Here are some quick observations on the NFL at the league’s halfway point before getting into a longer look at the Ravens later this week.
The best team in the NFL: New York Giants. Despite losing Michael Strahan, having strained relations with Plaxico Burress and managing the post-Super Bowl hangover, Tom Coughlin has done a remarkable job coaching the 2008 Giants. The NFC East is proving to be the toughest division on the NFC side overall, and the Giants are making a case for a repeat trip to the Super Bowl. Undefeated Tennessee is the best AFC squad, but the Giants are the champs until someone knocks them off in the playoffs. New York is tough on both sides of the ball and they seem to be on a mission again, since a lot of folks did not give them the appropriate amount of credit for last season’s incredible run to the world title.
The worst team: Oakland Raiders. A coaching change, a surreal press conference to announce the change, cutting high-priced players at midseason means aging owner Al Davis desperately needs a personnel man to fix the mess he created. At least Detroit owner William Clay Ford fired GM Matt Millen in order to get his franchise off the deck. Davis won’t fire himself because he still strongly believes in his own football knowledge. The Raiders need a counter-balance who will have the respect of both Davis and the next head coach.
The best division in football: NFC East. Four of the top nine teams in the conference (if you figure in tiebreakers) all come from the same division. The Giants are the best team in the league, and Washington has the weapons to be dangerous in the playoffs. Right now, if the season was over after last weekend, Philadelphia (7) and Dallas (9) would be the odd teams out. Philly is a strong club overall (see below), and Dallas was expected to be a Super Bowl team at the start of the year before a string of issues derailed them. The AFC East also has four teams in its conference’s top 9 teams, but top-to-bottom, that group is not as good as the NFC East.
The worst division: NFC West. Arizona is the best team in a bad group, and that’s not saying much. They could get Tampa Bay, Washington, Philly or Carolina in a wild-card game at home, and how many of those opponents would Kurt Warner and Co. be favored against? Seattle, in Mike Holmgren’s final season with the Seahawks, was supposed to dominate, but his message has fallen flat with players who are more concerned with the next man in charge, Jim L. Mora. San Francisco and St. Louis made in-season coaching changes, and both have shown small signs of life. The Rams, because of the addition of Jim Haslett as interim head coach, and the expected “retirements” of some key upper football personnel men at the end of the season, could mean a quick change of fortunes in St. Louis in 2009. The 49ers have Mike Singletary in charge as coach, but ownership has a long way to go to restore confidence in an upward direction.
Best non-division leader: As much as I would like to put the Ravens here at 5-3, and they are deserving of that label, I nominate Philadelphia. They have the second-best net point total in the league at +76 (only the Giants and Titans are better in that category). The Eagles are fifth in points, sixth in total yards and third in passing yards on offense. The defense is seventh in points allowed, fifth in total yards allowed, eighth in passing yards allowed and eighth in rushing yards allowed. Their only real weakness is offensive rushing yards (23rd), but Brian Westbrook’s return to the lineup will help the Eagles down the stretch. But, Philly will have to improve on a 0-2 division mark to play in January. They have a golden chance on Sunday night when they host the Giants in the first of two meetings. The Eagles are 4-3 in NFC games.
Worst division leader: Arizona would be my NFC choice, but Denver gets the overall call at 4-4. A .500 record isn’t the most troubling thing about the Broncos, who were hot to start the season at 4-1, but have lost the last three games. The biggest number to me is -31 in net points, the only division leader with a negative number in the category. The good news for Denver is a 2-1 division record, but the bad news is a 2-4 conference mark (only NFL division leader with a sub-.500 record). If San Diego gets its act together in the second half, Denver might not have much of a chance in a conference wild-card tiebreaker.
Teams to watch (non-division leaders with .500 or better division and conference records): AFC: New England, Miami, Baltimore and San Diego. NFC: Washington, Green Bay and Tampa Bay.
Teams that could be in trouble (non-division leaders with worse than .500 division or conference records and no more than two games off the current #6 seed’s record): AFC: Buffalo (0-2 in division), Indianapolis (1-2 in division), Cleveland (1-3 in division), Jacksonville (3-5 in conference). NFC: Philadelphia (0-2 in division), Atlanta (0-2 in division), Dallas (1-2 in division, 3-4 in conference), Minnesota (1-2 in division), New Orleans (2-3 in conference).
The NFL’s best player: In my mind, it’s the Redskins’ Clinton Portis. He leads the league in rushing yards with 995 on a league-high 200 carries (a league-high 10 of those for 20 yards or more), and he also has 150 receiving yards. He is a huge reason for the resurgence (despite Monday’s loss to the Steelers) of the Redskins, and has teamed with quarterback Jason Campbell for a potent 1-2 punch. Portis is having his way with opponent defenses right now. Right behind him is the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs, who is bulling his way through opposing defensive lines. You have to account for Portis on every snap of the ball. He’s not the MVP (see below) right now, but if he keeps up his current pace and the Skins make the playoffs, he probably will be.
MVP: Titans QB Kerry Collins. As Bob Haynie noted during my appearance on the show Tuesday, he does not have any real numbers to speak of, but based on what most experts thought would happen to Tennessee when Vince Young was benched, Collins has been the most valuable player on the league’s hottest team. Is there a player who has meant more to his team’s success this year so far? You can make a case for Eli Manning, Portis, Jacobs, even Collins’ teammate LenDale White, but Collins has held that team together in the wake of a high-profile benching that could have split the locker room apart. Yes, he has thrown for only 1,236 yards, three TDs and three interceptions, but the 35-year-old’s veteran leadership has helped mature a team that has a four-game lead over their next-closest rival, the Colts, and a two-game lead for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs right now. How valuable is that at this point?