At the same time the NFL can relish having its most unbeaten teams after seven weeks -- the 6-0 trio of Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans -- it can't help but feel a certain degree of embarrassment over the sizable list of clubs that are downright awful.
Week 7 drove that point home with two of the league's three winless teams -- the 0-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams -- suffering lopsided losses. A week after they registered an even bigger blowout against the 0-6 Tennessee Titans, the New England Patriots embarrassed the Bucs in London on Sunday, while the Indianapolis Colts mauled the Rams.
Is it probable? No.
A closer look at the six teams with one victory or less paints a fairly daunting picture:
Biggest problems: 1. A defense, especially a banged-up secondary, that gives up too many big plays and whose new coordinator, Chuck Cecil, is going through his share of growing pains. 2. An offense that ranks dead-last in the NFL in time of possession.
Outlook: There is no quick fix. Kerry Collins has hardly looked like the same quarterback who helped the Titans win their first 10 games on their way to a 13-3 finish. But he hasn't been helped, either, by a poor offensive line and receivers who drop too many passes. Jeff Fisher drew some heat for wearing a Peyton Manning jersey at a Nashville charity function last week, saying he wanted to "feel like a winner." Nothing the Titans showed in a 59-0 loss to the Patriots in Week 6 would indicate that he is going to get that feeling any time soon in his own team's colors.
Tampa Bay (0-7)
Biggest problems: 1. No legitimate starting quarterback. The Bucs had hoped to wait longer before turning to first-round pick Josh Freeman, but he saw his first action against the Patriots and might wind up taking over for Josh Johnson -- who replaced Byron Leftwich -- after their Week 8 bye. 2. Coach Raheem Morris, who had been the Bucs' secondary coach, needed more development before being put in charge of an NFL team.
Outlook: If Freeman starts, he's going to experience a great deal of growing pains because he won't get much help from his supporting cast. Morris has more lumps to take as well. And climbing out of the basement of the NFC South, with the Saints and Falcons in the top two spots, looks extremely difficult.
St. Louis (0-7)
Biggest problems: 1. The only truly effective player the Rams have is running back Steven Jackson, but he can't carry the offensive load alone. 2. Quarterback Marc Bulger is struggling, although it doesn't help that he has young receivers and is often under siege behind poor protection.
Outlook: Steve Spagnuolo, who made a name for himself as a defensive coordinator, knows he is a long way from getting the pieces in place he needs on both sides of the ball. The best chances for victories figure to be in Week 8 vs. Detroit and Week 14 vs. Tennessee.
Kansas City (1-6) Biggest problems: 1. Things are going from bad to worse offensively with protection issues and poor work by the receivers. After throwing 150 passes without an interception, quarterback Matt Cassel had a second-half meltdown vs. San Diego with three picks on consecutive series. 2. Defensive and special-teams letdowns also contribute to fiery new coach Todd Haley consistently losing his cool during games with players and assistant coaches.
Outlook: A Week 8 bye does give the Chiefs a chance to work on what ails them, but it doesn't help to have running back Larry Johnson publicly questioning Haley's football background on Twitter, and allegedly using an objectionable term in communicating with one of his Twitter followers on the heels of reportedly being heard making a similar comment to reporters on Monday. The Chiefs announced they have instructed Johnson to not practice with the team or participate in any club-related activity while they and the NFL investigate.
Biggest problems: 1. No legitimate starting quarterback. After Brady Quinn flopped, Derek Anderson took over and has done nothing to justify remaining the starter, either. 2. New coach Eric Mangini's approach, emphasizing discipline and accountability, doesn't seem to have connected with players -- even after a significant overhaul of the roster. The Browns still make too many mistakes and have been humiliated.
Outlook: Calling it the worst Browns squad since the franchise returned in 1999, some in the Cleveland media are imploring team owner Randy Lerner to admit he made a mistake with his quick hire of Mangini after he was fired by the New York Jets, and to change coaches … again. The Browns aren't likely to make much progress playing in the tough AFC North.
Outlook: This year is devoted to the development of top-overall pick Stafford. Once he recovers from his knee injury, he will return to action. But his progress is bound to be limited given that he hasn't received a steady diet of work in games or practice. The Lions, who are coming off a bye, beat the lowly Redskins and get a chance to win another game vs. the Rams on Sunday. Yet, they aren't going to get many breaks playing in the tough NFC North.
