I like to think of teams in tiers instead of a list numbered 1 through 32. The differences in competitiveness between many teams is too close to call, and what we really want is a general feel of a team’s chances to make it to the big show at MetLife Stadium in February. I’m noticing that teams are winding up in groups — we can all debate whether the Broncos or the Saints are better, for instance, but nobody would debate that they both belong in the top tier. Teams in each tier are arranged in no particular order. Some teams I don’t have anything in particular to say about. I’ll edit this if I feel like adding words for more teams. If not, tough.
Tier 1: The Elite. Smart money says 2 out of these 4 teams are coming to NYC in February.
– Colts: Luck is indeed living up the hype as Indy’s “Next Peyton,” and the defense was able to contain the real deal. I sometimes wonder if this is the best team in the AFC.
– Broncos: That dazzling offense masks serious deficiencies in defense. If a fair-to-middling Dallas team with a fair-to-middling Tony Romo can put up 48 points and over 500 yards, and if even the laughable Jags can keep things competitive for 3 quarters, you have to start asking hard questions about your subpar secondary. The donkeys can’t keep relying on Peyton’s arm to pull that defense over the finish line. Also, don’t forget that they might have to settle for a wild card spot if they aren’t able to sweep the Chiefs during regular season, which means no bye week and no home-field advantage. There are enough question marks here that I honestly think the Colts have a better shot at the Super Bowl than the Broncos right now.
– Seahawks: They do have a solid WR corps, taken as a whole, and that monster D is second only to KC in dominating offenses. The O-line needs work, like so many other O-lines these days. But they are still one of the most complete packages in the NFL this year.
– Saints: This squad should have been undefeated, but then Tom Brady happened. Drew Brees helms an offense which is mentioned in the same breath as Denver’s, and can rely on a much stronger D. The main weakness seems to be with the ground game at this point, and while Brees can do many things well, scrambling for first downs just isn’t one of those things. Anyway, this is my pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Tier 2: The Hungry. Guaranteed to be playing in January, one of these guys could easily upset their conference rivals for a chance to play in February. They might not be quite as solid, but they are all going to be throwing everything they’ve got at the second half of the season
– Chiefs: Yes, as a Chiefs fan, I put them in Tier 2 because I have no illusions about our anemic offense centered around just 1 running back. Our undefeated record has more than a little luck to it — I’m thinking more about the Saints than the Broncos as a team that “deserved” an undefeated record by now. Our WR’s will hopefully develop a bit more in the coming weeks, but these guys ain’t Jerry Rice and Alex ain’t Joe Montana. I still don’t understand why KC didn’t trade for another WR or back… we are going to have a rough end of the season with Denver, San Diego and Indianapolis. On the other hand, nobody’s complaining about how the defensive squad is handling things. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tali has painted Peyton’s face on a tackling dummy. If KC doesn’t get swept by Denver in the regular season, they can enjoy home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
– Pats: Brady is in the twilight of his career, but anyone would rather have Tom Brady in twilight than a middling journeyman QB in his prime. Even with a shaky WR corps, he can still magically make passes appear in receivers’ hands. And the return of Gronk gives him a great option he’s been sorely missing for the first half of the season. Also, since they are all but guaranteed to win their division, they will have home field advantage for a game or two in the playoffs, and maybe even a bye depending on how the Colts fare. Brady still has his occasional meltdown, of course, but the Pats can be expected to go deep into the playoffs.
– Bengals: A solid team with a franchise that is not exactly used to winning. Also, I’m pretty sure a voodoo hex has been placed on all NFL teams represented by cats. Seriously, think about it. Makes sense, right? Anyway, they’ll make the playoffs and flame out in the first round.
– Packers: I haven’t really been following the Pack this year, but it’s hard for anyone outside of Chicago to root against them. Expect them to pick up the slack in the NFC playoffs if the Saints fold early.
Tier 3: The Wild Cards. Likely to reach the playoffs. Unlikely to make the big show. But hey, ya never know.
– Lions: This is not a team that gets to enjoy easy wins, which is something any KC fan has to appreciate. They have to fight tooth and nail for every last point, and they are in one of the hardest divisions in the NFL. A solid QB and the best WR in the business keeps them competitive, though. Their desperate win against the Cowboys in Week 8 was one for the ages.
– Cowboys: Their playoff berth is virtually guaranteed, but only because they are in the laughable NFC (L)east. They don’t have too many glaring weaknesses, but no major strengths either (other than Dez Bryant). Sort of like their QB.
Tier 4: On The Bubble. These are going to have to turn some things around and work hard to sneak into a wild-card spot by season’s end, but it is certainly doable. I would be surprised if at least one of these teams isn’t playing in January.
Bears: I put them here because they are basically a strong team in many ways with a strong presence in the early season, but they are sadly headed nowhere but down at this point. The injury to Cutler could not have happened at a worse time. It’s going to be another long, cold winter at Soldier Field.
Jets: The most inconsistent team in the NFL. You never know which Gang Green is going to show up on Sunday. At their best, they look like a solid playoff contender. At their worst, they make their coinhabitants of MetLife Stadium look good. The good news is that Geno has developed into an effective leader. The bad news is, when he’s having a bad day, he takes the whole team down with him. But he was thrust in this role almost by chance, and is having on-the-job-training at one of the world’s most difficult professions. 2014 should go much smoother. A big question is: should they unload Santonio Holmes, memorably described by this NFL.com writer as a “cancer”?
Ravens, Dolphins, Cardinals, Titans, Rams
Tier 5: Rebuilders. Or in some cases, whatever the opposite of “rebuilding” is. (Unbuilding? Debuilding?) Anything is possible, but these guys have a long road ahead of them if they wish to salvage this season.
Raiders, Browns, Bills, Redskins, Falcons, Eagles
Tier 6: The Manure Pile. ‘Nuff said.
– Jags: Entering their bye week. They say that “bye” is favored by 10 points. The 2013 Jaguars are shaping up to be the worst team in NFL history, and I include the 2008 Lions in that remark. Owners and GMs should all be required to examine the 2012-2013 offseason of both of the 2012 losers, KC and Jacksonville, for the most startling contrast of front-office success vs. fail in modern NFL history.
– Giants: The sad-sack Giants got a break in their schedule, and now have notched a second win after meeting an Eagles squad that is busily crashing and burning. They might even beat the Raiders! But then they play the Packers. Oh well. At least Eli might get to hang out with his big brother if he comes to town this February.
– Bucs: Unlike the Jaguars, this team does have some talent (in positions other than QB), but the guidance is… lacking. Everyone is rightfully calling for the head coach’s job. Or maybe we should just stop allowing professional football to be played in Florida.
– Texans: Things have gone from bad to worse, and sadly, they now must host the red-hot Colts who will enjoy pounding another nail into the coffin of Houston’s 2013 season. The Texans are fortunate enough to get two freebie wins later in the year courtesy of the Jaguars, but that won’t be enough to even begin to salvage this trainwreck of a season. Matt Schaub will presumably be shipped off to the same undisclosed location as Mark Sanchez as the Texans return to the long, unhappy search for a franchise QB.