After four weeks of action it’s difficult to believe we’re already a quarter of the way through the 2012 NFL season, but a quarter of the way through it we are and the sample size is just about large enough to make some judgements on the action so far. Some teams have flourished, such as Houston, whilst others have been slow out of the gates and as a result will need a miracle to reach the play-offs. One team who have struggled thus far are New Orleans, with the ‘Bountygate’ scandal taking more toll than anyone could have predicted. As I noted to a friend the other day, imagine how bad they would be if Drew Brees got injured! But injured he isn’t and the Saints still have the faintest of hopes that the season will have a positive conclusion. The Superbowl will be held in the Superdome, but time is running out if the Saints want to crash the party that they’re hosting.
Best team in Division
This one was a difficult choice, as all four teams have their flaws and none look likely to reach even the championship game this season. But if any of the quartet were to pose at least a minuscule threat in January I’d have to plump for the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning is still a top ten QB, and his presence gives the Broncos the edge over San Diego, in my opinion. The Chargers miss Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this season which has severely affected Phillip Rivers ability to put up heavy points. Denver also has one of the most underrated home field advantages in football, with defeaning support and a thin atmosphere to draw upon when the games reach a climax. At 2-2 they are just one game behind San Diego, and I think it’s just a matter of time before their positions are reversed and Denver sits atop the AFC west tree.
Probably the most lopsided division, consequently the easiest division to pick a standout team. The Houston Texans are quite simply a well balanced, well oiled machine and easily, easily the best team in the AFC south. They’re probably the best team in the conference, if not the league, but Baltimore and San Francisco can at least offer some competition in those regards. Arian Foster has been as good as expected on the ground, rushing for 380 yards and four touchdowns over the four games so far. The balance he’s provided enables Matt Shaub to slice opposing defenses and find his stud receiver, Andre Johnson. J.J Watt has starred on the defense and his seven and a half sacks have helped offset the losses of Mario Williams and, less so, DeMeco Ryans. Here’s a guarantee for you: Houston will win the franchises first play-off game this winter. And maybe one, two or three more besides.
New England has failed to live up to expectations thus far, and a 2-2 record is pretty mediocre by Bill Belichick’s lofty standards. Last weeks 50 bomb they dropped on Buffalo went a long way to rectifying the mistakes made in consecutive weeks that gave the Patriots their first losing record for nine years, but the defense continues to leak points alarmingly and until last Sunday the offense wasn’t much better. Wes Welker has seen his role decrease from last season, and Aaron Hernandez picked up an injury in week two that seemed to leave the passing game with more questions then answers. The Patriots may well turn out to be OK, but at 2-2 they’re given the honour of best team in the division by virtue that they’re competing with the Bills, Jets and Dolphins for the honour. Nuff said.
The north always manages to remain competitive, and is regarded as probably the toughest division, physically, in the AFC. This season Baltimore have impressed, and Joe Flacco looks to have matured into the elite quarterback they envisioned when they selected him in the first round of the draft. Ray Rice has, as usual, been dominant in the ground game and Torrey Smith has given Flacco a deep threat in the passing game. The Ravens have played some tough games already, their one loss coming on the road in Philadelphia by one point, and having defeated New England that loss in Philly can be viewed as an aberration. Pittsburgh hasn’t lived up to their pre-season hype, but Cincinnati has equalled the Ravens with a 3-1 record so far so they’ll bear watching as the season develops. But for now it’s clear that the Ravens are the class of this division, on paper and on field.
Usually at this point of the season we’d all be talking about how “8-8 can win the west this year”, or how “Arizona has a chance to make the play-offs because the other three teams haven’t won a game between them yet”. Not this year. San Francisco, save a shock defeat to the Vikings, has been flat out dominant and quite comfortably possess the best defense in the league. Arizona have moved to 4-0, god knows how but they have, and their defense also deserves a mention as one of the leagues top units. Calais Cambell is one of the best, and tallest, defensive ends in the league at 6″7′, while Patrick Peterson is an elite corner back talent. I genuinely think the two are almost too close to call, but the fact that the 49ers won the division last year and gained big game experience in the post-season just about gives them the edge for me, but don’t sleep on Arizona.
I bet four weeks ago everyone thought the Saints would at least be in the conversation for best team in this division, right? Not so much. Atlanta looks awesome right now, having moved to 4-0 whilst beating some pretty good teams en route. Last week it was Carolina, the week before San Diego. Matt Ryan has an elite receiving cast to work with, and Julio Jones has taken the next step towards becoming the best wide out in the league (sans Megatron). Roddy White is no slouch either, and in recent weeks Michael Turner has given a boost to the running game. Ironically, Turner has been much better since he was arrested for DUI two weeks ago. So maybe that’s a lesson to struggling running backs everywhere. Chris Johnson, take note. The Falcons play Washington and Oakland in the next two weeks, so it’s very possible and likely probable that Atlanta hits their bye week with a perfect record intact.
