We’re five weeks into the season and the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. If the season ended today, barring injury, there would be five new playoff teams from last season. Each of these teams have their own method of staying power.
The Raiders with Derek Carr, are setting the league on fire and are an offensive juggernaut. While one of the league’s worst defenses at the moment can’t stop anyone, Oakland should feel confident Carr is under center for them.
Atlanta, has the league’s worst matchup problem in Julio Jones. Strangely enough, they also have Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, a two headed monster in the backfield under the guidance of offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan.
Dallas has the league’s best offensive line, a rookie that looks like a top five tailback already in Ezekiel Elliot, and an efficient quarterback who hasn’t thrown an interception in 150-plus passes in Dak Prescott.
Philadelphia possesses a monstrous front seven featuring Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin and another confident rookie quarterback in Carson Wentz.
Finally, well, the Ravens have a solid enough defense with linebacker CJ Mosley and safety Eric Weddle as well as the always “elite” quarterback Joe Flacco, if that’s enough for you. They also fired Marc Trestman, who might have been the hex holding them back. Possibly. Baltimore is the least likely to stick around of this group, but this is a team that’s made the postseason six out of the last eight seasons, so experience could play a factor.
Typically, the league has around four to six new playoff teams every season. That’s a lot of turnover and 2016 isn’t veering away from the script. While quality of play is objectively overall down, no one sells hope like the NFL. A new season makes fans think there’s a chance for their team so they tune in. Does the same sentiment apply for Browns fans? Probably not, but Cleveland’s football team is it’s own rare case.
The point is, enjoy the new blood that’s likely present in January. These teams give the league distinct flavor and keep matters interesting. Be more than appreciative.
With that, what to make of the Falcons, a “hot dog” situation for Alshon Jeffery in Chicago, and more in the Week 6 roundtable:
1. The 4-1 Falcons handled the Broncos in Denver on Sunday. Last year, they started 5-0 and missed the playoffs. Are they a fluke or is there something different about this year’s version that makes them a contender?
Robert Zeglinski: The totally correct answer is a renaissance year for Matt Ryan and the graceful Julio Jones makes them contenders. Through five games, Ryan has a quarterback rating of 121.6, has thrown 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions- the epitome of efficiency- and leads the league in passing with 1,740 yards. And he’s done it for a Falcons offense that’s both first in yardage and scoring at 35 points a game. Jones in conjunction with the league’s best back by committee of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are simply unstoppable. In fact, it’s probably the Freeman-Coleman dynamic of two tailbacks that can both run in between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield that makes the Falcons a juggernaut. Atlanta’s on the kind of pace where while they can’t stop anyone, no one can keep up with them once they’re in an offensive rhythm.
Last year’s 5-0 start was buoyed by wins over the previously mediocre Eagles, a Redskins team pre-Kirk Cousins, and two objectively awful Cowboys and Texans (Houston made the playoffs but they were not, well, good)teams. This year, they’ve beaten the defending champion Broncos in Denver- who possess the league’s best defense- the defending NFC champion, Panthers, and went into Oakland and won a shootout with Derek Carr. That’s not a cakewalk. Given the nosedive the NFC South has also taken with Carolina currently at 1-4, the Falcons are more than apt to take advantage.
Brian Hall: The Falcons really are an anomaly. At first glance, you think their success is due to an improved defense, but then you look at the numbers and realize that unit is actually performing worse than they were a year ago. The answer is actually on the offensive side of the ball, which is bizarre when you consider that the Falcons were a top-ten offense last season. But so far in 2016, Atlanta’s offense is producing so much more than any other team in the NFL, and that typically leads to points, outside of extreme circumstances. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have turned into a very capable two-headed monster in the backfield, and upgrading from Roddy White to Mohammed Sanu has helped take some of the pressure off of Julio Jones to carry the receiving corps. The question, is if the offense can do just enough to beat teams with stellar defenses. Luckily though, there aren’t many teams in the league with stellar defense’s and anything considered above good offensive attacks (the Broncos, Seahawks, and Cardinals).
Chris Hatch: Something about the Falcons makes them seem like they’re the real deal. They’ve got the #1 offense in the League- with the best passing attack and the seventh best ground game, sporting a legitimate 2-headed monster of Devonta Freeman and my fantasy team’s B.F.F., Tevin Coleman — but there is that defense. They’re not so great. They give up 28 points per game. Though, I feel like this team, in spite of not looking any different from other Falcons squad over the years (fun, splashy, offense with a sub-par defense) has a real shot to make a run. Why? Because it’s the NFL and I never have ANY idea who will be good on a year-to-year basis, other than the New England Patriots.
