We're at that time of the year where everybody wants to get a gauge on how their favourite team is doing. Some will be doing very well indeed, others will be just okay. And then there will be those who are going through a season that would be best forgotten. All of those types of teams are discussed in this week's mailbag.
How far can the Arizona Cardinals realistically go this season? Is a lack of playoff experience the only reason folks have no trust in them despite having the best record in the NFL right now? – Dan Cooper.
I think you may be onto something there with the lack of trust thing, Dan. The Cardinals were largely viewed as a middle-of-the-pack outfit heading into the 2021 season, having not made the playoffs in the previous five years. So, it's been harder for them to shake that perception of being also-rans.
I've been guilty of writing the Cardinals off at various points this season, but they keep answering the bell and their 9-2 record is not only the best in the NFL, it is a mark that is worthy of our respect. What has impressed me the most is the fact Arizona went 2-1 in their last three games with the biggest of their names out of the lineup.
With Kyler Murray back at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins re-inserted at the receiver position, Arizona have everything they need to make a deep playoff run; especially if the defense continues to play at a high level. Why not Arizona in this most wide open of seasons?
Which team will make the playoffs with a losing record that you feel could actually upset the apple cart come the postseason? - @Takenat1stSlip
I don't know if they will end up in the playoffs with a losing record, but I do think the Minnesota Vikings will be hovering around .500 if they make the postseason in the NFC. And I think they can be dangerous on their day.
The Vikings are currently 5-6 and all of their losses have been by one score. It's not a stretch to think that this is a playoff team. If Minnesota had managed to turn half of those losses in their favour, they would be sitting much prettier with an 8-3 record.
Dalvin Cook's health at running back is a concern, but with Kirk Cousins firing passes to the likes of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen; the Vikings are capble of beating anyone on their day. And that means they should be approached with caution of met in the playoffs.
What are your thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers? - @49erFaithfulUK
I have been very impressed with the 49ers recognizing their team strengths in winning three games in a row. That successful period – during which time San Francisco have leaned heavily on the rushing attack – has Kyle Shanahan eyeing a potential route to the NFC playoffs.
In their three wins, the Niners have rushed for more than 500 yards and scored five touchdowns on the ground. They're not completely taking the ball out of the hands of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but they are definitely playing to their strengths.
With multiple tight ends, wide receivers and fullbacks blocking for the likes of Elijah Mitchell and the versatile Deebo Samuel, the Niners have one of the league's most intricate rushing attacks. They are bullying some of these lighter defenses that have been built to handle the NFL's pass-happy offenses. I feel what San Francisco are doing is going to propel them into the playoffs and it has been quite the turnaround.
Are the Cincinnati Bengals genuine championship contenders? - @smithssg1
The Bengals have the same perception problem as the Cardinals. Nobody really trusts a team that has not made the playoffs since 2015 and has not won a postseason game since the end of the 1990 season.
But if you rip the team name off the jerseys and just watch the football team, you will see a pretty good outfit that can – on its day – look as strong as any other in the wide-open AFC.
Joe Burrow is the real deal at quarterback and he has many weapons at his disposal. I would love to see Ja'Marr Chase re-discover his early-season form at wide receiver but even that would only be a luxury. Joe Mixon is on pace for close to 1,500 rushing yards and the driving force at the moment. And the defense is a very pleasant surprise. The Bengals are heading back to the postseason and will be one of three or four teams in the AFC with a genuine chance.
What's gone wrong with the Seattle Seahawks? - @TimDYo
We're coming to the end of an era in Seattle and there is every chance things get blown up this offseason. For starters, I think we've seen the manifestation of Russell Wilson not wanting to be there and he will be gone. I also don't see Pete Carroll surviving – he seems to have had the stuffing knocked out of him.
The wheels are coming off the Seahawks. They have lost six of their last seven and the league's 31st-ranked offense has scored just 28 points in three games (all losses) since Wilson made an over-hyped return from his finger injury. The offense is vanilla, out of synch and playing well below the level expected from Wilson, Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf.
It's no better on the defensive side of the ball where a years-long talent drain has not been addressed, barring a desperate trade with the New York Jets for Jamal Adams. The Seahawks have the league's worst defense, allowing 399 yards per game. That's another black mark against Carroll's name, given that is his supposed area of expertise.