I’ve been concentrating on playoff contenders for the last few weeks. Here are my thoughts as I was watching Sunday’s games about eight squads that all faced off against other potential playoff foes.
What’s wrong with the Bears? Simple – the NFL is a pass first league and Chicago has a bottom tier passing game. Jay Cutler doesn’t have time to throw the football. He got leveled three of the first five times he dropped back to pass, and had happy feet in the pocket thereafter.
Cutler spent most of the Green Bay game targeting Brandon Marshall almost exclusively and didn’t complete a pass longer than 20 yards. Forget their 7-1 start. The positive team chemistry from September and October has evaporated.
Strong pass rush! I’m not sure there’s a defense in the NFL that has improved more since September. Extraordinarily well coached, the Broncos spend time in the film room and know their opponents tendencies very well.
It wasn’t just the game-turning pick 6 against Baltimore. The Broncos only allowed a single third down conversion all day. Manning gets the hype, but the Broncos are very live to make a run to the Super Bowl because this stop unit is starting to dominate some ballgames.
The Cowboys are missing 6 defensive starters due to injuries. The offense seems to blow good scoring chances on a weekly basis. They consistently get off to slow starts; forced to play from behind which negates the effectiveness of DeMarco Murray and the running game.
The Cowboys rank near the bottom of the league at converting red zone tries into TD’s. I’ll give them credit for being an extremely resilient bunch but this team is a fringe playoff contender, not a serious Super Bowl contender.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers made a strong case for being the best quarterback in the NFL. Green Bay faced a ton of adversity. The run defense got gashed early against Chicago, while Rodgers took some nasty hits and was forced to scramble out of the pocket repeatedly. With very little margin for error, all Rodgers did was fit passes into those tight windows, again and again; one perfectly thrown ball after the next. It was truly an A+ game for an elite level QB.
Kicker Mason Crosby is becoming a lingering problem, having missed at least one field goal attempt in each of the Packers last eight games. Boy, is this stop unit better with Clay Matthews in the lineup! He returned from injury for his first playing time in six weeks and basically dominated with a pair of sacks and four tackles for loss.
St. Louis Rams
Some of Sam Bradford’s struggles must be placed at the hands of this weak offensive line. Bradford never seems to have a clean pocket, and he’s forced to settle for check down routes on a consistent basis. Bradford couldn’t hit any big throws against Minnesota until the game was already out of reach.
Bradford just isn’t making clutch throws, bad OL or not. And that’s one major reason why the Rams playoff drought that dates back to the Mike Martz era in will continue for at least another year.
New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell sure didn’t help much! The O-line got beat up, unable to run block or pass block effectively. Starting receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin combined for one catch. Joe Flacco seems to be getting worse by the week – his pick 6 was simply inexcusable, but both before and after that play, he was not effectively throwing downfield.
The Ravens defense isn’t fast anymore. Baltimore’s linebackers are struggling to chase down running backs. You can get tough yards up the middle against this stop unit, something you wouldn’t even consider to be a possibility during their heyday. Ravens have lost their mojo.
Losers in 4 of the last 5, the Steelers were complete no-shows on both sides of the ball at home against the Chargers last week. Then at Dallas, it was more about defensive deficiencies. Remember, Pittsburgh came into the game with the No. 1 overall defense (both total yards and yards per play allowed), #1 run defense and #5 pass defense.
But this stop unit hasn’t forced turnovers in bunches all year. They don’t have much of a pass rush. And they’ve faced a litany of struggling offenses or ‘right team at the right time’ games. Here, against a strong balanced attack, this defense got gashed by the run, picked apart by the pass, and ran out of gas with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. Big Ben’s interception in OT was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the loss, but it was an underperforming defense that led them to that point.
Even against a strong run defense without the threat of a deep passing game, Adrian Peterson is grinding out tough yards on the ground, carry after carry. There aren’t many running backs that are actually worth something to the point spread; eminently replaceable as a group. Peterson is worth more to the spread than any other player on the team, by a wide margin. Eight men in the box, nine men in the box – it doesn’t seem to matter – AP finds holes.
Christian Ponder has not shown any major signs of improvement and this passing game lacks any sort of a vertical weapon. Minnesota didn’t have a completion of longer than 14 yards against St. Louis. That makes what Peterson is doing even more incredible.