It’s Never too Early: The NFL Through Week 3

By: Caleb Horvath

Only three weeks in to the 2013 NFL season, and we already have an abundance of intriguing storylines. Some surprises, some disappointments, and a whole lot of scoring. There is a ton of football to be played, but here is a review of the first three weeks, and what teams I think are legit, and what teams are…well…not.

These teams were the cream of the crop in 2012, still are the cream of the crop in 2013:

Broncos (3-0), Patriots (3-0), Seahawks (3-0)

Take away: All of these teams are really, REALLY good.

The Broncos appear like they may set the all-time league scoring record. Peyton Manning looks like he was created in a lab, and has a wide range of targets to choose from. Plus, Von Miller and Champ Bailey will be back to boost their solid if not outstanding defense.

The Patriots, while flawed, will get Gronk back and their new receivers will get more and more experience with every game. The defense is young and solid. Oh yeah, and they have Tom Brady, ’nuff said.

The Seahawks might as well punch their tickets to the Super Bowl if they get home-field advantage in the playoffs. They are THAT unstoppable up there. Russell Wilson is great and that defense is just ferocious.

These teams ranged some mediocre to horrible in 2012, still are not good in 2013:

Jaguars (0-3), Steelers (0-3), Giants (0-3), Bucs (0-3), Rams (1-2), Cardinals (1-2), Raiders (1-2), Chargers (1-2), Panthers (1-2), Bills (1-2), Eagles (1-2) [editor’s note: RELAX, Caleb] , Browns (1-2)

Take away:

It just doesn’t look right that the Giants and Steelers, two of the league’s most storied and consistent franchises, would appear in this list. Last year, the two teams with a combined FOUR Super Bowl titles in the last nine years were just average, barely missing the playoffs, but now they are legitimately BAD. The Steelers is more of a youth and re-building scenario around Big Ben, without virtually any weapons for the QB to work with. The Giants on the other hand, just look pathetic. Sure there are some new faces, but there are also a lot of the same pieces from a Super Bowl winning team just a couple of years ago. In my preseason predictions I predicted both teams to take a step back, but I didn’t see a couple of 5-11’s coming. And just for a minute, can we discuss how awful the Jaguars are. From a marketing perspective, it actually seems reasonable to give the reigns to Tim Tebow or a Brett Favre at QB. They can’t score, no one goes to the games…is Junior Floyd from the Little Giants in the CFL now or something? ANYBODY BUT BLAINE GABBERT.

I can’t see any of these teams turning their early poor starts around to making the playoffs, but if I had to give two teams a shot in the dark, it would be the Panthers and the Eagles. The Panthers SHOULD be better, and the Eagles have enough talent to win games. But knowing the Giants, I’ll be completely wrong and they will win eight of the next 10 and end up in the Super Bowl.

Contenders or Pretenders?

Bears (3-0): Contenders

Why?: The Bears are finally as dangerous on offense as they are on defense. Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett are a great WR-TE combo for Jay Cutler to work with, and Matt Forte is as consistent as running backs come. The defense, without Brian Urlacher for the first time in forever, are younger and faster. Marc Trestman, the new head coach, appears to have everybody on the same page. And Cutler, despite the bad he is capable of, has made a couple of big 4th quarter comebacks so far, a great sign. Are they “Super Bowl” good? I’m not buying that yet, but look for the Bears to make the playoffs with 10-11 wins.

Dolphins (3-0): Contenders

Why?: Miami made great strides with last year with rookie coach Joe Philbin and rookie QB Ryan Tannehill. Now in year two, it looks like the Dolphins are making even bigger steps. Their defense is really good, and Tannehill looks like the best QB the Dolphins have had since Marino (although that’s not saying much). Beating a good team in the Atlanta Falcons could be a HUGE momentum builder for the young team. I like the Dolphins to go 10-6 and probably make the postseason.

Chiefs (3-0): Contenders

Why?: The Chiefs were really bad last year. Sometimes all it takes is some new faces, and that’s where Andy Reid and Alex Smith come in. Reid has rejuvenated the locker room in Kansas City, and bringing the steady QB play of Smith has given the squad a balanced offensive attack with Jamaal Charles on the ground. The defense is stout, with multiple pro bowl-caliber players. I think the Chiefs are a year away, but with two bad teams in their division and the AFC being overall weak, I like the Chiefs to at least be 9-7, probably 10-6, and possibly sneak in to the playoffs.

