The pro football calendar has just passed the halfway mark and it’s been a surprising season in many ways. Several of January’s playoff teams have stumbled badly out of the gate, while teams such as Dallas, Seattle, Carolina and Minnesota have surprised after having losing records in 2002.
Here’s a look at some of the top teams in the NFL and their chances of making the playoffs over the final stretch run.
CHIEFS: Any team 8-0 at the halfway mark (7-1 against the spread) certainly deserves respect as the top team in the NFL. Dick Vermeil’s rebuilding job in KC has been sensational. Like Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Vermeil prefers quality team-oriented players over talented guys with bad attitudes. This emphasis on "quality individuals" is something Vermeil has done while building Super Bowl teams in Philadelphia and St. Louis. That formula helped Belichick win the Super Bowl two years ago.
Kansas City wins with a deadly combination of offense and special teams. QB Trent Green and RB Priest Holmes run Vermeil’s wide-open spread offense, while kick returner Dante Hall has set NFL records and won games with his dazzling runbacks. The Chiefs have already played the toughest part of the schedule. KC failed to make the playoffs because of a defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2002. They are much better, but notice they’re allowing 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, one of the worst marks in the league. Will this weakness be exploited in January?
COLTS: Tony Dungy said it takes players two years to learn his cover-two defense. That seems to be the case as Indy has rolled through the first half of the season. At the halfway mark, the Colts were ranked 11th in overall defense and fifth on offense. The young defense hits hard while the talented trio of QB Peyton Manning, WR Marvin Harrison and RB Edgerrin James anchor a potent offense that is better through the air than on the ground.
Many teams like to play at home, but the Colts started 4-0 SU/ATS on the road, including impressive victories at Miami (23-17) and Tampa Bay (38-35). The come-from-behind win against the Bucs was one for the ages. Indy is on a collision course for the playoffs again, with Dungy getting another chance to improve his poor record in big games. The Colts were embarrassed in the playoffs last January by the Jets, 41-0.
TITANS: Five of the Titans first eight games were on the road, yet Tennessee was 6-2 SU/ATS at the halfway point. There are weaknesses. The Titans can’t run the football and the pass defense has been weak like last season when they ranked 24th in the NFL.
The defensive front is tough against the run and on opposing quarterbacks. The offense is led by potential MVP Steve McNair, whose heart and leadership skills are immeasurable. Road losses to potential playoff teams Indianapolis (33-7) and New England (38-30) are a concern.
PATRIOTS: Opening day of the NFL season, New England looked dead. The Patriots suffered a series of key injuries on defense, waived team captain S Lawyer Milloy and got destroyed 31-0 at Buffalo. That was also the last time they failed to cover a game. New England’s resurgence has been remarkable, led by an aggressive, overhauled defense, great coaching and QB Tom Brady.
The Patriots have gone 7-1 SU/7-0-1 ATS since that loss, with road wins as an underdog at Miami, Denver and Philadelphia. New England lacks a running game, but has the best coaching staff in pro football. Many key players from the January 2002 Super Bowl title team remain. The Patriots are toast, however, if something happens to Brady.
VIKINGS: Coach Mike Tice urged his players to be more physical in preseason on defense after last year’s 6-10 campaign where the defense ranked 26th. The Vikings had gone 11-21 SU and 14-18 ATS the previous two years under Tice. But Minnesota roared to a 6-0 start both SU and ATS start before dropping consecutive home games to the Giants and Packers.
Despite a poor 2002, Minnesota had the No. 2 offense in the NFL led by QB Daunte Culpepper, WR Randy Moss, and a talented young offensive line. The biggest surprise has been the maturation of Culpepper, who tossed 23 interceptions and 18 TDs last year. At the halfway mark this year, Culpepper had 11 TDs and just 2 INTs. Still, this is a young team that has little experience in big games.