Dan Soden: We all remember how last year’s 5-0 start plummeted off a cliff and landed in a lake of mediocracy as they finished the season 8-8. But that’s in the past, and it’s time to believe in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, at least in the regular season. Their defense still has me questioning the possibility of a deep playoff run, but at least they have the offense to play into January this year.
2. Bears coach John Fox was defiant with “hot dogs” in responding to Brian Hoyer missing Alshon Jeffery on the final play of Sunday’s loss to the Colts. Jeffery is just the 49th most targeted player in the NFL. Are the Bears at risk of losing UFA Jeffery at the end of the season? Does the QB “controversy” even matter?
Robert Zeglinski: Before we get to Jeffery, Fox’s defiance to the media over a valid question of whether an open Jeffery could have given the Bears the late lead over the Colts is interesting. He was of course, referring to how it’s easy to criticize the team from the hot dog filled press box when you’re not playing. That’s interesting in that he believes he has the flexibility to be flippant at all publicly at the helm of a Bears team that’s won two home games in two seasons, and just seven overall. Fox has the uninspiring demeanor of a Bill Belichick without any of the success. Do not be surprised if he’s replaced midseason or if he “retires” at the end of the year. But I digress.
This is about Jeffery, one of the NFL’s most electric receiving talents, whose tied for 49th in the NFL in targets, sharing company with names like Robert Woods. A man who currently has just 22 receptions, good enough to be tied for 35th in the league with names like Pierre Garcon. Over the past three weeks, the Bears have thrown more passes towards Zach Miller, Eddie Royal, and even Cameron Meredith. Currently he’s by far the league’s best number three receiver in the league. Yet somehow, he’s 11th in the NFL in receiving. I can’t tell you enough how Jeffery has impressively maximized the most of his limited opportunities. Why he’s not being force-fed the ball though, I don’t know. Maybe it’s back-up Brian Hoyer’s limited arm in comparison to Jay Cutler’s rocket, but that’s a cop-out. You get your best players the ball, no questions asked. Quite simply, they’re not targeting their best pending unrestricted free agent- a true impact talent- to keep him happy enough on a bad team. Jeffery will have every team pining for his services in the offseason and while the Bears have money, it won’t be enough to keep him from packing his bags. One would hope they can work something out.
Brian Hall: The QB controversy matters in the sense that Cutler loves to lean on Jeffery, giving him numbers and making him seem important to everyone outside of the organization. But the Bears have already given up on Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, so it’s not really that inconceivable that Jeffrey would follow suit. It already appears as though the front office is attempting to rebuild the offense, with lots of young talent putting work in- and showing promise! I think that Jeffrey still has some good football left in him, but even if Cutler comes back and goes his way, I don’t think most of it’ll be played in Chicago.
Chris Hatch: First off: hot dogs are god-damn delicious. Second: is it me or does John Fox look like the villain from a CBS show that only our parents and the still-have-AOL-email-accounts demographic watch? While Fox is busy slandering the good name of Oscar Mayer he has lost track of what he should have been focusing on: the steaming pile of facial hair and grimaces formerly known as Jay Cutler. Or maybe he should’ve been concerned with the Bears’ lone proven offensive bright spot, Jeffery, seemingly getting ready to slide one of his absurdly long legs out the door. In short: Alshon is Algone to greener, less Cutler-y pastures as soon as possible.
Dan Soden: I’ll be shocked if Alshon Jeffery is running back to Chicago to sign a long term deal. Between the “quarterback controversy” and Jeffery not getting the ball, it seems like a no-brainer to pick up his bags and head to greener pastures to a team with more security. Jeffery is ninth all-time in Bears’ history with receptions at 274, yet this year he just has 22. Those numbers to me would signal the team has another plan and I’m not sure he’s a part of it. Maybe I’m being a bit overdramatic, but it is a receiver’s feelings at stake.