Saints (3-0): Contenders

Why?: The Saints are back. Sean Payton is back this year and you can already see the impact his gamplan has on a game. Drew Brees looks more comfortable, and that defense (which couldn’t get much worse) is actually playing tough. Payton-Brees are a deadly Coach-QB tandem, and because New Orleans shouldn’t lose more than a game all year at home, I like an 11-5 finish and a division win.

Cowboys (2-1): Contenders

Why?: You have to hold your breath in calling the Cowboys contenders, but this year could be a little different. The ‘Boys look improved on both sides of the ball early on this year, and as usual they have one of the more talented teams in the entire league. The biggest key for the Cowboys being contenders is their division. For the first time in the Romo-era, neither the Giants nor the Eagles are playoff teams, and with the mess going on in Washington, it’s clear it’s the Cowboys’ division to lose. It comes down to Romo, much like with the Bears and Cutler, if they can win multiple playoff games. I like the Cowboys to get 10 or 11 wins and cake walk into the postseason, and from there it’s anyone’s guess.

Texans (2-1): Contenders

Why?: I like the Texans, I’m just not “in like” with the Texans. The Texans are similar to their Texas friends, the Cowboys, in that they have a lot of talent, but that hasn’t correlated to much postseason success. I like Houston as a contender because they will win the division with 11 wins and should get a home playoff game. Unfortunately, it’s going to come down to Matt Schaub’s arm to determine whether they finally get over the hump towards big postseason success. Schaub is a good QB, like the Cowboy’s Romo, but I think Schaub shrinks under the spotlight much more than even Romo. That defense with Watt, Cushing, Reed, and others is loaded, but I’m hesistant to jump on the bandwagon.

Colts (2-1): Pretenders

Why?: This one is a tough call. The Colts, who made the postseason last year with rookie QB Andrew Luck, on paper are essentially the same team with a year more of experience under their belts. So why are they a pretender? Last year one of those “special” years, riding the wave of emotion from Chuck Pagano’s fight against illness. I just don’t think the Colts are quite there yet. Would I be shocked if they made the playoffs? Not at all, as this team is only going to get better the next few years, but with the Titans being better and the Texans still ahead of them in the South, I think the Colts finish 8-8 or 9-7 and barely miss the postseason.

Titans (2-1): Pretenders

Why?: I know the Titans have a first round pick invested in QB Jake Locker, who at one point in college was predicted to be the top pick overall, but it just doesn’t appear to be the solution after multiple years now. Locker has played better this year so far for Tennessee, but he honestly has not done much more than Blaine Gabbert in his NFL career, the only difference being that the Titans have a better overall team. Titans are good on D, and Chris Johnson is still a top 10 running back, but with Locker under center I just can’t see this team being better than 8-8, I see a bit of tumble down the stretch for a 6-10 or 7-9 finish.

Lions (2-1): Pretenders

Why: The Lions are the Cubs of the NFL. When they have no talent, they are bad, and when they have a ton of talent, they are good but ultimately let you down. This Lions team is the latter. Stafford can throw for a billion yards and the best receiver in the game at his disposal in Calvin Johnson. We will see about Reggie Bush’s injury but he is certainly a good running back, and there’s talent on D, especially on the line. But the Lions will break your heart with boneheaded penalties, bad clock management, timely turnovers. They have the talent to beat anybody, but more than likely they will lose all their games to well-coached, disciplined teams. 8-8 looks about right this year…sorry Lions fans, trust me, I’m a Cubs fan, I feel your pain.

Jets (2-1): Pretenders

Why?: I can’t lie, I am impressed with what the Jets have done so far. It hasn’t been pretty, turnovers and penalties have been aplenty, but crazily this is the best team in New York right now. Preseason, I didn’t care if it was Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez at QB, I thought this team was a double-digit loser and going nowhere fast. I was wrong, though probably only slightly when it’s all said and done. Geno is certainly an upgrade over Sanchez, but he is still a rookie and a very flawed one at that. One thing Rex Ryan can do is coach defense, and they are legitimate. But the Jets are in a division with two better football teams, and with little offensive firepower, I see them falling back in the coming weeks, finishing around 7-9, maybe 8-8, which a .500 record I believe could and should save Rex’s job.

Ravens (2-1): Pretenders

Why?: After that brutal beatdown week one to Peyton Manning, the Ravens have won two straight and are looking much better. The problem with the Ravens is that all the toughness they received from players like Lewis, Reed, and Boldin are now gone, and I feel like this team is going to lose a lot of tough games to good teams the rest of the way. Could they make the playoffs? It’s possible, since the Steelers and Browns are no threat, and the Bengals aren’t shoe-ins, but I think this is a 9-7 non-playoff team at BEST.

