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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

NFL – One Quarter Point – the NFC

Four weeks of the NFL season are in the books and nothing is as we expected. The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, and New Orleans Saints do not have winning records. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals (along with the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans) are undefeated. Down is up; up is down.

Today the Hat Trick is going to boil it down for you in one paragraph or less for all 16 NFC teams. Where are they? Where are they going? And how?

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings (3-1) – The Vikings are in first place in the NFC North with the tiebreaker advantage over the Chicago Bears. This is a head scratcher. The Vikings appeared to be a team in much disarray heading into this season. Adrian Peterson (332 yds., 2 TD, 4.2 ypc.) was coming off of a torn ACL. Christian Ponder (824 yds., 4 TD, 0 INT, 68% comp.) did not have the smoothest rookie year. So far, AP is back and Ponder looks like all he was cracked up to be coming out of Florida State. Give Head Coach Leslie Frazier some credit, too.

Chicago Bears (3-1) – Smothering defense plus a healthy Jay Cutler (917 yds., 5 TD, 6 INT, 57% comp.) will give the Bears as good of a chance as any team to win the NFC North. How long injured running back Matt Forte (163 yds., 1 TD, 4.5 ypc.) is on the shelf will play a role in shaping the division. But, perhaps, the most important and more difficult to predict variable is Cutler himself. Last night, while dismantling the Dallas Cowboys, he looked like he was playing up to his potential. Can he keep his temperament and his ego in check?

Green Bay Packers (2-2) – What is wrong in Green Bay? They’ve played four games and only have one win (over the Bears) that instills confidence in its fans. The other three games have been losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks and a win over the New Orleans Saints sparked by the points from a potential Saints game winning field goal being taken off of the board due to a holding penalty. Yes, the Seattle game was stolen from them, but when they only scored 12 points on the road and couldn’t run the ball, they put themselves in position to be robbed of the win. Someone else besides Cedric Benson (228 yds., 1 TD, 3.6 ypc.) needs to run the ball effectively.

Detroit Lions (1-3) – Talk about hard luck losers. The Lions lost games to the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, ultimately, because of failed kick coverage. The Titans executed the Music City Miracle II on a punt return for a touchdown along with two other long returns for touchdowns (on a kickoff and a fumble) and won in overtime. Then the Lions kept the Vikings’ offense out of the end zone all day, but allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown, losing by six. Detroit needs to recoup the lost wins, but their passing game is stout, their defense is good, and their running game is better than last year. Don’t write them off yet.

How often could history keep repeating itself at the Lions' expense? 1
NFC South

Atlanta Falcons (4-0) – That the Falcons offense continues to put up lofty numbers is not a surprise. That they are undefeated through four weeks is. The Falcons are protecting the quarterback better than they did last year and are among the best in the NFL at forcing turnovers. Atlanta will have to tighten up its run defense, as teams have been having their way with the Falcons on the ground, but they are going to be an extremely tough out in the regular season. Barring an injury to quarterback Matt Ryan (1,162 yds., 11 TD, 2 INT, 69% comp.), I don’t see them being challenged for the NFC South division this year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3) – Beyond the front four on the Bucs defensive line, I see little cause for optimism. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (11 tak., 3 sacks, 1 FF), and defensive end Michael Bennett (9 tak., 4 sacks, 2 FF) have earned their keep and then some, making the running game an unappealing option for opponents. The passing game couldn’t be more attractive for Bucs foes, as Tampa is dead last in the league against the pass. Their running game is hapless and their quarterback play is hopeless. Rookie Head Coach Greg Schiano has them playing competitively with an attitude, but he has a lot of work to do.

Carolina Panthers (1-3) – Another hard luck losing team. The Panthers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Atlanta on Sunday. The offense is continuing to put out enough to give the team a chance to win. The problem is that the defense cannot be counted on to stop anyone at key moments. It was the diagram for their choke job in the Georgia Dome over the weekend. I expect this team to win more than their 2011 total of six games. The question is: will it be seven wins? Eight? Can they still get to nine?

New Orleans Saints (0-4) BOOM! Bah-bah BOOM! Bah-bah BOOM! Hear that? It’s the Fat Lady making her way down from her dressing room.