» It's hard to figure out what happened to the Chicago Bears against the Cincinnati Bengals. Was it just an incredibly bad day or a sign of worse things to come? Chalking it up to one extremely poor outing seems like cutting the Bears far too much slack. The Bengals were good enough to win. The Bears just didn't seem bad enough to be humiliated, 45-10. As much as Bengals running back Cedric Benson wanted to trample his former team, his 189 rushing yards were aided by mostly feeble tackling from Chicago's defense. And what was with the ultra-soft pass coverage that made it far too easy for Chad Ochocinco to catch 10 passes for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns? When the Bears needed Jay Cutler to bail out the offense, he responded by throwing three interceptions against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. We can only presume that the Bears will be able to make amends against lowly Cleveland this week.
» The Redskins' loss to the Eagles on Monday night had little to do with the bizarre shift in play-calling from coach Jim Zorn to Sherman Lewis, the long-time NFL assistant coach who had been out of football for more than four years. Sure, that seemed to create some awkwardness, especially for Zorn, who looked like he was reduced to being a fan with a sideline pass as Lewis relayed calls from the booth to offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, who then dispatched each play to quarterback Jason Campbell from the sidelines. But the Redskins' problems stemmed from general sloppiness and lack of focus. They made too many mistakes, especially on offense and special teams. Campbell looks shell-shocked. He and his offensive teammates seem to have no sense of direction, which continues to reflect poorly on Zorn.
» It's hard to believe, but the Eagles could have wound up losing a second consecutive game to an opponent they were expected to beat with ease. Their offense and defense had some impressive moments, but there were too many times when they looked as if they were ready to give away the game -- especially on offense. Not that the Redskins would ever take it, but the offerings should be troublesome to a club that is supposed to have something to say about who wins the NFC East. Another concern is the concussion suffered by running back Brian Westbrook. With upcoming divisional games against the New York Giants in Week 8 and the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9, this would be a terrible time for the Eagles to be without the heart and soul of their offense.
» Here's a recommendation for your football bookshelf: "Dick Vermeil: Whistle in His Mouth, Heart on His Sleeve," a biography by Gordon Forbes. Vermeil turned down multiple overtures from Forbes to co-author his autobiography, saying he didn't think he was an interesting enough subject. He gave me a similar response the one time I offered my services to do the same many years ago. Forbes and yours truly, both of whom covered Vermeil's Eagles, respectfully disagreed with Vermeil's assessment that he wasn't book-worthy. Forbes took it a step further by writing this interesting and entertaining book. You don't necessarily have to be a fan of the Eagles or the other teams Vermeil coached (UCLA, St. Louis, and Kansas City) to appreciate it. Forbes has put together a fascinating look at a highly emotional workaholic who predictably suffered a breakdown, spent more than a decade recharging his batteries, won a Super Bowl during his three seasons with the Rams, stepped away from the game a second time, and then returned to the sidelines for five more years with the Chiefs.
They've got answers ...
» The San Francisco 49ers, because having realized they've gone as far as they can with pedestrian Shaun Hill at quarterback, they've made Alex Smith their starter. Smith threw three second-half touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis after replacing Hill and nearly rallied the Niners from a 21-0 deficit to beat Houston. Smith, who hasn't come close to living up to his billing as the top overall pick of the 2005 draft, could make a difference because his scrambling might be helpful to the 49ers' struggling pass protection.
» The Green Bay Packers, because running back Ryan Grant made it imminently clear that he understood the message the team was sending to him by recently bringing back Ahman Green and having Brandon Jackson back healthy. In a victory against the Browns, Grant, whose play had been lacking, had the third-best performance of his career by rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown. If Grant's wake-up call sustains, the Packers should feel comfortable with their backfield depth, something that will likely become increasingly important as the weather gets bad in the second half of the season.
» The Buffalo Bills, because after losing starting quarterback Trent Edwards to a concussion against the New York Jets in Week 6, they've found an adequate replacement in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick might not necessarily be a huge upgrade, but he is an improvement because he is more decisive and willing to attempt deep throws than Edwards, who is cautious to a fault. After the fourth-year player from Harvard beat the Jets in relief and Carolina as a starter, there is reason to believe Fitzpatrick will remain in the No. 1 spot even after Edwards is cleared to return.
They've got questions ...
» The New York Jets, because they have no one to equal the playmaking ability of running back and standout kick returner Leon Washington, who suffered a season-ending fractured fibula against the Oakland Raiders. Rookie Shonn Greene did run well in Washington's place, and Thomas Jones is solid. But Washington has the potential to change a game every time the ball is in his hands.
» The Washington Redskins, because as dysfunctional as they are on offense, the last thing they needed was for their leading receiver, tight end Chris Cooley, to suffer a broken ankle vs. the Eagles that is likely to sideline him for the rest of the season. Second-year man Fred Davis is expected to take Cooley's place. Davis can help as a receiver but needs to develop consistency and doesn't do much as a blocker.
