Adopting a pass-first philosophy under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has the Falcons flying high. Not only is quarterback Matt Ryan the early contender for NFL Most Valuable Player honors, 30-year-old running back Michael Turner should be fresher down the stretch than in previous seasons. Turner’s 73 carries is his lowest total through five games since joining the Falcons as a free agent in 2008. Atlanta has already opened a sizeable lead in the NFC South, but bettering a run defense that ranks 27th is a must if the Falcons are to enjoy the postseason success that has eluded the franchise since Ryan’s arrival in 2008.
Are you for real?
Five weeks into the 2011 season, the Buffalo Bills were circling the wagons with a 4-1 start. Washington Redskins fans were hailing a 3-1 record. And the San Diego Chargers had thundered to their best opening mark (4-1) since Norv Turner became head coach. All three of those franchises failed to make the playoffs. This should serve as a sobering reminder that not every early-season “feel-good story” has a happy ending. While the 2011 New York Giants and New England Patriots did show earmarks of being the eventual Super Bowl finalists with 3-2 and 4-1 marks respectively, six clubs that were above .500 after five weeks faded down the stretch. Slides in Tampa Bay (1-10), Buffalo (2-9) and Washington (2-10) were especially precipitous. There are 12 playoff spots available, but not everyone with winning records entering Week 6 will be claiming them. Here is a breakdown of those that look like legitimate contenders and those that will be remembered as pretenders unless problems are rectified. —Alex Marvez
Contender: Baltimore (4-1)
In prior years, a No. 24 defensive ranking would probably translate to a losing record. Not for the 2012 Ravens. Baltimore’s offensive improvement – particularly the emergence of Joe Flacco as a top-tier quarterback – has helped pace the squad to an early lead in the AFC North. That being said, Baltimore’s defense did step up in the second half of last Sunday’s 9-6 victory at Kansas City (1-4). More improvement should be coming when pass-rushing outside linebacker Terrell Suggs ultimately returns from an offseason Achilles tendon injury. Baltimore still must prove a better road team than in its first two trips this season or a chance to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs will slip away. WATCH: Brian Billick talks to Ravens coach John Harbaugh
Pretender: Philadelphia (3-2)
The Eagles have gotten outscored by a 99-80 margin yet maintain a winning record. That won’t last for long if Philadelphia doesn’t get more consistent play from quarterback Michael Vick. He lost two fumbles in last Sunday’s 16-14 loss at Pittsburgh. That raises Vick’s turnover total for the season to 11, which is more individually than every NFL team besides Kansas City, Buffalo and Cleveland. None of those three teams is headed toward the playoffs. Unless the problem is fixed, neither will the Eagles.
Contender: Chicago (4-1)
A revealing statistic about Chicago’s defense dominance: With interception returns for touchdowns for the second consecutive game against Jacksonville, cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman and outside linebacker Lance Briggs outscored six entire teams in Week 5. That includes the Jaguars in a 41-3 Bears rout. Offensively, the unit is clicking with improved play along the offensive line and the Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall combination producing an average of seven completions per game. With matchups against Detroit (1-3), Carolina (1-4) and Tennessee (1-4) slated after this week’s bye, the Bears should be 7-1 before beginning a far tougher three-game stretch against Houston (5-0), San Francisco (4-1) and surprising Minnesota (4-1).
Pretender: Minnesota (4-1)
This is not a knock on what the surprising Vikings have accomplished so far. The “pretenders” categorization is a forecast related to the team’s lack of quality depth. Proven reserves are thin along the offensive line and in the back seven on defense, which is one of the problems faced by teams in rebuilding mode like Minnesota. The Vikings are talented enough for a playoff berth if they remain healthy, especially with a favorable schedule ahead. But as history shows us, that usually doesn’t happen.
Contender: Cincinnati (3-2)
Questionable fourth-quarter kicking decisions by head coach Marvin Lewis and an off day for the Andy Dalton-led offense – the Bengals were 2-of-14 on third downs – helped end Cincinnati’s three-game winning streak with last Sunday’s 17-13 home loss to Miami. The Bengals can’t afford much more slippage in a division that also features Baltimore (4-1) and Pittsburgh (2-2). While the Bengals will be favored to get back on the winning track starting with Sunday’s game at Cleveland (0-5), a better rushing game would make Dalton and star wide receiver A.J. Green even more effective. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is averaging 3.3 yards a carry with the first two lost fumbles of his NFL career, must play better with backup Bernard Scott (knee) now out for the season.