MY TEAM! The Saints! WHO DAT! “Who Dat” may soon be a question rather than an exclamation as Saints fans are on the brink of arriving to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome wearing bags on their heads. The Saints offense (3rd in the NFL in passing and 8th in the NFL overall) is as good as it ever was, in spite of the yearlong suspension of Head Coach Sean Payton and six game suspension of Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt. Unfortunately, the defense can’t stop a runny nose and is riddled with injuries. I won’t stick the fork in them yet, as the team looked much sharper in Lambeau Field against the Packers, but the needle on the thermometer is approaching “DONE” very quickly.

It's only a matter of time, Saints fans. 2
NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) – Yes they’re 3-1, but they’ve kind of Forrest Gumped their way there. The offense is high output and the defense is stingy. There’s talent all over the field. But the turnovers are unacceptably high and, frankly, the Eagles got an assist from lady luck in their wins over the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants. Still, a win is a win in the NFL and there is no need for style points when playing the defending champs as they did on Sunday Night Football. The foundation is extremely strong; the mental errors need to stop if this team is going to make a serious Super Bowl run.

Dallas Cowboys (2-2) – Same old Cowboys…. When the spotlight is on, they disappear. After sneaking up on the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to open the NFL season, the Cowboys have simply vanished. They’ve abandoned the run and last night, against the Bears, the offensive line appears to think that pass protection is a luxury for quarterback Tony Romo (1,148 yds., 5 TD, 8 INT, 67% comp.) rather than a necessity. Romo needs to stop being so aggressive when his teammates are not doing so or aren’t focused. The results are catastrophic.

Washington Redskins (2-2) – A .500 Redskins team after the month of September is a mild pleasant surprise. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III (1,070, 4 TD, 1 INT, 69%) has been all he was cracked up to be when he was selected #2 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Skins have the offensive skins on the wall to hang with anyone. The loss of safety LaRon Landry to the New York Jets via free agency has been painfully obvious, though, and the Skins have not stopped anyone in the air. This will be a growing pains year for Griffin, but it has been fun to watch!

New York Giants (2-2) – This team is following the same script that had a big question mark over its head until the final weeks of the 2011 regular season. Vanilla running game (at best)…uninspired defensive play that generates the occasional key turnover. Eli Manning (1,320 yds., 7 TD, 4 INT, 64% comp.) and the receiving corps can only carry the team so far. With Tom Coughlin as Head Coach, however, I would not be overly concerned…yet.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for Robert Griffin fever. 3
NFC West

Arizona Cardinals (4-0) – I’m sure it has been fun for fans in Phoenix to see their football team start off perfect through four games. This house of Cards will collapse sooner than later (pun intended).

They can’t run the ball. They don’t try to run the ball. They don’t pass well. They don’t have any potent, game changing receiving options after Larry Fitzgerald (22 rec., 245 yds., 2 TD) and no respectable options after Andre Roberts (15 rec., 229 yds., 4 TD). Quarterback Kevin Kolb (752 yds., 7 TD, 2 INT, 63% comp.) has been efficient when he can get the ball out of his hands, but there has been no reason truly fear the offense. The key so far has been a defense that has bent a lot but then breaks opponents by forcing turnovers, but with no offensive firepower, the Cards undefeated run can only last so long.

San Francisco 49ers (3-1) – The 49ers took their eyes off the prize against the Vikings, then responded by bludgeoning the New York Jets in their own house. This team’s kryptonite is the complete lack of power in its passing game. Quarterback Alex Smith (784 yds., 5 TD, 1 INT, 67% comp.) has eliminated the critical mistakes, but he still doesn’t move the team with his arm. This will be a problem, particularly in the playoffs, if the Niners fall behind in games.

St. Louis Rams (2-2) – The Rams made some key defensive draft picks and acquisitions in the offseason and it is paying dividends. I don’t think the Rams will reach the playoffs, but I do think they will be tough to beat week in and week out. They need to tighten up a bit more against the run and give quarterback Sam Bradford (881 yds., 4 TD, 4 INT, 62% comp.) more chances to open the throttle, but this team is building itself on step at a time.

Seattle Seahawks (2-2) – Old school, smash mouth, power football and lock down defense (and a big assist from the officials) has the Seahawks at .500 after the first month. The passing game is nonexistent, however, and with a rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson (594 yds., 4 TD, 4 INT, 60% comp.), I don’t not foresee that changing much. They are going to keep the training wheels on him. The entire offense is going to ride on the back of workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch (423 yds., 2 TD, 4.6 ypc.).

Later this week: the AFC!

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