First Down, Fourth Down: Reviewing the highs and lows at NFL’s midseason
The NFL never hurts for intriguing storylines, and so the 2013 season may be par for the course. Yet, it feels as if there are more high-profile talking points as we head into November: the Chiefs’ remarkable turnaround, Chip Kelly’s offense, Calvin Johnson and the league’s receivers one-upping each other on a weekly basis, the explosion of undrafted players into critical roles and so on.
All of those storylines have set the stage for what ought to be a thrilling second half of the season. Before we head into Week 10 and beyond, though, let’s take a look back at the best and worst from Weeks 1 through 9:
• First Down: The races to the No. 1 seeds.
Earlier this season, fans at the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium reached a noise level of 137.5 decibels, breaking the record for the loudest outdoor sports stadium. The previous owner of that mark: the Seahawks’ Qwest Field.
So teams might need to start working on their silent counts, because both Kansas City and Seattle sit atop their respective conferences. The 9-0 Chiefs and 8-1 Seahawks have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and beating either team on its turf would be quite difficult.
But a slip-up here or there could alter the course of the conference races. Denver (7-1) is nipping at the Chiefs’ heels, both in the AFC and within the West division. Those teams still meet twice before the end of the regular season, with the division’s second-place finisher likely headed for the 5-seed.
Over in the NFC, Seattle finally grabbed a little breathing room thanks to the Jets’ win over New Orleans, but the Saints visit the Seahawks in Week 13. The Superdome, for what it’s worth, also is a notoriously loud venue.
• Fourth Down: The “race” to the No. 1 pick.
The 2014 draft is setting up as first-rate, so it may not be a bad season to finish at the bottom of the pack. Still, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville — with Minnesota now knocking at the door — cannot seem to get to 0-16 fast enough.
The Buccaneers actually had a chance to pick up their first win of the year in stunning fashion Sunday, at Seattle, only to implode in the second half. Jacksonville, on the other hand, still has yet to lose by fewer than 10 points.
Because of a worse strength of schedule, the Buccaneers would hold the No. 1 pick if the draft took place this week. Their road gets even tougher in the second half, however, while the Jaguars play just one team with a record above .500.
• First Down: Rex Ryan and Ron Rivera.
Of all the “hot seat” coaches around the league, the Jets’ Ryan and Panthers’ Rivera may have entered 2013 with the most uncomfortable situations. Nine weeks into the season, both have their underdog teams in playoff position.
Ryan’s fate seemed predetermined prior to Week 1 — even with rookie QB Geno Smith in place, the general consensus was that the Jets would head another direction in 2014. They may still do that, but Ryan’s impressive start has changed the landscape.
Same goes for Rivera’s work in Carolina. He had finishes of 6-10 and 7-9 in two disappointing seasons as head coach, meaning a third slow start could have spelled the end of the line. Instead, Rivera now has Cam Newton and Co. pushing the Saints for first place in the NFC South.
• Fourth Down: Injuries.
Enough already. Week 9 actually turned out to be a pretty light one on the injury front, but tell that to Saints running back Darren Sproles or Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley. The former left Sunday’s game in the Meadowlands with a concussion; the latter appeared to suffer a serious elbow or wrist injury in the same game.
That’s par for the course in a season that has seen an outrageous number of injuries, dating to a rash of Achilles and ACL problems in the preseason. Fifty-one players were listed as “out” with various ailments this week, and upwards of 150 players currently reside on injured reserve (with a few designated to return). For all the work the NFL has done to try to limit head and knee injuries, the violence of the sport continues to win out.
• First Down: Kansas City’s defense.
We can say with some degree of certainty that the Chiefs are not going to challenge the 2000 Ravens’ record for fewest points allowed in a season — they would have to hold opponents to an average of about 7.5 points per game the rest of the way (and they play Denver twice). Still, the Chiefs are turning in a dominant performance through nine games this season.
Kansas City has coughed up just 111 points so far, or fewer than two touchdowns per game on average. The Chiefs also lead the league in sacks (36) and have scored six times on defense themselves, including twice in a Week 9 win at Buffalo.
• Fourth Down: The Trent Richardson trade (and the Josh Freeman signing).
It may be too early to judge the Colts’ trade of a 2014 first-round pick to Cleveland in exchange for Richardson, but the early returns are not promising. In six games with the Colts, Richardson has topped out at 60 yards rushing (Week 4 vs. Jacksonville) and has yet to finish with a per-carry average of better than 4.0 yards.
Worse yet, the Colts continue to put more and more trust in Donald Brown … and they’re winning without much help from Richardson. In Sunday’s come-from-behind victory at Houston, Richardson ran only eight times for 20 yards and the Colts mostly kept him off the field in the red zone.
The Vikings’ decision to sign Freeman came with far less long-term risk, but it has turned into a confusing move in its own right. Minnesota handed over nearly $3 million to Freeman, rushed him into the starting lineup for a horrid start against the Giants, then made him a healthy scratch in Week 9.
• First Down: The old guard at quarterback.
Not every veteran QB has enjoyed 2013 to this point (looking your way, Eli Manning). In general, though, the longstanding starters have pushed back against the quarterback youth movement that began in 2012. At the top of the heap, of course, is Peyton Manning, whose Denver offense could set all sorts of records in the coming weeks.
Philip Rivers is not far behind. He leads the league in completion percentage at 72.2. Then there’s Drew Brees (21 TDs to seven interceptions), Tony Romo (66.2 completion percentage, 20 TDs), Aaron Rodgers (108.0 QB rating) and Tom Brady (7-2 despite a depleted receiving corps). The Russell Wilsons, Andrew Lucks and Colin Kaepernicks of the world are still plenty relevant in this NFL season, but the established circle of NFL QBs has reasserted its ability.
• Fourth Down: Thursday night games.
The most recent Thursday nighter was a pleasant surprise — Miami pushed Cincinnati to overtime, then won an entertaining game on a safety. Unfortunately, most weeks, the NFL’s early entry is a dud.
Plus, not only has the action been somewhat subpar, but also there have been more than enough injuries on Thursdays to justify the argument that those midweek games do not allow players enough time to recover from previous outings. Geno Atkins was the latest victim; he tore his ACL in the loss to Miami.
So why exactly does the NFL reportedly want to increase the number of Thursday night games? The answer, as always, is money. As long as the TV numbers and advertisers are there, the league can live with a diluted product.
• First Down: Safeties (the play, not the position)
The aforementioned walk-off safety by Miami’s Cameron Wake was the latest safety scored, but there have been a dozen racked up through nine weeks of the regular season. The madness started in Week 1, when the Titans, Buccaneers and Chiefs all coughed up two-pointers within moments of the opening kickoff — and in the Titans case, the safety occurred on the opening kickoff.
• Fourth Down: The defending champs.
A Super Bowl champion missing the playoffs the following season is not all that uncommon. The Giants sat out the 2012 postseason after winning in 2011; the Steelers failed to defend their title in 2009 after an ’08 conquest.
But it has been a decade since a team went from the sport’s ultimate high to a sub-.500 record the following season. The 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers last pulled off that fall from grace, finishing 7-9 after lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. This season’s Baltimore Ravens squad may join them.
The Ravens were handed loss No. 5 (and their third straight) by the Browns on Sunday. They must go at least 5-3 the rest of the way to break even, and games against Chicago, Detroit, New England and Cincinnati still await.
Obviously, the Ravens heated up late last year, so they may still be able to flip the switch. If not, some dubious history awaits.