Bengals (2-1): Conpretenders

Why?: I know that is a cop-out and not a real word, but I’m not crazy confident in the Bengals, it’s just that the AFC North is pretty bad. I think the Bengals are a slightly better team than the Ravens, which makes them the division winner and a contender-by-default. Andy Dalton is an above-average QB, but not WAY above-average. Sure they have a superstar at receiver in A.J. Green, and the defense is capable of being stingy and causing havoc, but this isn’t a GREAT football team, it’s a good one. I like the Bengals to win the division at 10-6 or maybe 11-5. They are capable of winning playoff games, but I need to see more from Dalton, and less mistakes.

“Time to Panic” or “Just a Slow Start, They’ll Be Fine”?

Packers (1-2): Just a Slow Start, They’ll Be Fine

Why?: The Packers have lost two very close road games to two solid teams, with a blowout home win over the Redskins sandwiched in between. The Cheeseheads could easily be 3-0, with a couple plays (and a brutal referee mishap costing them four points) being the difference in the 49ers game and literally coughing up the game to the Bengals. Green Bay is still not good on defense, but are improved over last year, and with Burnett and Hayward eventually coming back to the secondary, they will be even better. They are loaded on offense still, and Aaron Rodgers is still the best QB in the game. Cutting down the mistakes and growing as a young defense will be the key for the Packers, but I like the team to go 5-1 in the division and eventually win the North still at 11-5, though the Bears are a real threat.

49ers (1-2): Just a Slow Start, They’ll Be Fine

Why?: Let’s be clear, the 49ers are still a really good football team. It would be SHOCKING if they didn’t make the postseason, even at 1-2, but there are some big concerns. Colin Kaepernick has played awful two weeks in a row, like really bad. Playing poorly at Seattle is acceptable, even expected, but at home against the Colts, losing by 20? That is a red flag. And the defense that nobody could score on last year has given up 28 points a game so far. But the biggest panic button issue for the 49ers is the Seahawks, who are a force of nature coming for the top spot. I like the 49ers to still get in with 10 wins, and they are only one of a handful of teams that have the talent to still WIN the Super Bowl, but now I believe the division belongs to the team from Washington.

Falcons (1-2): Time to Panic

Why?: Very similar to the 49ers, the Falcons are a very solid football team with a team on the prowl coming for them, for Atlanta, the Saints. And like San Francisco, the Falcons have started 1-2 and have looked less than impressive. To be fair, the Falcons two losses have come to teams with a combined 6-0 record. But this was supposed to be Atlanta’s year, a clear-cut Super Bowl contender, and so far they don’t appear to be all that good. The Falcons will win games and should still make the playoffs, 10-6 sounds about right, but with games at Green Bay and San Francisco, and tough home games against the Patriots and Seahawks, the Falcons have to start worrying.

Redskins (0-3): Time to Panic

Why?: The Redskins shouldn’t just be panicked about this year, they should be panicked about the next few. I am a huge RG3 fan and I hope it’s only a matter of time before he gets completely healthy, but he’s not right now, and hopefully this rough patch doesn’t a) put him at risk at re-injuring his knee before it is fully healthy, or b) break his confidence completely. Washington has issues everywhere, but the big concern is Griffin. He doesn’t want to run the read-option, which is the offense he was born to play. I honestly don’t know which way to go if I’m the Redskins, do you let him play through this, or do you shut him down and play Cousins so he can come back completely healthy? I don’t like how this is playing out or the possibly of how it could all end, all I know is that the Redskins are a long shot at best of making the playoffs now, I see anywhere from 5-11 to 9-7, completely depending on the RG3 fallout.

Vikings (0-3): Time to Panic

Why?: The only reason the Vikings are here is because they made the playoffs last year. This is probably the best 0-3 team in the league, but it is still 0-3. The panic should not be about making the playoffs this year (they aren’t heading there), it should be about figuring out what to do with Christian Ponder. He simply isn’t the answer. Ponder has shown signs of playing well and can be serviceable, but Adrian Peterson is getting absolutely wasted without a QB that can pose a threat. Ponder’s backup is Matt Cassel, and although I don’t think he is any better than Ponder, I think Vikings fans deserve to see what he can do the rest of the year. The Vikings are staring down a 5-11 or 6-10 season, but it could be a blessing in disguise with the really good quarterbacks headed for the draft next year.

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