The NFL is a dog eat dog league, and as we approach the midway point of the 2016 season, teams are separating themselves into predators, scavengers, and prey. From hunters to hunted, we have the full list.
by Matthew Jarecki
Apex Predators: These are the lions, hawks, and sharks of the NFL. Only apex predators have a real chance to climb to the top of the NFL food chain and hold the Lombardi Trophy
New England Patriots: This is the best team in the AFC by a long shot. The gap between Belichick and the next best coach is bigger than people realize. Tom Brady’s still the best quarterback in the league, and he’s got his best receiving core since 2011. This defense ain’t too shabby either, sitting just outside the top 10.
Denver Broncos: The Broncos will rule the AFC West for one more year. Their rush defense has taken a step back, but they have the best secondary in the NFL, the best pass rusher in the NFL, and the toughest part of their schedule is over. Trevor Siemian is limited, but he just needs to steer this defensive ship.
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle’s allowed only 84 points all season, they have a top 5 quarterback, a top 3 head coach. Their weak spot is their offensive line, and that scares me, but with the ferocity of their defense, and the big-game experience of Seattle’s head coach/quarterback combination, this team can beat anybody.
Arizona Cardinals: This defense is for real after a rocky start, Bruce Arians is a top 3 coach, and they’ve shifted to a run first offensive attack. David Johnson has the legs to carry this offense, and it’s smart of Arizona to rely on a dominant rushing attack, rather than an inconsistent (but explosive) passing attack heading into the playoffs. Like the Seahawks, this team can beat just about anybody when they show up to play.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy are finally getting the criticism that the Green Bay media has been so hesitant to give to them over the past couple years. I think it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to them. In a market with only one pro team, fans tend to coddle under-performing players, and it can lead to complacency. This team’s now got a chip on their shoulder, a top 5 head coach/quarterback combination, and that stellar run defense will be invaluable going into the colder months of the season
Fringe Predators: These are the foxes, scorpions, and medium-sized snakes of the NFL. Sure, there’s plenty of teams they’ll be able to feed on, but when it comes down to playoff football, their flaws will outweigh their strengths.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The most explosive and most inconsistent team in the NFL; the Steelers do not have what it takes to go deep into the playoffs. Big Ben is often-injured, their defense is atrocious, and Mike Tomlin is showing that he doesn’t coach his teams to be disciplined. This team is great when they’re on, and putrid when they’re off.
Kansas City Chiefs: As long as Alex Smith is the quarterback of the Chiefs, they will not go deep into the playoffs. Listen, I like Alex Smith, love Andy Reid, and think it’s great that the Chiefs are consistently in the playoff hunt. This defense has taken a slight step back though, and Alex Smith didn’t magically acquire the ability to throw the ball down the field consistently. A strong rushing attack will push this team into a short-lived playoff appearance.
Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot, and a studly offensive line will push Dallas to 1st place in the NFC East. What they’ve been able to do with their star rookies is impressive, and it’s a credit to that coaching staff and offensive line. I think Dallas will be able to move the chains on anybody, but unfortunately in the playoffs, this 17th ranked defense will not be able to hold it’s own against the league’s best.
Minnesota Vikings: I’m so impressed with what this team’s been able to do given the unfortunate injuries to Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson. Going out and signing an unproven Sam Bradford was ballsy, and so far it has paid dividends. Minnesota’s defense is outstanding, Mike Zimmer is doing a great job in his first stint as a head coach, and their schedule bodes well for them going forward. Their downfall will be a depleted offensive line, which now has both starting guards on IR, and can’t pass or run block. Team’s just don’t get far in the playoffs with shaky offensive lines.
Atlanta Falcons: Dan Quinn is one of the many career-coordinators who’ve landed a head coaching job recently, and I ain’t buyin’ any of em’ (besides Hue Jackson). The Falcons started the season strong once-again, and could very well win the NFC South, but they play no defense, and lack exposure due to their dome environment. Well-coached, weather-tested teams will push them around in December and January.
Oakland Raiders: This team is on the verge of running the AFC West for the next 10 years. Reggie Mckenzie has done a great job building that O-line and wide receiving core around his young star QB, and it’s payed off so far this season. You can’t win playoff games with the worst defense in the league, though, and the Raiders have the misfortune of possessing just that. Oakland will start to lose the close games they’ve been winning, but the future is bright for this young team.
The Scavengers: The crows and vultures of the NFL: Scavengers will beat up on mediocre teams, but will ultimately miss the playoffs
Buffalo Bills: Because of the lack of depth in the AFC, the Bills are actually a fringe playoff team. They run the ball well, and the Ryan brothers have the defense playing well. We’ve seen the Bills go on a 4 game winning streak against some of the league’s worst, but we’ve also seen them get blown out by less talented opponents. With a mediocre quarterback and head coach, this team’s going nowhere in the postseason.
