As many of you know by now, we have a record number of undefeated teams in the NFL for this stage of the season, which should provide for some great playoff races. But we would be remiss if we didn't analyze exactly how these five teams have stayed perfect. This is also a league in which the bottom third looks as bad as it ever has, and we've already seen a lot of the NFL's undefeated getting a heavy dose of the league's weak sisters.
There are nine teams that clearly are not up to competing with the big boys on a weekly basis: Oakland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and Tennessee. Of that group, even now, you could safely say these are not playoff teams. Of the bunch, Detroit and Tennessee have done the best job of keeping things from getting lopsided most Sundays, hanging with some tough opponents. However, I would argue that the overall strength of the top third of the league has an awful lot to do with the relative weakness of the bottom third.
Take nothing away from the undefeated teams. They all have shown superior ability in at least one phase of the game and could well be among the most complete when all is said and done. But before we go crowning anyone in the middle of October, let's see who these clubs have defeated thus far.
The Colts have faced Jacksonville, Miami, Arizona, Seattle and Tennessee. They caught Miami and Seattle at vulnerable times and have yet to face a winning team. Regardless, what Peyton Manning is doing is beyond special and this team looks as good as any in the NFL. But it's hard to call them battle-tested at this early juncture.
The Vikings have faced three last-place teams -- Lions, Browns and Rams -- and two teams with legit playoff aspirations (Green Bay and San Francisco). Still, that's just one game against a team above .500 and surely not the greatest platform upon which to project from. They may end up being one of the most balanced teams in the league, but I want to see Brett Favre face the elements and some ferocious defenses in the heart of winter before making a grand proclamation.
College basketball analyst Dick Vitale might call the Giants' early schedule "cupcake city." Yes, the G-men played three straight on the road, which is no joke, regardless of the opponent. But man, Washington, Dallas, Kansas City, Tampa and Oakland? Those are teams with a combined record of 6-19. That stretch might make any good team look great, or a great team look infallible.
It's funny, because a few weeks back we all were asking whether or not Denver was for real -- myself included -- but by virtue of their early schedule the Broncos have actually faced the toughest road. They beat the Bengals, Patriots, Cowboys, Browns and Raiders, teams that have gone a combined 12-13. New England and Cincinnati could be division winners.
The Saints, however, have faced the toughest road thus far, toppling a then-undefeated Jets team and going on the road to a shred a Philadelphia squad some believe could reach the Super Bowl. They also beat the Lions and Bills and are coming off an early bye, with their opponents 8-11 overall. The passing game has not been as stunning the past few weeks, but the defense is much improved, all the more reason why the game with the Giants this weekend looks so good on paper.
Overall, these teams are 24-0, but have played just six games against teams above .500 and 12 against the bottom nine clubs in the NFL. The combined record of their opponents is 41-75. Things have a way of changing dramatically in this league, and while I don't imagine any of these teams falling all that far, or any of the worst teams making a massive leap forward, the reality is that we still don't know nearly as much as we think.
The trade deadline is Tuesday, which annually elicits mostly yawns or minor trades. Given the disparity between some teams -- as we just highlighted -- a tough economy and some economic uncertainty regarding the CBA, I would not be surprised to see a little more activity this season.
Merriman does not appear to be a part of the long-term plan in San Diego. He and General Manager A.J. Smith did little verbal sparring recently, and management wants to shake up the squad and change the chemistry (particularly on defense). If someone threw the right deal in front of the Browns, Quinn is certainly not untouchable, though getting much above a fifth-round pick for the former first-rounder would be a stretch.
Kansas City is a team several personnel execs are watching closely. Scott Pioli is a dealmaker, he clearly didn't love the roster he inherited, and it's no secret that this new regime is not enamored with Dorsey, a 2008 first-round pick. There is always demand for promising defensive tackles, and a bold move like that would be another way for Pioli to put his imprint on the franchise. Similarly, linebacker Derrick Johnson, a former starter, has fallen out of favor and could be attractive to several clubs.
Vanden Bosch has been engaged in talks about a contract extension going back to the preseason, according to league sources, but nothing has emerged. There are plans for the sides to talk again during the bye week, but certainly they have to reassess the future after starting 0-5. Winning teams will be scanning the rosters of losing teams for good players who are potential free agents -- a la Vanden Bosch -- and perhaps something comes along that makes sense for both sides.
