relevant data. The season could still turn ugly. Personally, I don’t expect Jay Cutler back in ’16 even though he is hardly the sole reason Chicago is trending down. I also expect the Bears to move on from Matt Forte based on his age and salary. I look for the Bears to begin a rebuilding campaign, starting with a 1st round QB selection. They have not quit just yet, but any new losing streak could severely impact team and management morale.
DALLAS: Dallas was certainly lucky to win week #1 vs. the NYG but just as unlucky to lose this past weekend at New Orleans. Their 2-2 record has to be disappointing. No team can lose talents such as Dez Bryant and Tony Romo and thrive. My take is that losing Sean Lee made just as big an impact. The super smart LB did not finish either of the last two games, which not coincidently resulted in late losses. QB Weeden has NFL accuracy but lacks the same pocket presence as Romo, plus has never proven to be a good crunch time QB. Dallas allows two of every three passes to be completed. Can the Cowboys right the ship? The Next Quartile: Dallas gets Greg Hardy back off suspension this week. They could get Dez Bryant back toward the end of the next quartile. They have three home games coming up, but all three are difficult opponents (New England, Seattle, and Philly). The road game is a crucial one for the NYG. The offense might do their part but the defense must step up their game. Will Sean Lee be cleared to play this week? It’s certainly not all Weeden’s fault but he has lost his last nine starts. For me this means Weeden desperately needs to show he has what it takes to win games in the 4th quarter. The goal has to be to tread water until their stars come back. The Division will still be up for grabs through late November if not for the entire season so Dallas would be best advised not to panic and to play smarter in crunch time.
DETROIT: Jim Caldwell is NOT a good fit for this offense. The highly conservative head coach has a team that has scored 66 points this season. The defensive line on paper seems to be playing decently even with their free agency losses, but a closer look shows that Lion opponents have had their way in the pass game. No team can win consistently with a pass defense that has allowed 100 completions in 128 attempts. The Lions should have won Monday night at Seattle, but NOT because of the illegal batting rule that was not called. Instead, Calvin Johnson could have secured the ball a bit better and given the Lions three more cracks to score the TD. Of course Seattle could have responded with a late TD, given the perennially horrid Lion pass defense. The Next Quartile: Detroit does not have a true road game in the 2nd quartile. They host Arizona, Chicago and Minny before heading to London to face Kansas City. The biggest issue facing Detroit is not dwelling on what just happened! It’s a short week, and they certainly must begin game planning for Arizona or else they could fall to 0-5 and the season would be over. Win this game, and 3-5 at the halfway point is realistic. Like it or not, game #5 is do or die for Caldwell and the Lions.
GREEN BAY: When Aaron Rodgers speaks, people should listen. The QB who told everyone to R-E-L-A-X in ’14 told us all this preseason that August was a joke. The Packers did not even try in what is usually the critical week three preseason game after losing star WR Jordy Nelson the week prior. Would the Packers be ready to start ’15? The answer was a resounding yes. The sack ratio is 17-6. The pass defense is under the magic # of 60%. The one sore spot as usual is the run defense, but in today’s NFL defending the pass is far more important. The offense is certainly not 100% healthy but no player reads the field better than Aaron Rodgers. The Next Quartile: It’s never wise to assume a win, but the Packers do figure to beat the Rams and if they win in a 2nd straight home game hosting San Diego (Chargers off a short week) then Green Bay will be 6-0 heading into their bye week. NBC may get a huge rating boost on November 1st, especially if Green Bay and Denver are undefeated coming into that marquee game. The Packers remain on the road to close quartile #2 when they head to Carolina. We might know after these two road games whether or not these Packers are the top team in the NFL. Even a split of these two games should keep the Packers at the top of the list to earn that coveted #1 NFC seed.
MINNESOTA: The roster is still a work in progress but Mike Zimmer and the Vikings are getting more competitive each and every week. They laid an egg week #1 at SF but double digit wins vs. teams that are similar to them (Lions, Chargers) is a good sign. Minny was certainly competitive at Denver but the weak link of the offense (offensive line) let them down in allowing seven sacks. Adrian Peterson has fresh legs and it certainly is showing. The run defense needs to play better. The Next Quartile: The Vikings are off this week, giving them a chance to work on some things such as pass protection and the run D. Games 5-7 all look like 50-50 propositions. They host KC before critical NFC Central road games at Detroit and Chicago. Game #8 is hosting the Rams. Beating a Jeff Fisher coached underdog team is never a given. Minny has a chance to get to 5-3 at the halfway point of the season but I would not be surprised if the record was 4-4. KC and the Rams will test Minny’s subpar offensive line. Winning on the road in the Division is a challenge. Like I wrote in the ’14 version of the quartile report Minny is a team on the rise. Further progression will be made once Minny addresses severe offensive line deficiencies.
