Summary: If the Cowboys miss the playoffs, squandering second-half leads against the New York Jets, Detroit and New England will be the main reason why.
MVP: With 12 sacks already, LB DeMarcus Ware and Minnesota DE Jared Allen (12.5) are legitimate candidates to break Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record of 22.5.
Biggest disappointment: The valiant performance that QB Tony Romo had while leading Dallas to victory with a punctured lung and injured rib in Week 2 against San Francisco doesn’t supersede another round of boneheaded plays that cost the Cowboys wins against the Jets and Lions.
Outlook: The inconsistent Cowboys have all the earmarks of an 8-8 team.
Summary: One of the NFL’s most hyped clubs entering the season is the most disappointing. The Eagles have failed to fulfill their self-billing as the “Dream Team” because of up-and-down offensive play and a defense that looks out of sorts under embattled first-year coordinator Juan Castillo.
MVP: LeSean McCoy is on pace to become the most prolific Eagles rusher in Andy Reid’s 13 seasons as head coach. McCoy leads the NFL with 825 yards and nine rushing touchdowns along with 28 catches for another 184 yards and two scores.
Biggest disappointment: The signing of free-agent CB Nnamdi Asomugha was supposed to give Philadelphia the NFL’s best secondary. Asomugha, though, has become mortal while being used in more zone coverage than he played in Oakland. Asomugha also committed a key pass interference penalty on what proved the game-winning drive in Monday night’s 30-24 loss to Chicago.
Outlook: Reid has weathered the storm in a tough sports town like Philadelphia before. But the 2011 campaign has the makings of a hurricane if the Eagles don’t quickly get their act together.
Summary: Washington’s 3-1 start seems like a lifetime ago.
MVP: Father Time has nothing on LB London Fletcher. The 36-year-old remains on pace for a 13th consecutive season with at least 110 tackles. He also is the leader of a defense that has shown considerable improvement from last season’s No. 31 NFL ranking.
Biggest disappointment: The quarterbacks. It’s not just the poor play of John Beck and Rex Grossman that’s so disturbing. It’s also the logic-defying preseason talent assessment made by the Shanahans (head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle) that one of these retreads would be good enough to succeed when both flopped elsewhere.
Outlook: With the mess at quarterback and injuries across the board on offense, the Redskins are likely destined for a fourth straight season in the NFC East basement. The status quo isn’t what team owner Dan Snyder thought he’d be getting when courting Shanahan to run his franchise.
New York Giants (6-2)
Summary: A preseason of gloom and doom for various reasons — DE Osi Umenyiora’s contract dispute, injuries and the second-guessing of personnel decisions — didn’t derail a team that now enjoys a two-game NFC East lead.
MVP: Eli Manning claimed he was an elite quarterback in the preseason and has backed his words. Manning’s clutch fourth-quarter play throughout the entire season was highlighted by New York’s late comeback victory last Sunday against New England.
Biggest disappointment: The Giants are averaging 88.8 rushing yards a game. That puts New York on pace for its lowest mark since 1953.
Outlook: With a fierce pass rush and Manning performing at a high level, New York has some of the earmarks of the 2007 team that won Super Bowl XLII. The Giants, though, must avoid the late-season slide that ruined the club’s championship aspirations the past three seasons. New York is 6-9 in December and January games during that span.
Summary: The Vikings were already out of playoff contention after an 0-4 start marked by second-half collapses in the first three games.
MVP: DE Jared Allen has regained the form that made him one of the NFL’s top pass rushers. Allen’s 12.5 sacks already are just shy of the career-high 15.5 he posted with Kansas City in 2007.
Biggest disappointment: QB Donovan McNabb has truly hit rock bottom. After flopping last season in Washington, McNabb was replaced by rookie Christian Ponder after six unimpressive Vikings starts. McNabb, who turns 35 later this month, won’t be back in Minnesota next year.
Outlook: Ponder has given the Vikings hope for the future — even if there are no guarantees the franchise will remain in Minnesota beyond this season.
Summary: The Lions aren’t just for real. They’re becoming bullies with a roughhouse style that even extends to head coach Jim Schwartz, who got into an altercation with San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh after a Week 6 matchup.
MVP: WR Calvin Johnson is the NFL’s most dominant wide receiver. “Megatron” is the only wideout with double-digit touchdown catches (11). The next closest contenders have six scores each.
Biggest disappointment: Detroit’s rushing attack is only generating 95.2 yards a game. The outlook remains bleak unless RB Jahvid Best can return from his latest concussion.
