The 6-0 Atlanta Falcons are the only unbeaten team left in the NFL, and they've been taken to the wire in each of the past three weeks -- twice by one-win teams. There are three one-loss teams -- the Baltimore Ravens (5-1), Houston Texans (5-1) and Chicago Bears (4-1) -- and each has shown major flaws. Which of these four elite teams is not as strong as their record suggests?
The Ravens have one of the worst run defenses in football. Already without reigning defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs, Baltimore now will be without emotional leader Ray Lewis (triceps) and their best cornerback Lardarius Webb (ACL) for the remainder of the season. On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys outplayed the Ravens, just like the Kansas City Chiefs did the week before.
The other top teams are more balanced. It sounds strange, but suddenly Baltimore is too reliant on its offense.
I'm having a difficult time feeling the optimism surrounding the Atlanta Falcons, even with their gaudy undefeated record. They did win a slop-fest on Sunday, thanks to a pick-six by cornerback Asante Samuel and a long, late field goal by kicker Matt Bryant. But the victory came against the hapless and wounded Oakland Raiders, and Atlanta's flaws really stood out.
That famously explosive aerial attack was held down. Matt Ryan never found his groove, throwing three interceptions and finishing with an underwhelming 249 yards passing. Most jarring was an issue that seems to have no cure. Michael Turner did not burn it up, gaining just 33 yards on 11 carries, and fullback Jason Snelling was stuffed on third-and-goal from the 1 in the third quarter.
Throwing it all over the place is great, and the Falcons do have two dynamic receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. But when the games tighten up and the calendar turns -- and opponents get more intense and physical -- will Atlanta be able to move the chains well enough? Even with their 6-0 record, I fear the Falcons will end up in the same exact spot they did last year: In the playoffs with an offense that suddenly doesn't work. There is time to fix this, though, and in my opinion, they must.
All of these teams are very good and have fewer flaws than the teams below them in the standings. That said, Baltimore has raised some concerns over the last couple weeks in several different areas. The run defense has struggled, and the Ravens haven't been able to get a consistent pass rush all year, especially from the outside. Also, against K.C., they had a tough time beating press coverage on offense.
Still, they are the best team in their division and have found ways to win games, so let's not take away too much credit.
All of the teams are flawed, but the Texans worry me the most. They're great front-runners. When they get out to a lead and can control the game, they win, because they can sledgehammer you with Arian Foster and keep the chains moving in the passing game. But look at what happened Sunday night: They fell behind, 14-0, to the Green Bay Packers, and that was it. They no longer have the ability to win a shootout or come back from a large deficit, because they're no longer built to win that way.
Houston HAS to come out and get on top quick, because it can't win otherwise. That's a lot of pressure to put on a team every week. The other three teams mentioned have the bullet in their arsenal to handle early deficits. Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler and, especially, Matt Ryan can all sling it when they have to, and will throw the ball 45 times if the game merits it. Houston can't match them there.
The Falcons are the lone unbeaten team, but they clearly have some flaws. Think about this: The Falcons needed some last-minute magic to hold off the punchless Oakland Raiders, who traveled across the country to play a game that started at 10 a.m. in their native time zone. And let's not forget Atlanta's recent dramatic win over the 1-4 Carolina Panthers.
Hardly a ringing endorsement of the Falcons' status as the league's best.
Sure, as Falcons fans will likely point out, Atlanta is finding a way to win, so credit must be given where it is due. This is not the BCS, and style points do not matter.
But this team still has to prove itself during the playoffs, when it has lost on the road (against the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants) and at home. Matt Ryan, who would be targeted more by the national media for his playoff failures if he played for the Dallas Cowboys, is seemingly immune to criticism in the heart of SEC country. But he's not getting past me.
Forgive me if this seems a bit harsh, but I think Ryan and the Falcons need to actually win a playoff game before they can be taken seriously as contenders.
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