Richard Martin

The NFC East Is A Shell Of Its Former Self

Created on Oct. 04, 2013 5:17 AM EST

According to the Book of Jon (Gruden), teams get better or worse, they don’t stay the same. That’s true of divisions as well, and the relative strength of divisions goes a long way toward determining who the wild card teams will be and which games are crucial.

Sure, the season is only four weeks old. But without speculation, what would the legions of NFL fans do between games? Clean the garage? Talk to their wives? I don’t think so.

The most obvious change is that the NFC East appears to be much weaker than it has been. The winner of the division might be 9-7, and it seems unlikely that more than one team from the division will make the playoffs. The poor records mean one thing: A team that’s not doing well now might get hot at the end of the season and snare the crown. The Eagles and Redskins, now 1-3, are not out of it.

The NFC wild cards appear likely to come out of the North or West, or perhaps the South. We know Seattle’s good, but the jury’s still out on the 49ers. The Cards are a bit better than last year but are nothing to write home about, and the Bucs are a bad team. The Rams haven’t shown much so far.

The NFC North’s shaping up as a strong division and a potent argument for the league’s parity. Last year the Packers won the division and the Vikings, 10-6, slipped in as a wild card. The Bears were on the outside looking in at 10-6.

This season the Lions are an improved team, with an explosive offense and a big-play defense. I think they’re for real. That could mean a stiff battle for the division title. The Bears are playing well, and the Packers can score points. It could be a three-team race.

I don’t know how anyone can figure out the Vikings. They are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team. They were 3-13 two years ago and 10-6 last year. They can look great and they can look awful, often in the same game. They still have some hope to be a wild card, but they might finish 4-12, as the Lions did last year.

The Falcons dominated the NFC South a year ago. Now the Saints have come marching into the division race. They looked great in the Monday night win over the Dolphins. Their defense, so awful a year ago, is much better. We already knew Brees & Company could put some points on the board.

What’s surprising is that the rest of that division hasn’t been very good. The Bucs seem to be imploding, and still don’t have a good quarterback. The Falcons might be in the mix for a wild card.

Carolina’s an intriguing team, right up there with Minnesota in unpredictability. Their defense seems better, but it’s tough to make too many conclusions from a win over the Giants. The Panthers-Vikings matchup in two weeks might turn out to be an elimination game. The loser would be in very tough shape for the wild card.

Last year, the AFC West was a weak division, with one strong team, Denver, and three bad ones. That seems like a distant memory. The Chiefs are 4-0 out of the gate, doubling their win total already, and the Chargers are stronger than expected -- Philip Rivers is having a great year. The Raiders are bad, as everyone figured.

The AFC North used to be a strong division, with last year’s Super Bowl winner Ravens and recent champ Steelers. Just about everyone thought the Ravens and Bengals would be contending for the playoffs.

Instead the division is a jumble, with only one certainty. The Steelers are terrible. That loss to Minnesota in London sure felt like an elimination game.

The AFC East, like the West, was a division that appeared mired in misery. The Jets and Bills would be terrible, everyone thought, so the Patriots would walk away with it. Or, some thought, the Dolphins might contend. They just might.

But the Bills and Jets have shown at least some signs of life, though those teams’ fans – never the cheeriest of folks – are probably figuring they’ll both end up disappointing.

That leaves the AFC South. Houston was a popular pick for the Super Bowl, or at least division winner.

Not so fast. The Colts and Titans are both 3-1, with the latter showing huge improvement on defense. This one could get interesting, as the NFC North could. It just might be a three-way race.

I’ve skipped two teams. They’re the league’s only certainties. The Giants and Jaguars are ghastly. At least we know that much about the league.

So what does this all mean about the schedule in the near future?

  • The Packers have a huge home game with the Lions on Sunday. Losing would be brutal for the Pack, whose defense has looked porous.
  • The Texans head to San Francisco in a sort of Disappointment Bowl. Both teams haven’t been as good as advertised. Matt Schaub’s under fire. Both teams are in tough division races and can’t afford to get too far behind.
  • The Saints go to Chicago in a great test for both teams. The Bears could be in first place if they win – the Lions are in Green Bay.
  • The Chiefs go on the road to play the Titans. These are two much-improved teams, but it’s still not clear how good the teams are.
  • As noted, the Carolina-Minnesota game on Oct. 13 might end one team’s reasonable hopes.
  • The Redskins play at Dallas on Oct. 13, which might give Washington a chance to get back into the race. Oh, and take another look at the schedule: The Eagles have a schedule that’s as hard as melted butter, facing the Giants, Bucs, Cowboys and Giants. The NFC East might get tight.
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