In a league where parity reigns supreme, it’s not unusual for the playoff picture to be largely undecided until late December. That being said, it’s pretty unusual 11 weeks into a 16-game season to have so many teams still in playoff contention that that we seem to know absolutely nothing about.
At the moment there are no less than five teams, and as many as 10, that have consistently been raising more questions than they answer each week. It’s a sharp contrast from the conference-leading Patriots and Cardinals, both currently on six-game winning streaks, neither of which leave much room for questions.
Let’s take a look and see if we can sort some of this out.
After the surprise success Chip Kelly had in his first season at the helm in Philadelphia last year, many believed the Eagles would be a well-oiled machine in 2014. At this point they are tied with the 7-3 Cowboys atop the NFC East, but it’s safe to say the machine still needs some fine tuning.
The Eagles 3-0 start could have just as easily been 0-3, with each game being won in dramatic come-from-behind fashion after going down double-digits early. Most of their games have been close, yet they’re coming off two consecutive blowouts. The Eagles embarrassed the Panthers at home in Week 10 and the Packers returned the favor on the road in Week 11.
In Philly there are questions at quarterback. Filling in for an injured Nick Foles, the city’s love affair with Mark Sanchez lasted exactly six days before flaming out in frigid Green Bay. The fact that nobody seemed to miss Foles doesn’t bode well for his future, especially since he was drafted by Andy Reid and his modest contract expires in 2015.
There are also questions at running back. LeSean McCoy flourished in Kelly’s offense last year, combining for over 2,100 yards rushing/receiving, a career best, and putting up 11 touchdowns. So far this season, McCoy has found the end zone just twice and his total yards have been cut in half. Neither Kelly nor McCoy seem to have any explanations for the massive decline—it has nothing to do with the addition of Darren Sproles, who is on pace for his worst season since 2007.
Philadelphia has been struggling with injuries, turnovers, blocking and red-zone efficiency. That’s in addition to its ongoing problems at offensive line. Yet the Eagles keep finding a way to win the games they are supposed to win, which will keep them in contention while trying to sort out the rest of this mess.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers are the only team on this list etched in stone—not just this season, but for the last decade. For awhile we had no clue why they performed so well in the regular season and then flamed out in the playoffs. More recently, San Diego has been confused by its impressive commitment to mediocrity— just one game over .500 from 2010-13.
Considering their penchant for finishing in the neighborhood of 8-8, the Chargers continue to annually fool people into believing they’re contenders because they’re so streaky. They usually start strong or finish strong. Dating all the way back to the 2001 season, most of San Diego’s wins and losses have come in 2-9 game clumps, averaging 3-5 a stretch.
This season is no different. After losing to Cardinals in Week 1, the Chargers roared back winning five-straight, which, thanks to an ugly Patriots loss in primetime, was enough to convince the football world they were the consensus No. 2 team in the AFC. In true Chargers fashion, they followed it up with a three-game losing skid and an unimpressive victory over the winless Raiders in Week 11.
That trajectory coincides with the production of quarterback Philip Rivers, who was on pace for a career season through six games before struggling through the last four. Following the game against Oakland teammate Antonio Gates said it was due to a “very severe rib injury,” an assessment everyone in the organization, including Gates and Rivers, immediately walked back. But why would Gates lie about something like that?
Google the phrase “What’s wrong with the Chargers?” and you’ll see it’s a question that goes back years and still has no clear answers. The only thing we know about the Chargers is that we don’t really know anything about the Chargers.
San Francisco 49ers
After three straight NFC Championship appearances (and one lost Super Bowl to the Ravens) in Jim Harbaugh’s first three years at the helm in San Francisco, the 49ers have set a decidedly different tone this season. Not only did it take them just eight games to match (or surpass) their loss totals from the last three seasons, they haven’t looked particularly impressive even in victory.
Take, for instance, their 16-10 win over the Giants on Sunday, in which Eli Manning threw five interceptions—five more than Colin Kaepernick. Usually that kind of turnover differential is indicative of a much more decisive victory, as opposed to yet another case of the Niners being bad and their opponent being just a smidgen worse.
It’s no secret they’ve been decimated by injuries this season in San Francisco, which obviously explains some of the inconsistency we’ve seen. But the real unknown here is how much the team is being impacted by internal issues. Tired of Harbaugh’s “act,” the 49ers unsuccessfully tried to trade him to the Browns in the offseason—not a good sign.
Reports that he’s lost the locker room have plagued the team for months and the likelihood that Harbaugh is currently a lame duck probably hasn’t helped player perception much. Right now they’re not losing enough to assume the issues are fatal, but they’re not winning enough to assume we’ll be seeing them in the postseason.
Under most circumstances combining four teams into one like this could rightfully be classified as lazy, but with the 2-8 Buccaneers currently just two games out of first place, it’s fair to say the only thing we know about the NFC South is that the winner will be lucky to finish at .500. Anything better than 8-8 would be a miracle, given their consistency to this point.
The questions here have more to do with the Panthers, who won the division at 12-4 last season, and Saints, who earned a wildcard spot at 11-5. It’s like they both got jealous of the Falcons’ inexplicable skid into the gutter last year that they decided it would be more fun to all duke it out with the Bucs for sole possession of the basement than legitimately compete for a championship.
At this point, the Saints have to be the favorite, based mostly on having Drew Brees. But they’ve always had problems winning on the road, which could become a real problem if they extend their home losing streak beyond where it currently stands at two games.
Seriously though, why does this division suddenly suck so much? That’s one question unlikely to be answered in the next six weeks.
The Steelers are, by far, the most confounding team in the NFL this season. They weren’t projected to compete in the AFC North, let alone contend for a Super Bowl, and through the first six weeks of the season all Pittsburgh did was solidify the notion that they were at least a year away from being taken seriously again. Their only convincing win came against the Panthers in Week 3, which is less impressive in retrospect, given the trajectory of Carolina’s season.
Things didn’t look good against the Texans in Week 7 until a stunning 73-second series of events turned a 10-point deficit to an 11-point lead. The Steelers won the next two games against the Colts and the Ravens with dominating offensive performances, outscoring them a combined 94-55. Ben Roethlisberger threw for six touchdowns in each outing, setting a new NFL record for touchdown passes in consecutive games.
Having clawed themselves back into the national discussion with record-setting victories over two legitimate opponents, the Steelers followed it up with an inexplicable loss to the Jets and an unconvincing come-from-behind late win over the Titans, teams that had combined for a total of three wins on the season before facing Pittsburgh at home.
In addition to Roethlisberger, offensive weapons like running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown have proven themselves among the league’s elite. The Steelers can hang with anyone when their offense is firing on all cylinders, but haven’t demonstrated an ability to produce like that consistently enough to make up for an inconsistent and aging defense.
This Steelers team makes no sense. They could go 5-0 to finish the season or 0-5 and we’d be like…yeah…I guess that makes sense.