1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0)
Atlanta is the 25th team to start 8-0 since 1940. Matt Ryan has led four game-winning drives, including two which started in the final minute of the fourth quarter (Carolina, Oakland). His 20 game-winning drives are the most through a player’s first five seasons in NFL history.
Rob Carr / Getty Images
The Falcons has been a great team at closing under Mike Smith. They have only allowed three fourth-quarter comebacks since 2008. With Julio Jones in his second season, it gives Ryan a third great option with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez to raise his game to a next level as he is a strong MVP candidate. The defense is not a shutdown unit, but they limit points (No. 5) and make big plays (17 takeaways).
Can they go 16-0? The Saints are always tough for Atlanta, and hosting the Giants (Week 15) will be a challenge. Other than that, it is very possible. But ultimately this team will be judged on the postseason, where they are 0-3 in this era. Still, they are doing all they can right now to best position themselves for that deep run. It is easy to see this is the best team Smith has had yet, and they will become a bigger story the longer they stay undefeated.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)
After a 10-game losing streak to end 2011, this was supposed to be a rebound year for Josh Freeman and the young Buccaneers in Greg Schiano’s NFL debut as coach. They ended the losing streak right away, but after allowing 510 yards to Eli Manning in a loss in Week 2, the Buccaneers were known for their aggressive defense on a kneel down at the end of the game. That started a three-game losing streak, making the Bucs afterthoughts.
Chris O'meara / AP
But they have won three of four, Freeman has 11 touchdowns to one interception, and rookie Doug Martin has just gained 486 yards from scrimmage the last two weeks, setting a rookie record. The offense actually ranks fourth in the league in scoring as Vincent Jackson has been a big help to Freeman. They need to pick up the pace for the defense, who at least does have 17 takeaways.
Tampa Bay’s an interesting 4-4 team, but let’s keep in mind their best win was at Minnesota in Week 8. Can they beat a San Diego, Atlanta (twice), Denver, or split with the Saints? We will find out, because those games are coming up.
3. New Orleans Saints (3-5)
Of all the teams with a losing record right now, the Saints are the one you would pick as the most likely to make a run for the playoffs. That is largely due to having Drew Brees, one of the best quarterbacks. That was the same reason the Saints were expected to make the playoffs regardless of Sean Payton’s suspension for Bountygate, but things did not start well.
Sean Gardner / Reuters
Brees still put up numbers, though he makes more mistakes than usual without his brain-trust around. The defense is the only in NFL history to allow over 420 yards in all eight games to start a season. Holding Philadelphia to 13 points was big, as it was the first time all season someone scored fewer than 24 against New Orleans.
With Brees and all of his talented skill players, Joe Vitt being an improvement over Aaron Kromer as interim coach, the Saints may still have a shot at doing something this season. Two games against undefeated Atlanta, who they always play well, will really be the test as the Saints cannot afford any more than two losses the rest of the season. They also host San Francisco, who ended their season in the playoffs.
4. Carolina Panthers (2-6)
While everyone points to a sophomore slump for Cam Newton, the truth is his play this season has been a lot like his rookie season. The perception for how good he was last year was overblown, and more of the reality is coming out this year as Carolina continues to lose under Newton and coach Ron Rivera.
John Gress / Getty Images
The big difference for Carolina has been a lack of scoring this season, as the offense has actually fallen behind the defense. But whether it is 31-27 or 13-9 late in the game, the offense’s task is the same. Carolina’s problem is they fail to finish the close games at a historic level.
Newton is 1-13 (.071) in games where he has the ball in the fourth quarter and the game is tied or Carolina trails by 1-8 points. That’s the worst observed record in NFL history (min. 12 games). They have lost 11 straight such games, and it’s always something that comes up and bites them in the end.
Newton has said he’s tired of the same script, but all Carolina can do is start blowing teams out, which they just are not talented enough to do on a consistent basis. They have to learn how to close first, then the wins will start coming.
1. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
With expectations of a Super Bowl, the 49ers are right about on track with a 6-2 record. But are they really better than last season’s team?
Brian Bahr / Getty Images
Alex Smith, for the most part, is having a better season with some contributions from new additions Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. The running game is the league's best; ranked first in yards and yards per carry. The defense is still great (league-best 12.9 points per game).
But the 49ers have had their two worst performances of the Jim Harbaugh era with a 24-13 loss in Minnesota, and a stunning 26-3 defeat at home against the Giants. Last season the 49ers had a lead or tie in the fourth quarter of all 18 games they played. This season they have either led considerably or trailed by two scores in the fourth quarter.
Their two remaining big tests in the regular season will be Chicago (Week 11) and at New England (Week 15). Those games must go better than the loss to New York should the 49ers be considered a serious Super Bowl contender.
2. Seattle Seahawks (5-4)
Pete Carroll’s bunch may be young and cocky, but they back it up with sound play on both sides of the ball. The offense has been a bit vanilla with Russell Wilson, but the rookie has been a good vertical passer and already has 13 touchdown passes, including two game-winning drives.
Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images
Marshawn Lynch is having the best season of his career with 881 rushing yards. Seattle runs the ball on 53.8 percent of their plays. The young secondary is most impressive with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner all drawing attention this season. Seattle is 4-0 at home, but just 1-4 on the road, including three losses in close games in the division.
They can make the playoffs just by protecting home-field, but they need to prove they can win road games before buying into this team.
3. Arizona Cardinals (4-5)
Was this team really 4-0 at one point? Whether it is Kevin Kolb or John Skelton at quarterback (both have been injured), the results are pretty much the same: sacks, sacks, and more sacks. The two have already gone down 39 times in half a season. Arizona boasts the worst offensive line and running offense in the game, so it’s a bad recipe for the quarterbacks to drop back so often, but that is the offense Ken Whisenhunt runs.
Peter Aiken / Getty Images
Going back to last year the team had been on an improbable run of late-game wins, but while that continued early into this season, the last three weeks have not been close enough late in the game for Arizona to pull off an upset. Andre Roberts has shined alongside Larry Fitzgerald this season, but so often we are used to seeing the Arizona quarterbacks on their back before they can get the ball to their playmakers. The schedule consists of several stingy defenses too, so things are not likely to get better any time soon.
4. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
When the Rams beat Arizona to move to 3-2, it ended a 71-month streak of not being over .500. But since that point, the team has lost three straight, including blowouts at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady destroying the under-matched defense. The addition of Cortland Finnegan can only do so much, and rookie Janoris Jenkins has been struggling.
David Welker / Getty Images
Sam Bradford continues to underwhelm, but it has been an improvement over a dreadful 2011. He has been missing injured receiver Danny Amendola who was on pace for a great season. The best prospects for the Rams look like a 7-9 season, but this is year one of Jeff Fisher’s plan, though he must realize improvement has to be continuously shown. One thing the Rams love is rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who has made 17 of 20 attempts and shown incredible range from long distance.
Yeah, we end on a kicker, though 2012 has been a historic season for them too. Kickers league-wide have made 86.3 percent of their field goals. The single-season record is 84.5 percent (2008).
That is just one of the many things to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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