Fans in Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New England can all take a deep breath and relax. The sky is no longer falling and order has been restored. Their beloved football teams are back on track.
Prior to the launch of the 2012 NFL season, the Packers, Steelers and Patriots were each tagged as Super Bowl contenders. In the 2011 regular season, this trio combined for 40 wins and just eight losses. Thus, heading into the 2012 campaign, Green Bay and New England were the clear-cut favorites to win the NFC North and AFC East, respectively, while Pittsburgh was expected to battle the Baltimore Ravens for AFC North supremacy.
But things didn't quite go as planned for these three teams early on. The Packers and Steelers each lost three of their first five games, while the Patriots dropped two of their first three contests. After stumbling early, though, each of these three teams has found its footing and returned to 2011 form.
Here's a look at how each got back on track:
Green Bay Packers: The Packers fell to 2-3 following a Week 5 road loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but they have since won three straight games to climb to 5-3 on the season. The main reason for their improvement has been the play of their offensive line and quarterback. During the first five games of the season, the O-line allowed 21 sacks and Aaron Rodgers tossed 10 touchdown passes. Over the last three games, the offensive line has allowed just seven sacks and Rodgers has thrown 11 touchdown passes. Also, the Packers' offense has turned the ball over just one time during this three-game win streak.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers fell to 2-3 following a Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans, but they have since collected two straight wins, improving to 4-3 on the season. The main difference for the Steelers has been the improvement in their run game. In their first five games, Pittsburgh's ground attack averaged 74.8 yards per contest, but over the past two games, it has averaged a robust 153.5 yards rushing per outing. The offensive line has also played well in pass protection, allowing just four sacks during this two-game stretch.
New England Patriots: The Patriots fell to 1-2 following a Week 3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but they have won four of their past five games to get to 5-3 on the season. Improved offensive production is the reason for the Patriots' resurgence. During the first three games of the season, Tom Brady's unit averaged 27.3 points per game. Over the past five games, the Patriots are averaging an impressive 36 points per contest. The defense hasn't been much different from the start of the season; New England allowed 21.3 points per game during the first three contests and 21.2 over the past five.
Didn't see this coming
The Philadelphia Eagles' offense is currently generating 17.1 points per game. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the only NFL offense averaging fewer points than Philly. Over the last four seasons, the Eagles' offense has averaged 26.0 (2008), 26.8 (2009), 27.4 (2010) and 24.8 (2011) points per game. This year's drop-off has been very dramatic and was completely unforeseen.
Much of the blame for Philadelphia's struggles has fallen on the shoulders of quarterback Michael Vick. It's hard to win in the NFL with a quarterback who turns the ball over as much as Vick has this season. He has accounted for 13 turnovers (eight interceptions, five fumbles), and he's lucky he hasn't had more; the Eagles have recovered four of his fumbles, while opposing defenders have dropped several potential interceptions.
Vick played soundly in the final four games of the 2011 season. He made quick decisions, protected the football and took what the defense gave him. He utilized tight end Brent Celek and took advantage of opposing safeties lining up extremely deep. I thought that I would see that version of Michael Vick this season, but that hasn't been the case. In 2012, Vick hasn't been getting the ball out on time. He's forcing too many throws into coverage and failing to protect the ball as a runner.
There has been a lot of speculation that Eagles coach Andy Reid could make a change at quarterback in the very near future. Rookie signal-caller Nick Foles played well during the preseason; now might be the right time to see what he can do in a regular-season setting.
Impressive in defeat
Despite losing the game on the scoreboard, these teams had reasons to be encouraged in defeat:
Seattle Seahawks: Despite falling to the Detroit Lions, 28-24, the Seahawks had to be pleased with the play of their offense. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception). He made quick decisions, displayed excellent touch and didn't take a single sack on the day. Running back Marshawn Lynch was another bright spot, rushing for 105 yards on just 12 carries. Seattle's defense struggled in this game, but improved play from the offense is a very positive sign for Pete Carroll's squad.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars have what is arguably the worst roster in the NFL, but they put up a good fight in a 24-15 loss to the Packers on Sunday afternoon. Josh Scobee's 32-yard field goal cut Green Bay's lead to six points (21-15) with less than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars didn't have much of a running game, but second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw for more than 300 yards and second-year wide receiver Cecil Shorts III logged his first 100-yard game in the NFL. On defense, the Jaguars held Green Bay's talented offense to 238 total yards. A loss is still a loss, but this performance should provide some much-needed confidence for the struggling team.
Three startling statistics
1) Jason Witten had 18 receptions and the Dallas Cowboys had 17 rush attempts. The Cowboys definitely committed to the pass in a 29-24 loss to the New York Giants. Tony Romo threw the ball 62 times and Witten was his intended target on 22 of those throws. Though the Cowboys were without the services of running back DeMarco Murray, this is no excuse for their extraordinary lack of balance.
2) Adrian Peterson is currently leading the NFL in rushing. In a normal year, this wouldn't be startling at all. However, Peterson was supposed to ease into the 2012 season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last December. Instead, he has racked up a league-leading 775 rushing yards in the Minnesota Vikings' first eight games. He's running with his trademark combination of explosiveness and power and continues to improve each and every week.
3) Peyton Manning has thrown 14 touchdowns and just one interception in the Denver Broncos' last five games. Manning continues to get better and better each game with his new team. His accuracy and decision-making have been outstanding during the past five games. His lone interception over that span came because receiver Matt Willis ran the wrong route against the San Diego Chargers in Week 6.
Luck, Colts ahead of schedule
The Indianapolis Colts improved their record to 4-3 following Sunday's dramatic 19-13 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans. This season was supposed to be full of growing pains for the Colts. New head coach, a rookie quarterback and a large-scale defensive scheme-change are just a few of the reasons Indy was expected to struggle. As it stands right now, the Colts aren't sticking to that script.
If the season ended today, the Colts would have one of the AFC's wild-card spots locked up. That is a remarkable turnaround for a team that managed just two wins last season. Much of Indianapolis' success can be attributed to the play of its rookie signal-caller. Andrew Luck has more than lived up to the excessive hype that surrounded his draft selection. His poise and play-making ability have been exceptional all year long, and he is only going to get better as the season progresses.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.