Mastermind behind Broncos' defense
So much time is spent talking about all of the big-name head coaches no longer on the sidelines that we probably overlook the work being done by some of the former head coaches still in the game. Mike Nolan, formerly the head coach in San Francisco, has impressively revamped Denver's defense and just might end up coaching his way back to consideration for a top gig.
The Broncos spent much of this decade signing free agents and making trades to establish a decent defensive line and any semblance of a pass rush. Nolan inherited a team that ranked dead last in many defensive areas, very little was done to change the roster on his side of the ball, yet now they rank first in many statistical categories. That's coaching -- taking someone else's problems and turning it into your primary asset. They've allowed the fewest points in the NFL and, amazingly, they have allowed seven total points in the second half all season (Chicago and Atlanta are next closest, allowing 27 points, and both those teams have played one fewer game).
Obviously, there are some astute in-game adjustments being made. You also have to look at the defense the 49ers have going right now and tip your cap to what Nolan put in place there. Some of the greatest coordinators never morph into successful head coaches, but most are given at least another shot. Nolan and Gregg Williams (with the Saints) are two defensive coordinators who could end up on some short lists should they continue to have this kind of output.
Ravens hit crossroads
After starting 3-0, the Baltimore Ravens are suddenly at a crossroads. And the issues are mostly defensive (and special teams), which is downright backward.
The Ravens sunk a lot into their secondary this offseason, signing Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr, as well as drafting Lardarius Webb. They also lost defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard to the Jets. It's certainly not time to panic, but the Ravens lack that same ultra-aggressive identity they used to own on defense, with new coordinator Greg Mattison not nearly the gambler that Ryan is.
A few things have revealed themselves. Kelly Gregg, one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the league for so long, does not look like himself coming back from season-ending surgery last year. The corners have not been good. Given those issues, perhaps that's why Mattison has been relatively conservative. Also, this group has not been menacing quarterbacks, which used to be the norm.
Losing at home to the Bengals on a last-second touchdown heightened the transformation on defense. Carson Palmer, someone the Ravens have pounded at times in the past, was nursing a bad thumb and had to hand the ball off with his opposite hand. The Bengals faced some long situations to keep the chains moving, but the Ravens never attacked him with abandon.
"It takes a certain mentality to really attack, and not all these guys have it," said one scout who watched the Bengals-Ravens game. "Not everyone can sleep at night calling a game like Buddy Ryan or Rex Ryan. Late in that game they have a chance to end it, and you know Rex would have brought the house and ended it, and they sit back and the Bengals hit a seam route and two linebackers fall down in coverage, and the Bengals win the game. It was obvious Palmer's hand wasn't right, and I'd want pressure in that situation, and they didn't do it."
The Ravens don't want to enter their bye on a three-game losing streak, and going to Minnesota will be a significant challenge. Coach John Harbaugh must get his team to play with more discipline as well. Favre spent a good part of September getting knocked around, and maybe this will be a chance to get back some of that swagger on defense and attack a bit more.
» Tom Brady is making strides in his return from a lost season but is still not quite right. "He's still not torqueing the ball," one scout said. "He's still coming over the top a lot."
» The Texans seem to have escaped what could have been an ugly bout of swine flu, with one player, tight end Anthony Hill, hospitalized. Several players have experienced flu-like symptoms, according to sources, and eight other players were tested but not found to have the illness.
» The Packers are likely to call upon newly signed tackle Mark Tauscher at some point to aid their league-worst pass protection. Tauscher received a $200,000 signing bonus, according to a league source, and lucrative playing incentives. He, too, is coming back from season-ending surgery but is looking at this opportunity as the best-case scenario in the short- and long-term, according to his agent, Neil Cornrich.
"It's a great situation for both parties," Cornrich said. "Mark is very comfortable in the system and is happy to be one of the few players in the NFL to spend his entire career with a single club. It's a one-year deal with a significant signing bonus and playing time escalators, and it doesn't preclude a long-term deal in the future."
» Wanted to give some kudos to the Saints' offensive line, which often gets overlooked as we rightfully marvel at Drew Brees. The Saints have overcome losing their starting left tackle for the season and are getting strong play from their guards as well. Left guard Carl Nicks and right guard Jahri Evans are both having standout seasons, according to scouts, both playing aggressive and tough football, helping key the running game with the passing yardage drying up a bit. And, Brees repays them by calling protections and doing so well to evade rushers, with an outstanding pocket presence and quick release, getting rid of balls others would take for sacks.