Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? On top of being winners of the past three Super Bowls, the NFC is currently the proud owners of the league’s only undefeated team (Atlanta) and arguably the next four best teams of 2012 (New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers).
Through Week 7, only three AFC teams own a winning record. Outside of the Houston Texans (6-1), a squad that looked downright dreadful in their one primetime game this season against the Packers, there are very few teams in the AFC we can take seriously.
Baltimore, despite the 5-2 record, has given up more rushing yards through seven games than any Ravens team since the ’96 squad that featured a rookie Ray Lewis at middle linebacker. The Ravens are thin everywhere on defense and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is suddenly allergic to giving Ray Rice the ball. Baltimore has a tough schedule after its bye and has been so hampered by injuries that it’s hard to think of the Ravens in the same light as we did in August.
The AFC East leading Patriots (4-3), meanwhile, can't close out victories in the end. The fourth quarter has become a weekly adventure for Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, and they were awfully fortunate to escape another near debacle last Sunday against the Jets. The Pats, with the 30th ranked offense, ran off 13 consecutive points to take a late lead. Had the Jets’ own head-scratching conservatism not gotten in the way, New York could have given the Patriots their second head-scratching loss in Foxboro.
Everyone is drooling over Peyton Manning because of the comeback in Week 6, but teams don't continuously come back from 20-point deficits every week ... and teams won’t be up against Norv Turner each week for that matter, either. Speaking of which, San Diego is no better than it was in previous years. The Bills are frauds, the Steelers and Bengals are mediocre at best, and the Colts are still too young and too thin to be legitimate contenders.
So, which AFC team will step up by the end of the season?
The one team that was supposed to be the pits. ... The Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins were the laughingstock of the league a few months ago. Fresh off an offseason that saw Miami swing and miss at Peyton Manning, draft a quarterback everyone thought wasn’t worthy of top-10 status and fail to sign or draft a receiver worthy of an NFL roster spot, the Dolphins went on “Hard Knocks” and sunk even deeper into the depths of NFL fan/media public opinion.
Who cares that they boasted one of the most ferocious front sevens in the NFL or had a new coaching staff and offense built around their rookie quarterback’s skill set? They cut Chad Johnson! They let go of that “7-11” Chris Hogan guy! Ryan Tannehill didn’t know which teams played in his division.
Jeff Ireland, a guy who had “Fire Ireland” campaigns created online before the season started, is sitting rather comfortably in his supposed “hot seat” right now. Without any of the fanfare surrounding Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or even Russell Wilson, Tannehill has been better than expected in Year 1. He’s improved every week and has not only assumed a leadership role on offense, but has earned the respect of his veteran teammates.
Rather quietly, the Dolphins have strung together back-to-back wins. If the playoffs were to begin today, the team that no one expected anything out of would qualify as the AFC's second wild-card team.
Tannehill has been excellent and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman has gotten the most of the team’s offensive players, but it’s the defense that has impressed the most. Kevin Coyle’s defensive scheme is not particularly complex, but it maximizes a beefy front seven that’s given opposing offenses fits.
After struggling out of the gate to stop Arian Foster and the Texans' run offense in Week 1, the Dolphins have put the clamps on opposing ground games. The Dolphins rank fourth in the league against the rush and have held their last five opponents to 21 points or less. Had it not been for two tough overtime losses to the Jets and Cardinals, this team would be 5-1 on a five-game winning streak heading into Week 8.
They travel to New York to play the rival Jets this Sunday ... and the Dolphins are a three-point underdogs.
I’ll take the Dolphins. That D, the coaching, the rookie quarterback, a roster devoid of ego and yes — that GM — have all had the golden touch this season. Naysayers and “Hard Knocks” aficionados be damned, the Dolphins are playing good football these days.
If they keep it up, they might be my team to beat in the AFC from here on out.
Hey, there certainly aren’t many alternatives. With that, on to the Week 8 Cheat Sheet.