NEW ORLEANS: Give Drew Brees credit for gutting it out last Sunday night as he clearly was in pain and could not make all of his usual throws. The offense has been less than dynamic but using CJ Spiller more could make a huge difference. Obviously the Saints no longer have a stretch the field tight end. Good for this organization for recognizing that rookie WR Willie Snead has NFL talent. Rob Ryan is still a liability but I do not believe it was his fault that Dallas was able to tie the game up, forcing overtime. Overall the defense is still below average. The Next Quartile: The Saints are 0-2 in Divisional play and a full three games behind Atlanta and Carolina in the standings. Rob Ryan’s defense will be severely tested in this quartile when they face Philly, Atlanta, Indy and the NYG. Based on ’15 performance it sure looks like 3-5 would be the best they could achieve. A win vs. Atlanta in the short week Thursday night home game is essential as otherwise they would fall to 0-3 inside the NFC South.
NEW YORK GIANTS: The bad news is that the NYG outright blew a pair of late double digit leads in games 1-2, painfully losing both games. The good news is that they are currently tied for 1st place in the NFC East after a pair of double digit wins. The Giants need to learn how to finish games. They had several strong situational tendencies last week in the game at Buffalo. Offensively, the Giants have scored 20 or more points in every game. The three-headed run game has yet to get untracked. Defensively the sack totals have regressed (5 in total). Even with Pierre-Paul out I expected better. The pass defense has been subpar, understandable when one considers how this team approaches staffing its secondary. They continue to play the “rent a safety” game and that needs to stop. The run defense has been stout. The Next Quartile: Games 5-8 are hosting San Francisco, at Philly on Monday night, hosting Dallas on the short week and at New Orleans. I don’t expect a win at Philly so the critical game in this sequence is the following week hosting Dallas. The Giants can’t afford to be 0-2 vs. the Cowboys. 4-4 overall will keep them in the mix in the highly contentious NFC East.
PHILLY: After four games playing in Dallas last year, RB Murray was on pace to achieve nearly 2,150 rush yards and 20 rush TD’s. Playing three games in Philly this year he is on pace for 250 rush yards (1.6 per carry) and 5 rush TD’s! To be honest I’m not sure why the offense has sputtered, but I do know that teams who change multiple parts offensively need time to jell as a unit. The run defense is fine, but defensive sacks are lagging far behind projected totals. This area should improve as they have faced Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Kurt Cousins and all three are not frequently sacked! As expected, ex-Seahawk CB Byron Maxwell has been exposed not playing alongside the great DB’s he had in the Pacific Northwest. So far the entire pass defense has been worse than expected. Kicking has cost Philly two wins, but even though the Eagles should be at least 2-2 to this point I do not believe this team is playing anything like the NFC East favorite they were supposed to be. The Next Quartile: The young WR’s are not excelling in all phases of the game. That has to change. Philly has a chance to revive the offense playing New Orleans this week, but the secondary needs to play smarter and get OFF the field. Time of possession often works against this team. I expect a win hosting the Giants on Monday night but the short week game at Carolina might not be so easy. A bye week precedes a hugely important matchup at Dallas. Like I just noted above with the Giants, Philly does not want to finish 0-2 vs. the Cowboys. I hope the Eagles are ready for prime time as this game at Dallas is their 3rd straight under the lights.
ST. LOUIS: Jeff Fisher continues to win games when his teams are posted as an underdog, and lose games when posted as a favorite. The world found out exactly why Todd Gurley was drafted early as he ran for 146 yards on the previously undefeated Cardinals. Last year STL started slowly with putting defensive pressure on opposing QB’s but did finish with 40 sacks (105 previous two seasons). They have 14 so far in ’15. STL goes WR by committee with no #1 target. As per usual the pass D% is at or near rock bottom at over 75%! That won’t help the Rams protect late leads. The Next Quartile: After a likely loss to Green Bay the Rams host Cleveland and SF before heading to Minnesota. It’s time for this team to start winning when favored! Going 2-2 in these games will keep them relevant (4-4 overall) but the goal has to be 5-3. The defensive scheme needs work!