San Diego Chargers: Phillip Rivers is still great, but the team around him is depleted. The Chargers have suffered a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball, but they continue to find a way to win games. I don’t think the Chargers are a bad team in the traditional sense of the word, but their team is too depleted to compete in what is shaping up to be the deepest division in football.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens could scoop up a wildcard spot in the shallow AFC, and I tend not to count out John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, but this team has no identity offensively. So far the Ravens have done exactly what scavengers do: feed on the weak. The Ravens are on a four game skid, and the Steelers are up next.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati has beaten the Jets, Dolphins, and Browns… so yeah, they’re scavengers. The Bengals used to pride themselves on defense, but now sit at 15th in the league in yards given up per game. That’s just not good enough for a team led by Andy Dalton – the most mediocre-but-kinda-good quarterback in the league. The Bengals are in a weird spot, with a good (but not great) quarterback, and a good (but not great) head coach. It feels like it’s time to shake things up, but are there really any better options available?
The AFC South: Houston is a good defensive team with great offensive weapons, but Brock Osweiler is clogging everything up (including the salary cap). The Titans have a solid defense and great offensive line, but Marcus Mariota is highly inconsistent. The Jaguars are turning into a very solid defensive team, but Blake Bortles is regressing by the game. Indianapolis has a top 5 quarterback, but is also one of the oldest defenses in the league. Not to mention the front office can’t figure out how to build an offensive line. What a mess.
The rest of the NFC East: Washington doesn’t know what they are, and Kirk Cousins can’t be trusted to lead his team to victories. Philadelphia has an over-hyped defense that can be great, but can also get violated by the run. Carson Wentz looks the part, but he’s not ready to take over games this year. The Giants are a mess. Eli’s projecting his struggles onto Odell Beckham Jr, who’s overcompensating by doing touchdown dances with a kicking net. What the??
The rest of the NFC South: Drew Brees has New Orleans goimg on offense, but that defense isn’t good enough to keep them in games against real opponents. Tampa Bay looks really good against bad teams, and looks really bad against good teams — which doesn’t bode well in a league where good team reign supreme. Winston, and this young Bucs team need more time to mature. Carolina is inexplicably bad. Yes, they have a young, inexperienced secondary, but that front 7 still has dominant players. With Cam Newton leading the charge, and real pieces on both sides of the ball, Carolina does have a chance to win it’s way all the way back to Apex Predator status.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford is flat out balling. Unfortunately for him, he has a mediocre head coach, and a flat out bad defense around him. This team will beat a lot of bad teams, and even some good teams on the back of Matthew Stafford, but no quarterback can carry his team to the playoffs by himself.
The Rodents, Insects, and Krill: These are the NFL teams who’s season is already dead and gone. Like a fly buzzing around your head, they’ll hang around games long enough to make you nervous about losing an easy bet, only to be swatted away by a superior football team.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill is a poor man’s Andy Dalton; Adam Gase is the youngest coach in the NFL; and they’re clinging to 200 yard rushing performances by Jay Ajayi for dear life. The offense is bad, but the defense is worse. Don’t let their 2 game winning streak fool you, folks.
New York Jets: The Jets went from a 10-6 team to a 6-10 team real quick. Don’t put all of the blame on Ryan Fitzpatrick; just most of it. The Jets’ secondary and running game has been just as bad, but it’s just so fun to say “Fitztragic.”
Cleveland Browns: This is the first year of the Sashi Brown-Paul Podesta campaign, so you can pretty much write it off as an information collecting period. I don’t doubt the “moneyball” approach Podesta brings as much as most others do. I tend to think that if you’ve been as horrible as the Browns have been over the last decade, why not give it a shot. Obviously, the Browns won’t win much this year, but there is a bright spot: Hugh Jackson has this team playing hard every week, and the moneyball approach means his players are young. Jackson’s instilling a winning culture into the minds of these young players, even if the Browns aren’t actually winning yet. Regardless of the lack of talent on this roster, the Browns have managed to stay in almost every game this season.
LA Rams: It’s time to get Jeff Fisher out of LA, and bring in a coach that will develop Jared Goff going forward. A good quarterback/head coach combination is the winning formula in the NFL, and without that, I don’t see the Rams surviving in a town that has far more appealing options than watching a bad NFL on Sundays.
San Francisco 49ers: I’m a believer in Chip Kelly. After inheriting one of the worst rosters in the NFL, it’s going to take a few off-seasons, and the right quarterback, to get the 49ers on the right track. If anybody can do it, it’s Kelly, who took the formerly 4-12 Eagles to a 10-6 season in just one year. Now it’ll be up to this 49ers front office to have the smarts and patience to stick with him. As for this year: Kaep is a shell of himself, and the 49ers defense is embarrassing.
Chicago Bears: What a sad, sad season for these Bears. It was apparent by the second half of their week 1 game that Chicago had no shot at a winning season. Then, Hoyer came in and threw for over 300 yards with 6 TD’s and 0 interceptions in 4 games. And then… Hoyer broke his arm, and Matt Barkley stunk it up for 2 1/2 quarters against the Packers. Now, the quarterback situation in Chicago has come full circle, back to “Smokin’ Jay Cutler”. As I’ve said all season: I’m so, so sorry Bears fans.