Outlook: Detroit can further distance itself from Chicago (5-3) with a win next Sunday at Soldier Field. But unless the Lions can make up ground in two upcoming games against Green Bay (8-0), a wild-card spot seems likely even if the Lions could finish with more wins than some NFC division champions.
Summary: Bears head coach Lovie Smith bemoaned a lack of public respect toward his team following Monday night’s upset victory over Philadelphia. The Bears are beginning to earn some with three consecutive victories.
MVP: No player in the NFL is producing a higher percentage of his team’s offense than RB Matt Forte. Forte, though, is being grossly underpaid at $600,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. He also faces being designated Chicago’s franchise player in 2012 if a long-term extension can’t be reached. This has created an ugly situation with both sides claiming the other is at fault for not getting a deal done.
Biggest disappointment: Offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s lousy game plans and shoddy blocking by Chicago’s offensive line in losses to New Orleans, Green Bay and Detroit.
Outlook: Although it’s only Week 10, Sunday’s home game against the Lions (6-2) is taking on a must-win feel with how the NFC North is unfolding.
Green Bay (8-0)
Summary: So much for a Super Bowl hangover. Only two other defending champions (the 1990 San Francisco 49ers and 1998 Denver Broncos) have jumped to an 8-0 record.
MVP: With 24 touchdowns, three interceptions, 2,619 passing yards and a 72.5 completion percentage, no quarterback in NFL history has enjoyed a better first half of the season than Aaron Rodgers.
Biggest disappointment: At some point, the Packers may engage in an offensive shootout they can’t win because of a suspect pass defense. Green Bay ranks 31st in that category and No. 17 in sacks, which is surprising considering how much heat the Packers were generating during last year’s Super Bowl run.
Outlook: Unless an opposing defense figures out how to slow Rodgers and Co., the Packers are likely headed toward their first back-to-back NFL titles since winning Super Bowls I and II.
New Orleans (6-3)
Summary: The Saints have been brilliant (a 62-7 rout of Indianapolis), awful (a 31-21 loss to previously winless St. Louis the following week) and everywhere in between.
MVP: Three years ago, QB Drew Brees fell just 16 yards shy of breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing record. With 3,004 yards already this season, Brees is 19 ahead of where he stood at this same point in 2008.
Biggest disappointment: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ units are known for making big plays. But the Saints have generated a mere eight turnovers, which ranks ahead of only Miami (4) and Pittsburgh (4).
Outlook: A playoff berth seems likely provided the Saints can survive a brutal upcoming three-game stretch against Atlanta, the New York Giants and Detroit.
Tampa Bay (4-4)
Summary: The Bucs should feel fortunate to have four wins. All of their victories came by a touchdown or less, which reflects a team that isn’t clicking on all cylinders.
MVP: The fact that one of the top candidates for this honor is punter Michael Koenen — yes, a punter — speaks volumes about how underwhelming Tampa Bay has been.
Biggest disappointment: QB Josh Freeman (eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions) hasn’t taken the step forward that was expected in his third NFL season.
Outlook: Tampa Bay’s flaws, especially a lack of speed at the offensive skill positions, should keep the Bucs stuck as a third-place NFC South finisher for the second straight year. Some of the blame belongs on team management for once again failing to spend much on free-agent roster upgrades.
Summary: After a rough start, the Falcons have regained their offensive identity and won three straight games.
MVP: While the Falcons have upgraded their passing game with the addition of speedy rookie WR Julio Jones, RB Michael Turner remains the key offensive cog. Atlanta is 5-0 in games where Turner has received at least 19 carries.
Biggest disappointment: The Falcons gave free-agent DE Ray Edwards a five-year, $30 million contract with $11 million guaranteed. With only two sacks and 19 tackles, Edwards has done little to dispel the notion that his production in Minnesota was based largely upon the defensive talent around him. Atlanta hopes that Edwards’ output improves as he continues to round into form following offseason knee surgery.
Outlook: The Falcons didn’t have the offensive firepower or a good enough pass defense to upend Green Bay in a Week 5 home loss. Sunday’s home game against New Orleans will show how much progress Atlanta has made since then.
Summary: The Panthers already have doubled their win total from last season, but the record could be even better with five losses coming by seven points or less.