» The Miami Dolphins, because after losing veteran cornerback Will Allen to a season-ending knee injury against the New Orleans Saints, they're left with likely starting two rookie corners -- first-round pick Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Allen had started for more than three years, and the Dolphins will miss his experience in the secondary. Nickel back Nate Jones and his understudy, Jason Allen, are likely to see more playing time because the Dolphins tend to frequently spell their cornerbacks.
Four intriguing games for Week 8
» Minnesota at Green Bay: Brett Favre wearing a purple helmet at Lambeau Field. Need we say more? Okay, we will. Favre embarrassed his former team's defense in Week 4, but his Packer successor, Aaron Rodgers, already has demonstrated he could go throw-for-throw with him in a shootout.
Weekly Top 20
» Atlanta at New Orleans: The Falcons have their first crack at the NFC South leader and a chance to help prevent unbeaten New Orleans from running away with the division crown. How much the Saints will have left for the Falcons after expending a great deal physically and emotionally to beat Miami remains to be seen.
Top five teams
1. New Orleans: Being the best team in the league means dominating an opponent one week and showing resolve the next.
2. Indianapolis: After pounding on a bottom-feeder, the Colts could face a slightly tougher challenge vs. the 49ers -- but they're still going to be 7-0 when it's over.
3. Denver: The Broncos can enhance their status as an elite team by winning a tough road game vs. an opponent anxious for redemption.
4. Pittsburgh: For the record, the Steelers can still play defense.
5. Minnesota: Favre shouldn't have any problem putting aside his two killer turnovers vs. the Steelers and focusing on his next game: his first appearance at Lambeau as a visitor.
Top five offensive players
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: He continues to be machine-like in his ability to keep his game in the stratosphere.
2. Matt Schaub, QB, Houston: He's a steady and highly productive performer who continues to show how good he can be when he isn't nursing an injury.
3. DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia: He scores running, he scores catching. He's the sort of explosive weapon whose role becomes increasingly vital for an offense that constantly attacks and seeks to deliver an early knockout punch.
4. Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati: His big game vs. the Bears went beyond delivering payback to his former club. It was further proof that he has become a dynamic force in the Bengals' rise to contender.
5. Miles Austin, WR, Dallas: His second successive eye-popping performance validates his surge to prominence in the Cowboys' offense.
Top five defensive players
1. Darren Sharper, S, New Orleans: He makes returning interceptions for touchdowns look routine, but the one he had vs. Miami (his third of the season) was vital to the Saints' dramatic comeback win. His knack for being around the ball is a product of a scheme that maximizes his tremendous skills and instincts.
2. James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh: His two sacks vs. the Vikings were a large part of the Steelers' statement-making defensive effort. He is back to the form that made him virtually impossible to block last year.
3. Gerald Sensabaugh, S, Dallas: Despite wearing a specially designed cast to protect a fractured right thumb that had sidelined him for one game, he did an excellent job of helping to contain tight end Tony Gonzalez. And that went a long way toward allowing the Cowboys to score an impressive win over the Falcons.
4. Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo: The rookie's two interceptions vs. Carolina give him five for the season, which is second in the NFL to Sharper's six. Byrd was pushed into the lineup because of injuries but is clearly showing the athleticism, instincts and hitting ability to remain there for a long time.
5. Will Witherspoon, LB, Philadelphia: His stat line vs. the Redskins included an interception return for a touchdown, a forced fumble, six tackles (including a sack), and a pass defensed. Think his former team, the Rams, could use a guy like that right now?
Top five coaches
1. Sean Payton, New Orleans: Coaching when you have a commanding lead is one thing. Leading your team to victory from a 24-3 hole is what puts all of those extra digits on your salary.
2. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh: After an inconsistent start, his team is showing it can adapt to whatever the situation calls for. Prolific passing? That was what mostly led to three straight wins. Dominant defense? That sent the Vikings home with their first loss.
3. Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona: Since a lopsided loss to the Colts, he has his team playing with a renewed sense of purpose. That was punctuated by the Cardinals' third win a row, a Sunday night manhandling of the Giants on the road.
4. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati: After losing pass-rushing ace Antwan Odom to a season-ending torn Achilles, his team could have had problems vs. the Bears. Instead, the Bengals owned them.
5. Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets: Okay, so it was the Raiders, but his team absolutely couldn't afford a fourth straight loss. As easy as the victory might have been, it still came after a long journey to face a team that had just pulled off a major upset.