Week 7 Record: 9-4
Overall Season Record: 62-45
WEEK 8 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK
NFL on FOX game analyst Troy Aikman was the starting quarterback for three Super Bowl teams in Dallas. Can you name the backup quarterback and the offensive coordinator on the 1993 Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXVIII squad?
See below for answer.
Week 8 Fantasy Football Waiver Wire Pickup: Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Tampa Bay at Minnesota: At 5-2, the Vikings — the third worst team in the league a season ago — would be in the playoffs if the postseason were to start this week. They’re doing it the old-fashioned way, with defense, a running attack and special teams — they rank sixth in points allowed (18.7 per game) and seventh in rushing (132.3 yards per game). They’re tough across the board on the offensive and defensive lines. Tampa Bay had more yards, more first downs and had the ball for seven-plus minutes more than the Saints last Sunday and still lost at home. Coming back on four days' rest and winning on the road — in that environment — is a tall order for such a young team.
The Pick: Vikings 27, Buccaneers 17
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET games
Carolina at Chicago: Buried underneath all the analysis of the Marty Hurney news on Monday was the beauty of Cam Newton’s postgame sweater on Sunday. Look at this thing! Mark Anthony Green, GQ’s fashion editorial assistant, had the following thoughts on Newton’s sartorial choice: “If you look at Cam’s style, it’s evolved so much in just two years. He’s trying to really look the part of a franchise quarterback. It’s not enough to just get up there and wear a suit anymore. You want to look good and you want to look unique. That thick, wool sweater look? That’s all Cam. At GQ, we loved the look. We're huge fans of Cam's sense of style.” Mohair, cardigan, or one with reindeer on it — it won't matter which sweater Cam breaks out in Week 8. Julius Peppers will get the best of his ex-teammates up at Soldier Field. It’s hard not to imagine what could have been, had Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson found a way to pay Peppers instead of 11 above-average running backs the past few years.
The Pick: Bears 34, Panthers 23
Seattle at Detroit: The Seahawks are a different team at home and on the road, but the Lions are the same squad inside of Ford Field and in away games — a grossly underwhelming outfit that fails to get anything going until the second half. The offense is sloppy, the defense is nonexistent and Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh have easily been two of the most disappointing individual performers of this season. Both have taken giant steps back this year. Watching the Bears defense bum-rush the Lions offensive line and have its way with Stafford on Monday night, it’s hard not to envision the Seattle defense just licking its chops at a chance to go up against this Lions offense. The way Detroit is playing, Seattle should collect a rare road win for Pete Carroll here.
The Pick: Seahawks 24, Lions 16
San Diego at Cleveland: Yes, the Bolts lost in historic fashion two Monday nights ago at home. Sure, they haven’t looked particularly impressive this season, but if they can’t beat a banged-up Browns team — after a full bye week to prepare — their season is done. Over. They don’t deserve to be in the playoffs if they can’t find a way to win this Sunday. They don't lose here. Then again, no one figured they'd give up 35 consecutive points in the second half two weeks ago, either. The worst part about that loss? The utter disrespect those players had for the powder blue uniforms. Shameful.
The Pick: Chargers 26, Browns 20
Jacksonville at Green Bay: The Packers were listed as 13-point favorites even before Maurice Jones-Drew was listed out for Week 8. The Jaguars are like that guy from your high school graduating class who’s always posting updates on Facebook. Every so often, you see what he’s up to, and you know, his status updates are all upbeat about something new in his life (say, a 1-0 start to the season or a double-digit lead on the Raiders), and you figure he’s on the up and up. Then, sure enough, three weeks later, you check in again, and it’s all negative. His girl dumped him, he lost his job and he has a blister on his toe. Wah Wah. The Jaguars are that dude. They just can’t catch a break. They’re certainly not catching one in Lambeau Field.