SAN FRANCISCO: After a surprisingly easy opening night win vs. Minnesota the 49ers have looked like the team most experts felt they would look like, losing their next three games by a combined 79 points! The offensive line was built to run block. They are not giving Colin Kaepernick enough time to fully utilize deep threat Torrey Smith, and Kaepernick has been sacked 14 times thus far. The biggest issue is the loss of longtime solid DC Vic Fangio. For quite some time SF kept opposing offenses under the magic 60% pass completion number. Thus far they are allowing close to 70%. The Next Quartile: The next two games are critical. They travel to play the NYG this Sunday night and then host the Ravens the following week. The Giants are not a good enough team to look past SF, while the Ravens have yet to find their stride and may not completely test the suddenly vulnerable 49er secondary. A split helps for the moment, but won’t really bring them into the NFL playoff picture. SF’s new head coach seems to be learning on the job and his bye week is not until week #9. That means adjustments are going to need to be made on the fly. Kaepernick can still put pressure on opposing defenses with his legs and the defense has the ability to get to opposing QB’s but mostly I see a team with flaws that the new staff is not yet ready or able to fix.
SEATTLE: I’m writing this about 17 hours after Seattle beat Detroit when Calvin Johnson just missed getting into the end zone late in the game. Three thoughts: 1st, the rule about the batted ball makes sense when players are fighting for control, but had NO BEARING on the outcome of this game. Get over it, Detroit. 2nd, Kam Chancellor just earned his paycheck! He most likely saved the game with his knowledge of where to go on the play and where he was on the field. He probably had other plays during the game that demonstrated his superior playing ability. I say this because Seattle allowed 61 points in games 1-2 and NO offensive touchdowns in games 3-4! 3rd, what if the Lions had scored on Calvin’s pass reception. Seattle could have answered with 90+ seconds on the clock and two timeouts, given Detroit’s awful pass defense. As for the team itself, it is painfully clear that the Seahawk offensive line cannot pass protect, and tight end Jimmie Graham is no help in this area either. Seattle has allowed 18 sacks in four games! Everything else will sort itself out. Rookie WR/return specialist Kevin Locket has 10 receptions and two return TD’s. The Next Quartile: Seattle has not yet found its stride and going to play Cincy during the day on short rest could result in a 3rd loss. Carolina is a better team as compared with Detroit. The Panthers desperately want to beat Seattle and have played the Seahawks tough of late, but not for a full 60 minutes. I see a split at best in these two games. Seattle will have to play at San Francisco on a Thursday, which means a short week and less time to heal for guys like RB Lynch and safety Chancellor, who did not have any preseason conditioning work. The final game of the quartile is at Dallas. Bottom line: Seattle may not find its stride until after this 2nd quartile, as the team has their bye week after playing Dallas.
TAMPA BAY: Drafting Jameis Winston carried more than just off the field risks. Expectations were that Winston would commit plenty of turnovers, forcing the ball into coverage trying to be a hero. He has a live arm and can make any throw but will be baited by experienced defensive players into making mistakes. So far he’s at about 55% with seven interceptions. I projected 49 sacks against Tampa and that number looks too high thus far. Tampa has numerous defensive issues, starting with their soft pass defensive scheme. Tennessee scored 42 points and Carolina 37. Of course not all of this is on their defense as Winston has personally been responsible for many of those points. I suspected that Tampa would be hard-pressed to win the turnover battle and they stand at -4 right now. The Next Quartile: No game will be easy for Tampa, but shouldn’t they be able to beat a Jacksonville team that is not only coming off a tough overtime loss but is also playing its 3rd straight game away from home? I could see Tampa winning at Washington. They have a good history at their place and will be rested before heading there. That gives them time to work on making Winston a better QB. Games after that are at Atlanta and vs. the NYG. The goal has to be 3-1, and 4-4 heading into the 2nd half of the season. I give Tampa a good chance at achieving that goal, but worry about their ability to win games in crunch time due to their defensive scheme as well as their subpar kicking game.
WASHINGTON: Kirk Cousins is still auditioning for a starter job in the NFL. He takes very few sacks but panics on occasion and throws a pass he should not throw. Washington scored late to beat Philly in a game they could have easily lost. Instead of being 1-3 and in last place in the contentious NFC East they are tied for 1st at 2-2! The team seems to have enough talent to contend in this Division given that injuries and inefficiency are affecting Divisional rivals. Washington does not miss former defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. The pass defense is a bit over 60% which is a marked improvement over the past two seasons. The run defense is allowing under 4.0 per carry. Fix the -4 turnover ratio and Washington can call itself a legitimate contender. The Next Quartile: Washington is on the road the next two weeks with games at 4-0 Atlanta and the 3-1 Jets. The goal is to split these two games and hold serve at home vs. Tampa in what has been traditionally a very close contest. That would get them to 4-4, assuming a loss at New England to close up the quartile. Maybe all NFC East teams can be 4-4 at the halfway point.