Remember back when you could predict what would happen in the NFL? The Cowboys and 49ers always duking it out for supremacy. Barry Sanders and Brett Favre putting up MVP-type numbers. Al Del Greco kicking awesome field goals. The AFC being fun to watch, but completely irrelevant come the Super Bowl.
Of course, those days are long gone — they have been ever since the ascent of the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams put the league on a permanent spin cycle of power at the turn of the century. But while every season since that ’99-00 campaign that saw the Rams meet the Titans in the Super Bowl has been slightly messed up in that some unknown factor creeps into the picture (last season’s Saints, for example), it appears that this year is well on its way to being the craziest in NFL history. And not just because both the Browns and Lions could make the playoffs.
We’ve got a team that might not lose a game. Another (or two) that might not win a game. And then a whole bunch of mediocre teams in-between that figure to make this the most compelling hunt for playoff spots ever.
So let me break through all the madness with my midseason assessment, broken down in easy to understand Clint Eastwoodian terms.
Perhaps one thing that was clear heading into the season has played out as expected — the New England Patriots, with all the spare parts they picked up in the off-season, are the class of the NFL. That was made perfectly clear Sunday, when the Patriots overcame a sloppy effort in Indianapolis and still managed to top the Colts. Based on some unforeseen collapse, the road to the Super Bowl will run through Foxborough.
But more importantly, it brings legitimacy to the hubbub that has followed every team that makes it this far into a season without a loss — is this team finally the one that can match the ’72 Dolphins? Possibly. Here’s the rest of the Patriots’ schedule:
Nov.18 at Buffalo: You heard it here first, unless you heard it from Mike Ditka on NFL Live Monday afternoon, or some Bills fan you’re friends with. But I’m willing to bet that no matter what, I’m at least in the top 10 that you’ve heard it from — this game is dangerous. After falling to the Cowboys in a Monday Night heartbreaker, it would have seemed quite likely that the Bills’ season was toast. But in a league that makes no sense, the Bills are suddenly a darkhorse playoff contender. Unfortunately for them, New England will be coming off a bye, so the upset seems pretty unlikely.
Nov. 25 vs. Philly: Remember when the Eagles gave up a 97-yard drive to Brian Griese and the Bears in the final two minutes of a game? Do you think they’ll even stop Tom Brady once?
Dec. 3 at Baltimore: Here’s another potential trap. Ray Lewis will be going crazy, crushing beer cans on his head in the locker room as motivation before kickoff. Full beer cans. (On a side note, the scene where Bluto smashes a beer can on his head appears to be the only scene from Animal House not on YouTube. So no link. Sorry.) But I just don’t see that offense doing anything against the Patriots’ D.
Dec. 9 vs. Pittsburgh: If it was at Heinz Field, I’d be behind the Steelers all the way. As is, I think this is the team with the best chance of knocking off the Patriots. In fact, I almost would be willing to put money on it. And I’m not even rich.
Dec. 16 vs. Jets: Fuhgettaboutit, New York.
Dec. 23 vs.Dolphins: The better question is whether Miami will be winless heading into this one. If so, it will be a truly awesome matchup. Sign Matt Cassel up for your fantasy team this week.
Dec. 29 at Giants: You know what’s awesome? The fact history can be made on the NFL Network, so approximately 56 people can watch the game. As we all remember, the Broncos fell in the Meadowlands when they threatened to go unbeaten 10 years ago. But will Kent Graham be walking through that door for the Giants?
Anyone who watched Indiana football during the Cam Cameron era knew that hilarity would ensue as soon as Cam Cam was hired by the Dolphins this year. But nobody could have known it would be this funny. I mean, we’re talking “Perfect Strangers” in its prime hilarious here.
How big a blow would it be to Dolphin pride if in the same season that the ’72 team watches someone else go undefeated, Miami fails to get a win? And on the same note, if a team does go winless, does it mean the ’76 Tampa Bay Bucs get together and have a champagne toast noting the occasion?
At any rate, I see three possible wins for the Dolphins this year — and no more than three. The first chance comes this Sunday against the Bills. Coming off a bye week, this has to be seen as a golden opportunity. The Fins also have the Jets at home on Dec. 2, which should be a scintillating battle where as many as 20 combined points could be scored.
Then, there is the finale against the Bengals, who have been a massive disappointment this season. But by that time, Cleo Lemon might be cracking under the pressure of entering a game with an 0-15 record.
But as bad as the Dolphins are, the Rams might actually be worse. Let’s not forget, they started Gus Frerotte this season. Gus Frerotte! The guy who put himself on the IR headbutting a wall! With Steven Jackson presumably getting healthy and the Falcons, 49ers and Cardinals still on the schedule, one would assume St. Louis won’t go down the winless path. But let’s not forget to keep an eye on their sublime chase for indignity.
The Bears entered the year poised to contend for another shot at the Super Bowl. Instead, the defense has been injury-riddled and, well, bad. The Rex Grossman Project has officially failed. And Cedric Benson has proven that he can neither run, block, or catch passes. Hence, he will forever be known as Curtis Enis, Jr. from here on out.
The Bengals, on the other hand, looked ready to move past a disappointing season of a year ago. Instead, they’re having one that is even more disappointing. Sadly for Cincy, it looks as if the Bengals of this era have already peaked — and most of the peaking took place in the back of a squad car.
The other thing that’s ugly is the standings. Two divisions (AFC West, NFC West) are led by teams with .500 records. Another, the NFC South, is led by the mighty 5-4 Buccaneers. So it is perfectly conceivable that the Seahawks could go 8-8 and get into the playoffs, while the Redskins go 9-7 and miss out. Or maybe the Chargers will go 9-7 while the 10-6 Jaguars miss the party. No matter what, the end of the season sure figures to be fun to watch.