Lack of NFL Elite
The theme of the NFL this year can be summed up in a single word: parody. There are great teams with terrible records, and mediocre teams that are in the playoff race. The so-called "elite" teams of the NFL have been anything but, and even with star players and easy schedules, teams have been struggling to assert their dominance within their divisions.
This year's model for the top team is the Houston Texans. At 10-1 heading into week 13, the Texans have proved time and again that they are the best team in the league and deserve their place atop the AFC. Their only loss came against the Green Bay Packers, a team with a powerhouse offense that will be discussed later. By defeating top teams like the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, and the Baltimore Ravens, the Texans have shown that they can win against high-quality teams, as well as against insurgent teams like the Detroit Lions.
The Atlanta Falcons are the other 10-1 team in the league. As the top team in the NFC, they have seemingly stumbled into their position. Four of their wins have been by four points or less, and their knack for pulling out close wins has defined their turnover-laden offense. Matt Ryan is on the cusp of becoming an elite quarterback, but pulling off a win by throwing for 300 yards with 5 interceptions and 0 touchdowns is not evident of a Super Bowl quarterback.
Three of the four teams of the "Black and Blue" NFC North have already been mentioned, and being arguably the toughest division in the NFL, all four teams deserve recognition. There is variance within this division that requires explanation. The Lions are at the bottom of the division with a 4-7 record, but they are not as bad as those numbers reflect. Nine of their games have been lost by one score, and six of those have been by four points or less. A 0-4 divisional record is the main reason why the Lions didn't make the grade this season. The Vikings are in third place in the division at 6-5, and have shown their true colors after a fast start to the season. They are 2-3 in their last five games, and have been forced to rely heavily on league rushing leader, Adrian Peterson. The Vikings remain contenders in the playoff picture due to the large number of 6-5 teams vying for the sixth seed in the NFC.
The Bears and Packers are a different story. They have gone back and forth leading the division, with the tie-breaker going to the Packers since they defeated the Bears in week 2. An asterisk should be noted on the Packers record due to the debacle against the Seattle Seahawks in week 3, which would have the Bears and Packers tied going into week 13, instead of the Bears being up by a game. The Packers and Bears have the same basic issue: their offensive lines. The Packers have allowed the most sacks in the league with 37, and Aaron Rogers has not had enough time to throw to his high-powered receiving core. Add in debilitating injuries to receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, as well as the loss of key defensive players Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, and Desmond Bishop, and the Packers appear to be limping their way into the playoffs.
The Bears are a slightly different story. With arguably one of the easiest schedules in the league, the Bears have earned their 8-3 record by beating mediocre teams or having quality teams beat themselves. The Bears' three losses have come against the only top teams they have faced, and have proved that the Bears cannot compete against the NFL's best. With the Soldier Field Turnstiles of J'marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi failing to protect Jay Cutler, the Bears have been relying primarily on turnovers by their heavy-hitting defense in order to win games. Turnovers are important, but they are too sporadic to be a team's necessity for success.
The playoffs are only a few weeks away, and the playoff picture, especially in the NFC, changes with every game. The NFC North is the division to watch. The potential for a three-team swap between the Bears, Packers, and Vikings, who all have matchups against each other in the next five weeks, should make for some intense football as the regular season comes to a close.
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