Pretender: San Diego (3-2)
Let’s put San Diego’s 3-2 start in perspective. The three teams they’ve beaten (Oakland, Tennessee and Kansas City) are a combined 3-11 with poor quarterbacking. The two losses came against unbeaten Atlanta and previously winless New Orleans, which scored 17 unanswered points in the final 15:11 of last Sunday night’s 31-24 final. San Diego surrendered seven combined touchdown throws to Matt Ryan and Drew Brees in those contests. The Chargers must fix the problems on pass defense or risk getting picked apart by Denver quarterback Peyton Manning next Monday night in a game that will determine first place in the AFC West.
Contender: San Francisco (4-1)
So much for a Week 3 loss at Minnesota being a harbinger of slippage. The 49ers have subsequently dispatched the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills by a 79-3 margin featuring almost the same exact cast that reached last season’s NFC Championship Game. Speaking of which, a rematch of that NFC title contest against the then-victorious New York Giants looms Sunday followed by meetings with three customary foes (Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis) that have helped the NFC West post the NFL’s best division record at 14-6.
Pretender: St. Louis (3-2)
Rams fans should be excited about having a winning record for the first time since the 2006 season. But in a modest two-game winning streak, St. Louis won almost solely because of defense and special teams. That formula can only take you so far. The Rams needs more productivity from the passing game to make a serious playoff push. This won’t be easy with top wide receiver Danny Amendola (clavicle) out for a while. The Rams also have an upcoming three-game stretch against Green Bay, New England and San Francisco that could push the Rams back below .500.
Contender: New York Giants (3-2)
Every Giants fan knows that New York’s season doesn’t truly begin until December. By then, maybe the secondary will be healthy enough to help improve a No. 22 league ranking against the pass. Because the Giants are so battle-tested with an elite quarterback (Eli Manning), this team is psychologically equipped to handle the bumps in the road that every NFL team hits during the season. There will be plenty of them in a remaining schedule that includes games against such quality opposition as San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Atlanta and Baltimore as well as the remaining NFC East docket.
Pretender: Arizona (4-1)
Ken Whisenhunt was my frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year honors after the Cardinals enjoyed an undefeated September. The second quarter of the season didn’t begin nearly as well. The offensive line surrendered nine sacks in last Thursday night’s 17-3 loss to St. Louis, adding to quarterback Kevin Kolb’s woes. Kolb has done well taking care of the football with only two interceptions in 157 pass attempts. But he also isn’t getting chunks of yardage in the passing game as evidenced by a 6.6-yard average per completion, which ranks 26th among the league’s quarterbacks. In his defense, Kolb is getting no support from a running game that ranks 31st with a 63.4 yards-per-game average. Things may get even worse with starting running back Ryan Williams (shoulder) headed for injured reserve. Whisenhunt must weigh these factors when deciding whether to keep Kolb as a starter once John Skelton is recovered from his ankle injury. The front seven is good enough defensively to carry Arizona into the playoffs, but cornerback talent outside of Patrick Peterson is a major concern.
Contender: Houston (5-0)
New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow entered last Monday night’s game commanding the spotlight, but it was squarely shining on Texans defensive end J.J. Watt following a 23-17 Houston victory. With his tour de force showing, Watt should be considered a legitimate early candidate to become the first defender to win NFL MVP honors since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Watt’s unit did suffer a blow when inside linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Jets. Houston’s offense is littered with players likely headed to the Pro Bowl, but there should be concern about instability on the right side of the offensive line.
Contender: New England (3-2)
Two words you wouldn’t think go together: Tom Brady and game-manager. I kid, but Brady hasn’t had to carry the entire offensive load on his shoulders with the emergence of a strong running game. Stevan Ridley is the first Patriots rusher since 2007 to string together consecutive 100-yard games. Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen also have contributed in some fashion. As a whole, New England’s hurry-up offensive package has given the opposition fits. The Patriots are still vulnerable in their secondary, but the front seven is playing better than in 2011.
Pretender: Seattle (3-2)
Yes, there should be an asterisk by this record because of the replacement referee debacle in a Week 3 win over Green Bay. But that controversial victory shouldn’t diminish what the Seahawks have accomplished. The Seahawks enter Week 6 fielding the NFL’s top-ranked defensive unit. But that still may not be enough to reach the playoffs because of inconsistent offensive output under Russell Wilson. The rookie quarterback’s biggest struggles have come on third downs, although he did fare much better in last Sunday’s 16-12 win at Carolina. The Seahawks can move from “pretenders” to “contenders” with a home victory Sunday against New England. I don’t see it happening.