The Pick: Packers 41, Jaguars 23
New England at St. Louis: The Josh McDaniels Bowl! In London! Or, something like that. The Rams offensive coordinator from a season ago is running the offense in New England now, but the Patriots O sure seems to have its issues in the fourth quarter. The Pats, for whatever reason, have become a different team when the game matters most. Look for Chris Long and Robert Quinn to get to Tom Brady early, and for Jeff Fisher’s boys to find a way to come out on top. This is not the Rams of 2007 and this certainly isn’t the Pats of '07. New England’s struggles vs. the NFC West continue with a shocker in London.
The Pick: Rams 24, Patriots 20
Miami at New York Jets: I’m fully aboard the 2012 Miami Dolphins bandwagon. Empty, boring, perhaps headed nowhere fast — I’m riding it wherever it takes me. The Jets? Well, someone else can ride that train. Mark Sanchez was awfully jovial following the loss Sunday in New England, hugging and smiling with Aaron Hernandez at midfield immediately afterwards and oddly laughing and rolling his eyes during the postgame news conference. Sanchez has been beaten up by the New York media this season. He’s like Carrie from “Homeland” at this point — just an emotional mess one wouldn’t trust under pressure. This one’s going to come down to the quarterbacks. Take Tannehill, the rookie over the veteran, who has been to two AFC Championship Games.
The Pick: Dolphins 23, Jets 17
Atlanta at Philadelphia: The Eagles are losers of two in a row and now they get the Falcons followed by games at the Saints, home vs. the Cowboys and at the Redskins. One could make the argument that this week’s game against Michael Vick’s former team is the most important regular-season game in either the quarterback or the head coach’s NFL career. Philly needs to get back on track. I think they do. I know, I know — I’m in the minority — but I’m just not sold on Matt Ryan on the road in a big spot. He’s not in that Rodgers-Brees-Roethlisberger-Eli-Peyton-Brady class, yet. Win some games like this — and maybe one in January at some point — and Ryan could be in that conversation.
The Pick: Eagles 27, Falcons 24
Washington at Pittsburgh: Chris Cooley is back in Washington and that’s a good thing. Cooley is one of the best and brightest personalities in the game. What’d he have to say upon his return to the Redskins after seven weeks away? "I wasn't at home doing squats and listening to the `Rocky' theme music, but at the same time, I'm in good shape.” Awesome. A lot of folks seem to be taking the Steelers in this one, but I don’t see how that aging defense can account for RG3. Even in Pittsburgh, I like the ‘Skins.
The Pick: Redskins 34, Steelers 24
Indianapolis at Tennessee: Peyton Manning likely has the Comeback Player of the Year award in the bag, but Matt Hasselbeck is a dark horse candidate. Dismissed as Jake Locker’s backup this summer (despite outplaying him in the preseason), the 37-year-old Hasselbeck grabbed the headset and the clipboard and played the proud, supportive mentor role. Sure enough, Locker goes down, Hasselbeck steps in, and now the Titans are winners of two in a row and in the thick of the AFC playoff race. Though the defense has some serious issues, the offense is alive and well. Behind their ageless quarterback, the Titans win over their division rivals in a shootout.
The Pick: Titans 34, Colts 30
Sunday, 4 p.m. ET games
Oakland at Kansas City: It’s Brady Quinn! It’s Carson Palmer! It’s ... oh, it's hard to even feign enthusiasm for this one. What a dud of a game. Anytime I can pick Scott Pioli and Quinn to win a game and not second-guess myself 10 times, I’ve got to. The opportunities are too rare not to jump on them when they arise. Give me Kansas City.
The Pick: Chiefs 27, Raiders 16
NY Giants at Dallas: Eli Manning has never lost a game in Jerry's World and I don’t see that changing here. Dallas won ugly against a bad Panthers defense in Week 7. The offense looked out of sync for much of the game. That won’t fly against the Giants. Justin Tuck recorded his first sack of the season last week and JPP broke out the Gangnam Style dance a few weeks after it came and went from the national conversation. Celebration dances aside, the Giants get to Tony Romo early and Eli takes care of business late. Nothing new there.