MVP: A lousy preseason, the lack of offseason workouts with the Panthers because of the NFL lockout and having only one season as a Division I starter would be the excuses made if QB Cam Newton didn’t immediately play well. He didn’t need any of them. Newton is en route to the most prolific passing season ever posted by a rookie quarterback.
Biggest disappointment: Rushing offense and defense. Injuries in the front seven have contributed to Carolina’s No. 27 ranking in run defense. The Panthers also are tied for the league lead in most rushing touchdowns allowed with 11. Offensively, RB DeAngelo Williams has become Carolina’s version of Chris Johnson. Signed during the offseason to a five-year, $43 million contract with $21 million guaranteed, Williams has just one 100-yard rushing performance and hasn’t received more than 12 carries in a single game.
Outlook: As long as Newton’s rapid maturation continues and some defensive upgrades are made in the offseason, the Panthers should be a bona fide contender for the NFC South title in 2012.
San Francisco (7-1)
Summary: So much for the theory that first-year NFL head coaches couldn’t succeed because of the NFL lockout. Jim Harbaugh has cemented himself as the frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year honors by instantly revitalizing one of the league’s most moribund franchises.
MVP: QB Alex Smith is the deserving frontrunner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, but it’s RB Frank Gore who provides the big-play element to San Francisco’s offense. Gore is tied for the league-lead in carries of 40-plus yards with three and has busted eight runs of 20-plus yards. He also set a franchise record with his fifth consecutive 100-yard game last Sunday against Washington.
Biggest disappointment: The only disappointment comes from Miami Dolphins fans. They should be crushed that team owner Stephen Ross wasn’t able to convince Harbaugh to replace Tony Sparano as Miami’s head coach last January.
Outlook: It would take an epic collapse for San Francisco to not end an eight-season drought without a playoff appearance.
St. Louis (1-7)
Summary: The consensus pick to win the NFC West following last year’s 7-9 campaign has instead become one of the league’s biggest disappointments.
MVP: RB Steven Jackson carried St. Louis to its only win by bulling for 159 yards and two touchdowns during a Week 8 upset of New Orleans. Jackson’s absence early in the season because of a quadriceps injury helped send the Rams on their slide.
Biggest disappointment: Sam Bradford hasn’t progressed as expected following a standout rookie season, but the bigger problem is the Rams’ porous defense. The unit is ranked last against the run (Dallas rookie RB DeMarco Murray gouged the Rams for 253 yards) and is mediocre against the pass (Joe Flacco threw three first-quarter touchdowns in a 37-7 Baltimore route).
Outlook: Considering the expectations entering the season, new Rams owner Stan Kroenke will likely take a long postseason look at whether a housecleaning is needed with the team’s front office and coaching staff.
Summary: The Cardinals are a shell of the team that reached Super Bowl XLIII just three seasons ago. That isn’t a shock considering the way the Bidwill family operates the franchise.
MVP: With 38 catches, WR Larry Fitzgerald is on pace for his fewest receptions since the 2006 season. Fitzgerald, though, draws so much attention from defenses that it creates opportunities for others like RB Beanie Wells, who is enjoying the most productive season of his three-year NFL career.
Biggest disappointment: Sprained foot and turf toe injuries are the latest hindrance for QB Kevin Kolb. Even when healthy, Kolb had yet to justify the six-year, $65-million contract given to him this offseason when acquired in a trade with Philadelphia. Kolb has shown flashes but just not on a steady enough basis.
Outlook: A rough September and October wasn’t shocking considering the Cardinals’ massive offseason roster changes. The best Arizona can hope for is that the ongoing rebuilding process gives the team hope for 2012.
Summary: No defending division champion has fallen from grace as badly as the Seahawks. The franchise’s decisions at quarterback — Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst? Really? — are especially mind-blowing.
MVP: At 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds, Red Bryant is the NFL’s largest defensive end playing in a 4-3 system. That makes Bryant a headache for opposing offensive coordinators. He has provided stout perimeter run support along with solid pass-rush ability. The Seahawks are second in the NFL in fewest average yards allowed per carry at 3.4.
Biggest disappointment: The Seahawks allowing Matt Hasselbeck to leave via free agency under the belief that Jackson or Whitehurst would be better under center. In their defense, Hasselbeck also might have struggled considering Seattle was installing a new scheme and the rash of injuries that have affected the unit. But a No. 29 offensive ranking is still unacceptable.
Outlook: With a 10-16 record since leaving Southern Cal, Pete Carroll is on the spot to prove he isn’t yet another example of a college head coach who can’t cut it in the NFL.