Two weeks ago, despite a 3-1 record, it was unclear whether the Vikings should be considered one of the top teams in the NFL. Of their four games at that point, three were against teams with losing records and one was against a team with a winning record. The Vikings defeated the three teams with losing records--as they were expected to do--but lost to the one winning team that they faced, Philadelphia.
Looking back on the first quarter of the season, the Vikings thus had two lingering issues. The first was whether they could win consistently on the road. The second was whether they could defeat opponents with winning records. While a road victory at Houston brought reason for optimism it did not demonstrate consistency. That challenge would be left for the second quarter of the season.
When the Vikings defeated New Orleans in their fifth game of the season, they answered questions about their road-worthiness that had been lingering since last season. In winning consecutive road games for the first time in the Mike Tice era, the Vikings also laid to rest a ghost of 2003--the penchant for losing to, and getting drubbed by, losing teams on the road.
The Vikings followed up their victory over the Saints with a fairly dominant victory over the Titans. But the victory did little to help the Vikings move up in our rankings, except to allow the Vikings to maintain their ground while all teams around them appeared to be losing their grip, because the victory came against a losing team. The Vikings were decided favorites to beat the Titans and took care of business in winning on Sunday. But that victory alone is insufficient to demonstrate that the Vikings yet belong in the upper echelon of NFL teams. They're getting close, but it will take some victories over winning teams (see, NY Giants, Indianapolis Colts, and Detroit Lions) to raise the Vikings near the top of these rankings.
Rankings for Week Seven
At this point in the season, the Philadelphia Eagles are clearly ahead of the rest of the NFL. Despite playing in the second toughest division in the NFL (and having already knocked off the Giants), the Eagles are a perfect 6-0. And they are not only winning games, they mostly are winning large, by an average of 13 points per game. That separates this week's Eagles from this week's Patriots and Jaguars.
The Patriots and Jaguars fall in a group of their own, closely behind the Eagles. While Jacksonville is 5-2, its two losses have come against teams with winning records (Indianapolis and San Diego). The Jaguars also have two quality wins against Indianapolis, at Indy, and Denver.
The Patriots probably are at least the equal of the Jaguars, if not better, but have not yet been tested to the same degree. While the Jaguars play in the toughest division in the NFL, the Patriots play in the third best division, weighted down by Buffalo and Miami (and soon to be weighted down even more by the much overrated Jets). The Patriots narrowly defeated Indy and the Jets at home and have handled their other opponents, but their other opponents have a combined record of 7-18. It's difficult to know what that equates to on the ability meter. For now, however, it places the Patriots below the Eagles and on par with the Jaguars.
The next group includes three teams that continue to show improvement over disappointing 2003 seasons--the Jets, Chargers, and Lions--and two teams that probably won't be at this lofty perch in the rankings for long--the Falcons and Chiefs. Atop these five teams stand the Colts, a team that would have fit in nicely with the Patriots and Jaguars in group two if not for last week's loss at home to the Jaguars.
Despite the early-season lovefest surrounding Michael Vick and the Falcons, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Falcons are not for real (unless, by "for real," one means bad). In their break-down game last week against the Chiefs, the purported top rushing defense in the NFL allowed 8 rushing TDs. That's more than all but two teams have for the entire season. Not good.
And Michael Vick appears to be a big part of the problem. Not that that is a surprise, since, as we have pointed out from time to time, running QBs do not succeed in the NFL in the long term. This is especially true of running QBs who have yet to develop an accurate passing touch.
I'd say it is going to be a(nother) long season in Atlanta, but that would dismiss the wretchedness that is the NFC West. In a league (proudly) filled with mediocrity, the Falcons represent, at best, the most mediocre of the mediocre, yet they do so in a division that represents the vestiges of all that led the NFL to strive for mediocrity in every city.
The NFC South currently ranks as the second worst division in the NFL. While the AFC South stands at the top of the rankings with a +3 margin of good wins versus bad losses, the NFC South pulls in with a -3 tally. The worst division, the NFC West, stands at a -5. And, lest anyone think that one or two teams are doing the heavy dragging in the NFC South, every team in the division has at least one bad loss. As a consequence, it is quite conceivable that the Falcons will accumulate enough victories to reach the playoffs, but, based on their performance to date, they would be the team that all other teams dream of playing.
The next group is led by the Vikings, followed by the Steelers, Giants, and Broncos. These teams all appear more capable of making a playoff run than do the Falcons and one or two of these teams could end up in the top 5 in short order, but, for now, they are where they are because they have failed to beat winning teams (Steelers, Vikings, Giants) or have failed to beat bad teams (Denver).
Either the Vikings or the Giants will get a bump next week after their head to head tilt (more on this in the next column), while the Steelers have an opportunity to get a quality win against the Patriots and the Broncos should add a "quality" win against the 5-2 Falcons.
The next group begins the descent into mediocrity. This group contains one team that appears on the rise, the Texans, three that appear on the decline, the Titans, Cowboys, and Bengals, and one team that is already falling, the Browns. It is difficult to call the Bengals a team on the decline given that they have not finished the season with a winning record in 14 years (!), but the Bengals look worse this year than they did last year.
Last year, the Bengals ranked in the bottom third of NFL team defenses allowing 24 points per game. This year, the numbers look modestly better with the Bengals allowing 23.2 points per game through six games, but consider the competition. In their first six games, the Bengals have played the Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, Browns, and Broncos. None of these teams averages even 23 points a game.
It's difficult to win with defense when your defense gives up points to these teams. That's particularly true when your offensive production falters below last year's level. All of which means that it is unlikely that the Bengals will break their losing ways this season.
The next group includes Baltimore, Green Bay, Seattle, Carolina, New Orleans, Arizona, Buffalo, and San Francisco. Combining Green Bay's offense and Baltimore's defense gets you the number one team in the NFL, hands down. Taking each team as they stand gets you two teams that have nothing on one side of the ball. Neither team plays in a great division, yet both can still make the playoffs despite huge liabilities.
Seattle is returning to Earth after a quick beginning to the season and appear to be the same old team the Vikings dusted last season at the dome--some offensive pop with zero defense. Carolina also appears to be on the decline, due mostly to injuries to key players.
While New Orleans, Buffalo, and San Francisco appear headed for inclusion in the ranking's bottom-feeder group, Arizona may be moving up in the coming weeks on the strength of their offense. Though it is hard to get too excited about any team scoring 25 against Seattle or 28 against San Francisco, the Cardinals will continue to play the weaklings of the NFL as the season progresses, and will have Anquan Boldin back in the fold this week. That might be all that Denny Green needs to help Phoenix rise.
The remaining group includes the Rams, Redskins, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Raiders, and Bears. The Rams fall to this last group, despite their position atop the NFC West, because of their feeble performance this season in the face of bad opposition. The Rams have two losses this season to teams with losing records, including a 31-14 loss to the woeful Dolphins (they of the 12.3 points per game average, inflated by their 31-point outburst against the Rams). Moreover, all of the Rams' victories this season have come against teams in the NFC South or NFC West, the two worst divisions in the NFL at this point in the season. While that makes the Rams' loss to the Dolphins less suprising, it certainly does not help the Rams in these rankings.
The Dolphins winning streak is unlikely to continue and the offensively challenged 'Bucs, Bears, 'Skins, and Raiders appear ready and able to challenge for the number one pick in next year's draft.
Up Next: Vikings Rout the Giants?