3. Pick one underrated rookie of the year candidate from both sides of the ball.
Robert Zeglinski: I am objectively going to go full-on with a homer pick, and say the Bears’Cody Whitehair. An offensive lineman will never win rookie of the year simply because they don’t make any splashy flashy plays. But, at their core, they are still the most important part of an offense. The center Whitehair, whose been buoyed by two Pro Bowl guards in Josh Sitton and Kyle Long on either side of him, is one of the promising building blocks Chicago possesses. He’s already one of the best in the league and looks like a seamless fit who can man the middle for a decade. When the Bears lost Hroniss Grasu in August to a torn ACL, it threw their entire offensive line situation into flux. Now, Whitehair has played a tremendous part in a line that has only allowed two sacks in the past three weeks.
On the other side, I want to follow the question and mention someone less than popular, but I can’t. I’m going to go with Chargers defensive Joey Bosa. After missing the first four weeks to physically prepare for the rigors of the season (consequences from a strange hold-out period enacted by the Chargers in August), Bosa had an immediate impact in his first game against the Raiders. Bosa had two sacks, five tackles, and was virtually un-blockable against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. He’s the kind of generational talent San Diego needs to turn around from it’s 1-4 start. Anyone who thought he was being “greedy” during said hold-out over the right to guaranteed money, now sees why he was so adamant. He’s a special talent.
Brian Hall: Offensive: Hunter Henry. Yo, remember when the Chargers lost Keenan Allen for the second year in a row? Remember how bad their offense was when it tried to operate without him in 2015? Well they might not have an improved record, but it certainly isn’t the offense’s fault. The Bolts are putting up points, and despite Antonio Gates coming back from injury, Henry is still putting up some solid numbers becoming a pivotal part of that offense. It’s doubtful that a tight end wins R.O.T.Y, but if he stays consistent and has a couple games where he goes berzerk, he should at least be in the conversation.
Defense: I don’t think he’s underrated, but it has to be Jalen Ramsey. He’s been the Jags’ best corner pretty much all season, and he’s done pretty well to limit production from some of the league’s top receivers. Again, he should be one of the top considerations for D.R.O.T.Y, but it’s well deserved.
Chris Hatch: Can Ezekiel Elliott be underrated? I feel like, with all the talk of Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, “Zeke” is maybe flying just the tiniest, smidgiest bit under the radar. Like, you know in ‘Top Gun’ when Tom Cruise flies right by the Russian fighter jets to give them the finger? That’s how close Elliott is to being on the radar, to put it in very accurate flight terminology.
On the defensive side: DeForest Buckner, I guess? If a sack happens in DeForest and no one cares because they’re watching Blaine Gabbert melt down at quarterback, does it still make a noise?
Dan Soden: Over the last few weeks Rashard Robinson has quickly become a candidate for defensive rookie of the year. The kid has been nothing short of remarkable. We can throw away the rookie label when talking Robinson as he leads all cornerbacks with fewest yards allowed per target. Also out of the 94 snaps that he’s participated in, he’s only been targeted nine times for a total of 31 yards on four receptions. A dream come true for Chip Kelly and the 49ers front office.
Offensive lineman are traditionally undervalued amongst the common fan so my underrated offensive rookie is going to be Bears rookie center Cody Whitehair. Just like Robinson, you can throw all labels away. This kid is playing at an elite level. He’s currently ranked as the sixth-highest graded center in the league and that seems low.
4. Compared to previous standards, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense has struggled the past two seasons. Are we seeing a hidden decline? What’s up in Green Bay?
Robert Zeglinski: I don’t think it’s a decline from Rodgers. The 32-year-old is still a couple years away before we see him physically deteriorate. Green Bay’s offense is in shambles because their receivers can’t get open. Mike McCarthy and company don’t run designed plays. They come at you with a set of slants, post-corners, etc. which are the staples of a West Coast offense. The problem is that Jordy Nelson isn’t the same player post-ACL tear and Davante Adams is nothing more than an adequate third target. Randall Cobb is the lone threat that can win one-on-one downfield. In turn, Rodgers is overcompensating, sacrificing technique, and trying to get by on his athleticism alone. Of course that would translate to the lowest qualified completion percentage of quarterbacks in the NFL so far. The funny thing is, unless someone like Nelson picks it up or Calvin Johnson comes out of retirement, they can’t fix this midseason either.
