Bye week not always a blessing

Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington all had byes in Week-5. The four teams that didn’t play this weekend have a combined 2-14 record, but the week off may have been just what the doctor ordered and not only for the obvious reasons.

Yes, Minnesota took the weekend to evaluate their quarterback play and then make a run for Josh Freeman — who they successfully signed late Sunday night. Yes, the Steelers got back to basics and redeveloped a defensive strategy that will positively impact their turnover margin. As it stands, the Steelers are just the second team in NFL history to complete their first four games without forcing a single turnover.

Yes, the Buccaneers, and specifically Greg Schiano, took the extra time to reestablish the player/coach relationship and limit the collateral damage from the falling out with Freeman. And yes, the Redskins looked for ways to improve a defense that is giving up 440.5 yards per game and nearly 300 of them through the air. And RG3 has another week to gain the strength and confidence back in his surgically repaired knee.

Besides the obvious, those aren’t the only benefit from this weekend. For two of the four teams, they actually gained ground (by not losing any) in their respective divisional races.

In the case of the Vikings, the division-leading Lions and Bears both lost. The Lions to the Packers, who entered the weekend with the same 1-3 record as the Vikings and the Bears lost to the Saints. The Vikings, while not even suiting up for a game, didn’t lose any ground in the NFC North and with just a two-game gap between last and first, it would be foolish to count anyone out of this race, no matter what the historical percentages suggest.

The NFC East shapes up similarly for the Redskins. The division-leading Cowboys entered the weekend with a .500 record at 2-2 and lost to the undefeated Denver Broncos. The Eagles beat the Giants, escaping what could have been a three-way tie for worst in the division to instead tie the Cowboys with a 2-3 record. The Redskins remain just a single game back and can simply even the score with a win during the Cowboys’ (11) and Eagles’ (12) bye weeks.

As I have written in the past, the outlook for 1-3 teams like the Vikings and the Redskins has historically been unfavorable at just a 13.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. But these two teams are far from eliminated. In the case of the NFC East, the Eagles entered with the same 1-3 record and same 13.9 percent chance of making the playoffs; now they sit atop the division just one game later.

The two teams that entered their bye weeks a combined 0-8, the Buccaneers and Steelers, weren’t as lucky.

The NFC South remains top-heavy after Week 5 with the Saints continuing to further the gap as they are now just one of three undefeated teams left in the NFL. The Panthers lost to the Cardinals on Sunday and are just 1-4 on the season, and the 1-3 Falcons, the preseason favorite to win the division, will play tonight against the Jets.

I think it is safe to say that the Buccaneers are no longer chasing the Saints for the division title, but when you look across the board at how bad the NFC has played as a whole this season, you can’t completely stick the fork in them just yet. It’s very close, but not quite yet.

As for the Steelers, every team in the AFC North won this weekend and each pushed above .500 on the season. The Browns beat the Bills on Thursday to maintain the division lead for two days before the Bengals beat the Patriots and the Ravens beat the Dolphins to join them at 3-2 after Sunday. Yes, the Steelers have a three-game deficit to the division-leading Cleveland Browns. When is the last time you have heard or read that sentence?

Bye weeks can rejuvenate a team with rest, can refocus a team that lost its way, can provide the added time for a team to get healthy, can offer a coach the opportunity to present new challenges and goals, and in the case of the Vikings and Redskins, it can reenergize a team that was left for dead after the first four games and show them the light at the end of the tunnel.

Or in the case of the Steelers and maybe even the Buccaneers, it can suck the final wind from your sails as you watch the division get further and further from your reach.