The Pick: Giants 31, Cowboys 27
New Orleans at Denver: Remember the 0-4 Saints? Well, New Orleans is now 2-4, with back-to-back wins, and Drew Brees looks like the Drew Brees of old. He got the best of Manning in a shocking upset a few years back in a Super Bowl. I’m still not convinced this Broncos defensive backfield has the goods to stop an elite passing offense. Hey, the Saints D is an eyesore. I know that. But I like the NFC over the AFC in yet another conference vs. conference clash.
The Pick: Saints 38, Broncos 31
San Francisco at Arizona: The Cardinals were a nice September story, but the Levi Brown, Beanie Wells and Kevin Kolb injuries were simply too much for this team to overcome. It’s a shame, too. The Cardinals drafted a wide receiver in the first round in Michael Floyd, they’re paying Larry Fitzgerald NFL-record money to play wide receiver and the defense is among one of the best in the entire league. It’s all for naught. This team can’t beat the 49ers with the offense it will be trotting out there on Monday night.
The Pick: 49ers 26, Cardinals 12
Reader Email of the Week
What exactly is Tim Tebow’s role on the Jets and when will it be clearly defined? We keep waiting and waiting down in Gainesville. It’s incredibly frustrating for Gator Nation.
--Chris, Gainesville, Florida
If I were you, I’d savor your No. 2 Florida Gators and stop losing sleep over what Tebow’s role is up here in New York. The answer to your question? Tebow’s already fulfilled his intended role with the Jets. His signing brought a lot of buzz in March, some back page coverage in the New York Post this summer and an ESPN presence for a week up at training camp in Cortland, NY. That’s why he was brought in by Woody Johnson, Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan. This grandiose vision of Tebow leading the Jets downfield in the fourth quarter of a game that matters in January? I just don’t see it happening. A little punt protection here, a second-down QB sneak there — that’s Tebow’s role. But he’s already gone above and beyond his expected duties as a Jet.
Oh, and by the way ...
1. There may be no sadder fate than being a single guy going to an Alicia Keys concert. Alone. On credit card rewards points. I feel for that dude in that commercial, regardless of how “on fire” that song she’s singing is.
2. Before you blame Newton’s “maturity” and postgame demeanor for Hurney’s firing, take a look at the job the coaching staff in Carolina has done this season. It had a bye week to prepare for the Cowboys and came out of the gates with the same exact bizarre, read-option offensive gameplan that’s come up short all season long. DeAngelo Williams had two carries for 4 yards on Sunday. Two carries!
3. At one point last Sunday afternoon, Palmer was going head-to-head against Chad Henne in Oakland and Sanchez was duking it out with Brady in New England. USC vs. Michigan, squared. Pretty cool. Even more interesting is the fact that USC and Michigan are two of just three schools with more than one starting quarterback in the NFL this season. The third? Boston College with Hasselbeck (Tennessee) and Ryan (Atlanta).
4. I’d love to get one of the CNN “body language” experts from the Presidential debates to analyze Jay Cutler. They’d be horrified. I’d then say, “5 and 1!” and drop the microphone.
5. Three new albums I’m into that you may want purchase: Passion Pit’s “Gossamer,” Miguel’s “Kaleidoscope Dream” and The Killers’ “Battle Born.” You’re not sure to trust my musical tastes. Don’t worry. It’s OK. I promise. For example, I’m listening to the Steely Dan Pandora station as I write this column. What could go wrong?
WEEK 8 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER
Current Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett served as Aikman’s backup on not only the Super Bowl XVIII squad, but also the Barry Switzer-coached Super Bowl XXX squad. Current Chargers head coach Norv Turner was Aikman’s offensive coordinator for his first two Super Bowl rings.