Brian Hall: Fine, I’ll say it. The Packers need to run the dang ball. Eddie Lacy is averaging 5.5 yards per carry a year after being told he needed to cut weight. He’s looked, if not great. Meanwhile the Packers still lean on a passing offense that hasn’t looked at all up to snuff. Defenses are practically giving away rushing yards to Green Bay because they know the Packers want to beat them with Rodgers. But why bother? Take what teams give you and run, open up the play action a bit, and then worry about throwing downfield.
Chris Hatch: Other than the clear culprit for all of Rodgers’ issues: his ongoing issues with his younger brother Jordan that I studied extensively on “The Bachelorette” this season, I can’t say that I know. I feel like they’ve had such an extended run of excellence that it would be kind of foolish for me to declare their demise. But, stranger things have happened. Otherwise, I would look for them to have a big second half, because I’m still a believer in Rodgers.
Dan Soden: The best way to describe the Green Bay Packers is stagnant. Under Mike McCarthy, they’ve have had one of the best offenses, but we’ve seen that level of play fall over the last few seasons. The only difference is that because it’s been hidden behind injuries, we’ve given them a pass. But now with the major players healthy, what’s the excuse? If I had to point a finger it would be at the stagnant play calling. There is still plenty of time to turn that around, but chances are that might involve a head coaching change instead.
5. The NFL seems to have no idea as to why their ratings are down 11% overall and they haven’t responded well in limiting teams sharing highlights this past week. Clue them in.
Robert Zeglinski: The easy answer is lack of regard for domestic violence and concussions, as well over-saturation of a lacking product on three separate days of the week. Those are all valid points. I’ll add the lack of true stars or knowing how to market said stars. Next to the NHL, no league has the same kind of iron hammer on it’s players showing any kind of personality on the field like the NFL. Why there are still flags on celebrating touchdowns, I don’t know. Plus, when you take a look at the landscape, is there really a must-see game between two teams in the same vain as Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning over the years? No. This is an inherently conservative league that holds back it’s players not allowing us to love them more. No one takes itself as seriously as the NFL. Grit, unity, and cliches can only carry you so far.
Brian Hall: The NFL seems to view itself as a “too big to fail” brand that will last until the end of days. But continuing to limit the things that make the game fun to watch is hurting the league more than anything. Let players celebrate. Let them use the ball as a prop and coordinate celebrations. Let teams put highlights online and give people reasons to watch. I just don’t understand why limiting exposure people get and entertainment during the event, is a conceivable strategy to improve marketing.
Chris Hatch: I think there’s potentially two reasons for this and I’ll state that this first one is a very gradual, virtually impossible to gauge idea that I’ve been thinking about.
I think we know too much.
I think that we have become more and more aware of the cost of football on a human body and that this knowledge is fundamentally changing the way that we view the sport on many levels. It’s a tectonic plate kind of movement that you don’t notice until there’s an earthquake (someone gets paralyzed, or we see a shockingly sad interview with a damaged former player) but one that I think is changing everything. When I see a giant hit, I don’t automatically leap from my chair anymore. That cost is now inherently tied to the game for me, inextricably linked. Or maybe I’m just going soft, like Donald Trump tells me.
The second reason is that there’s a Titanic surplus of entertainment options and the NFL is going to have to get on board with shifting methods of viewing or they are going to start to lose ground. They’re the NFL, so that “lost ground” is, like, a $100 million drop in the bucket, but for a league that always has their eye on the dollar? They better figure something out. Might I suggest not coming out and fining dudes for twerking? Also, I’d like to take this time to give a shout out to future NFL Commissioner, Tim Tebow. You know it’s going to happen. I know it’s going to happen. Might as well point to the fence and call my shot.
Dan Soden: We can blame the drop in ratings on several key factors, some of which will have more of an impact than others. For instance, the presidential election clearly is having an impact on the NFL. The second debate went up against ‘Sunday Night Football’ and when it ended, SNF’s ratings saw a tremendous increase. With the election comes some friction that has a tremendous effect. Notoriously known as the “No Fun League”, the NFL has been hit or miss with its taunting penalties (something I’m 100% on board with getting rid of this offseason) which not only annoys fans, but also takes a little something out of the game.
Then you have certain groups of fans who are tired of the domestic violence mishandlings, the lackadaisical approach to concussions, the stadium funds forced on fans and so on. You also have your less progressive fans who are not too thrilled with all the protesting incited by Colin Kaepernick. But, chances are they are still watching the games, even if they tell you they aren’t.