Every year the NFC beast (as it’s occasionally known) remains intensely competitive, and this year is no exception. We have the reigning Superbowl champion Giants, much hyped Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins have rookie talent Robert Griffin III manning the quarterback position. But for me, it’s the Philadelphia Eagles who are the team to beat in the east. They have a one game lead in the standings currently, although their three victories have come by a combined four (!) points. It’s true that if the Eagles want to remain atop the standings they will have to start winning games by more than a point or two, but it’s also worth noting their schedule has been very tough so far. Having beaten the Ravens, Giants and Browns and been beaten in Arizona, Cleveland aside the Birds have been given a difficult start to the season. Nonetheless they’ve emerged the other side with a 3-1 record and if Michael Vick can play as he did on Sunday night against the G-men then Philly will have no problem making the post-season this year.
Another very competitive division, even the Vikings look like a half decent football team after four games. As has been the case for the past couple of years, however, the elite team in this division is Green Bay. Mike McCarthy is a brilliant head coach, and between him and Aaron Rodgers the offense will usually find a way to get things done. Although the Pack were robbed by the replacements in Seattle, they managed to bounce back against New Orleans this week and get back to a .500 record. I know Minnesota and Chicago are both 3-1, but do you really think they have the pedigree to hold off the Packers? Besides, if it weren’t for hail mary gate Green Bay themselves would find themselves in the exact same boat.
Comeback Player of the Year
For me, this award comes down to two players. One obvious candidate is Peyton Manning, who missed all of 2011 with a neck injury. The other is Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola, who injured his knee in week three last year and was lost for the season. I’m giving the nod to the diminutive Rams player Amendola, who so far this season has surpassed anything he’s done in his career. A Wes Welker type possession receiver, Amendola has evolved in to Sam Bradfords favourite target and just the other week had sixteen receptions in one game. Whilst Manning has been good, he hasn’t quite lived up to his peerless past and for that reason I’m going to deny him the award for now. However there’s still 12 games to go in the regular season, and that’s plenty of time for either Manning to shine or Amendola to fall from grace.
Rookie of the Year
A lot of people have been comparing Robert Griffin III‘s season this year to Cam Newton’s from last season. It is true that they share plenty of similarities, both statistically and physically, yet there’s one important statistic that Griffin has the edge in over Newton. At this stage last year Newton had just one win, and would win just two of his next seven games. Griffin already has two wins, and I’m certain that after his next seven he’ll have a very good shot of doubling Newton’s win tally and reaching six wins from 11 games. Griffin also won in a very hostile environment, in the Superdome in week one on his NFL debut, a very impressive feat that not many rookie QB’s have emulated. Perhaps even more impressive is that Griffin has thrown just one interception so far this year, which is a stunning performance when you consider that the Redskins have been running an offense with heavy doses of passing involved. If RG III can keep this up all season then the Redskins might just find themselves in the running for a surprise play-off appearance just a year after finishing with the leagues second worst record.
Coach of the Year
Ken Wisenhunt has one Superbowl appearance on his resume and 2012 could offer the former Steelers assistant another opportunity to reach the big game. It’s only four games in, as I keep mentioning, but Arizona is 4-0 and they haven’t gone undefeated so far on the back of a ridiculously talented roster, they’ve done it on the back of some good coaching and magnificent game planning and scheming. Wisenhunt actually could have been in a bit of trouble this season after a couple of underwhelming years since the Cards run to Superbowl, and his inability to replace Kurt Warner at quarterback has hindered the teams progress. Finding someone to feed Larry Fitzgerald was of key importance, and until this season Kevin Kolb looked like a colossal bust after he was acquired via trade for a second round pick and corner back Dominique Rodgers Cromartie. However, John Skelton got injured in week one, Kolb led a game winning drive and hasn’t looked back since.. so perhaps it wasn’t such a bad trade after all.
As this award is based on who is most valuable to their team, it’s usually a good idea to choose a quarterback for it. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, although for a brief moment I did consider choosing Darrell Revis after he sustained a season ending knee injury and the Patriots shredded the Jets defense a week later, proving how much New York will miss their star defensive player. However I reconsidered and eventually settled with Matt Ryan, who’s been lights out so far this year. Having led Atlanta to a 4-0 record, Ryan has thrown for 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions as the Falcons have taken to the air more than ever before with wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones being the main beneficiaries. I’ve not always rated Ryan too highly and believe he has been over-hyped to an extent during his career to date, but this season he’s really stood out and behind him the Falcons are legit Superbowl contenders.
Well, there you have it. These ‘awards’ might end up looking inspired of ludicrous when the season is over, but for now these are the players, coaches and teams who have stood out during what has been a mad start to the NFL year. I’ll be back with predictions for this weekends games as well as a review on the Thursday Night match up involving St. Louis and Arizona.
NB – The majority of this article was penned before last nights game, where St. Louis defeated Arizona by a score of 17-3