In a league that preaches parity, the NFL has done a poor job of spreading the wealth recently. As exciting as the season is, in past years, you could pretty much lockdown six or seven of the 12 playoff spots before the season even started. For example, the Patriots have made the playoffs in nine of the last 11 years, the Steelers six of the last eight, the Giants five of the last seven and before last season, the Colts made 11 of 12 playoffs. These four teams have combined for eight of the last 11 Super Bowls. However, this season may finally be the changing of the guard; many of the usual suspects are facing a variety of issues, while many teams that were always on the brink of besting these powerhouses may finally have the firepower to do so. The most noticeable collapse of a formerly great team is the 0-4 Saints. The Saints had the most tumultuous summer in recent memory — it involved legal cases, year-long suspensions and throwing an interim interim head coach into the fire. Although the impact of Sean Payton would have made a huge difference (at least in my opinion), the truth is that they will never be elite again without improving their dreadful defense. Their cornerbacks are decent enough, but their linebackers and defensive line are aging and seemingly losing talent by the second. Jon Vilma is injured, Scott Shanle is much too old and the defensive line cannot stop the rush (teams average 187 yards on the ground against the Saints, worst in the league) or develop a pass rush (just six sacks on the year). The Packers have also shown some signs of slowing down. Last year, the Packers were dominant because their offense was so explosive; they would come out to an early lead and Clay Matthew and the defense could just attack the quarterback in passing situations. This year, their offense doesn’t have the big-play ability they had last year or at least haven’t found it yet. They may be able to regain their explosiveness when Greg Jennings returns from injury, but they’ll need it if they want to continue their dominant run. The Steelers are another team that has seemingly lost a step this year. The Steelers’ calling card has always been defense, but this year it has not been as dominant as we’re used to. A big reason for this is the absence of Troy Polamalu due to injury. Polamalu is getting older and the defense is not what we’re used to if he is out or not at 100%. Additionally, the Steelers’ running game has completely disappeared with Mendenhall’s ACL injury, ranking 31st in the league with 65 rushing yards a game. His two backups Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are averaging 2.3 and 2.9 yards, respectively. Roethlisberger is playing as well as he ever has, but the Steelers are not a team built on an explosive offense that can come back in any game. Their game plan for the last ten years has been to beat up the opponent on defense and with the running game and they will need to fix both to contend again. Not only are the top teams falling off, but some teams seem to have finally made the jump to serious contender. After being rocked by Baltimore in their first game, the Bengals have won three straight and looked great doing so. Andy Dalton looks like a legitimate starter, A.J. Green may be the best receiver in the NFL and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is doing his job wearing down the defense while gaining some yards. On the defensive side, they have a lot of potential as they have recorded 17 sacks, the most in the league. They’ve given up a lot of points thus far, but that’s due to several injuries to key members of the defensive backfield, including Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Jason Allen and first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. When they finally get healthy, their defense should become one of the best in the league. The Texans thought last year was their year; they finally made the playoffs and had a lot of momentum, but then Matt Schaub got injured and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates could not carry them to a championship. This year, Schaub is healthy, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster are back and the offense looks great. Even better is the defense; even though they lost Mario Williams to the Bills, J.J. Watt has developed into seemingly the best pass rusher in the league, already recording 7.5 sacks through 4 games. Their linebacker core is led by Pro Bowler Brian Cushing and their cornerbacks, highlighted by Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, are playing great. If Schaub doesn’t get injured, the sky is the limit for the Texans. Out of all the teams in the league, the Falcons might be the most poised to break out and finally win in the postseason. The team has been good in the past and hasn’t added any players, but something this year just…feels different. There’s a difference when you watch the Bills put up 40 points and when the Patriots do. For the Bills, it’s a feel good story and feels like a result of good play and luck. For the Pats, it feels like a workmanlike effort, all the players knowing what they’re doing and simply executing. The Falcons made the jump from the Bill to the Pats this year. This weekend’s game against the Panthers was a perfect example. The Falcons were on their own 1-yard line down two with a minute to go; the old Falcons would have body language saying the game was over, but they came in with a quiet confidence, and sure enough, they managed to win the game. If they can continue playing with an attitude of simply knowing they should win, they will finally become a real contender in the playoffs.
Original Author: Albert Liao