August 20, 2011
The pretenders are National Football League franchises that are extremely talented, but have shown significant flaws, whether structural or mental. They are the National Football League franchises that “savvy” football analysts will pick to win a championship, who will not compete for even a conference title.
The Dallas Cowboys have enough physical ability to win a Super Bowl. On paper, they have a good (though overrated) quarterback, an excellent receiving core, a formidable running game, and good defense and special teams. Tony Romo, when healthy, is among the top fifteen quarterbacks in almost every passing category. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant could be the best 1-2 combo of wide receivers in the country, and Bryant was also one of the top kick returners last year. Demarcus Ware is a sack machine every year, and Dallas continues to draft and trade for good defensive players. However, this is a team that has won one playoff game in the last 4 years. The same nucleus quit on Wade Phillips, their ex-head coach, last year. They are not mentally tough enough to win a Super Bowl.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are Hall of Fame players. They are two of the most intimidating players in the NFL. In fact, in a survey of the best players in the 2010-11 season by NFL players, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were ranked 4th and 5th, respectively. But, they are getting older. Though Reed was spectacular in the games that he played, he has missed quite a few games over the last few seasons. The Ravens can not make a deep playoff run without him. And, how long before Ray Lewis finally begins to decline? This will be year 16 for him. Ray Rice is a great running back, but the offense is dependent on Joey Flacco, who has been inconsistent for his entire career. The Ravens have issues with their quarterback and with Father Time. And despite being a good defense and having a number of tough players, like Lewis, Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens defense is not nearly as stout as their reputation.
San Diego Chargers
San Diego has been in “contention” for a Super Bowl for the last six years. When they had Ladainian Tomlinson, they were easily the most physically gifted squad in the NFL. Without him, they are still a high-powered offense, led by one of the best quarterbacks in the league over the last three years. Antonio Gates is the best tight end in the NFL by far, and Vincent Jackson is one of the best wide receivers. But, they no longer have a premier running back, and their defense is almost as porous as their offense is exciting. The playoffs are possible for San Diego, but not much else.
New York Jets
The Jets have the best cornerback tandem in the league with Darrel Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Had they landed Nnamdi Asomugha, they would have had the best two corners in the league. New York blitzes on 56% of their plays which is the highest average in the league. With Asomugha, they could have blitzed on every play. Cromartie is a phenomenal athlete, but just a good corner. He occasionally gets beat on double moves and is learning bump and run coverage. And, Mark Sanchez, the Jets’ quarterback has been wildly inconsistent and has no real impact on the game. He is asked to minimize turnovers instead of make plays. In every playoff game, there are a few plays where a quarterback has to improvise and make a perfect throw. No one is sure that Sanchez can do that. With a historically good defense, a team can win without a good quarterback. The New York Jets defense is good, but not historically good.
The contenders are the NFL franchises with no obvious flaws that are supremely talented. They are strong on both sides of the football and have a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl if things fall into place.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, Tom Brady. They traded for Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson, so they now have at least one good wide receiver, and they traded for possibly the most disruptive force in the NFL, Albert Haynesworth. Chad Johnson should help Brady stretch the field, and make Wes Welker a formidable threat underneath. However, Johnson never had elite speed and is beginning to show his age. Haynesworth is a head case. He is capable of dominating at the point of attack in the same way that Reggie White did, but he only showed that drive in his last contract year. If he plays well, Haynesworth would give New England the one thing that their defense has been missing for the last few years, a pass rush. Luckily for the Pats, this year is as close to a contract year for him as possible. If he misbehaves or underperforms and is cut, he will be out of the NFL.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the stiffest defenses in the National Football League. They have the best and the toughest linebacking corp in the NFL, a big, stout defensive line, and the most versatile safety in football. The Steeler defense regularly dictates what an offense can and cannot do. And, on offense they have one of the best quarterbacks in the league and one of the most consistent wide outs over the last ten years in “Big” Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward. Despite being regarded as a tough, stingy defense, their corners relinquish points against good offenses. There is always the chance that Troy Polamalu, their all-world safety, will erase the corners’ mistakes, but there is also the chance that he will guess wrong or get hurt.
The Philadelphia Eagles are quickly stockpiling talent. They snuck in and landed the free agent acquisition of the offseason, Nnamdi Asomugha. With Asomugha and Asante Samuel, the Eagles boast a cornerback tandem that rivals the New York Jets. They have young and promising linebackers with the newly acquired Jason Babin and Casey Matthews, and a big, active defensive line. They also have the most dynamic quarterback in the NFL. Michael Vick was the most dynamic player in the league last year, and he lead the most explosive offensive in the NFL. With Vick, Desean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy, the Eagles had the fastest offense in the league by far. Philadelphia added the possession receiver that Vick needed this offseason in Steve Smith. If Smith returns from surgery healthy, he could stabilize the Eagles offense and push Vick and the fortified defense to a Super Bowl.
Green Bay Packers
It does not happen very often that a NFL franchise gets better by doing absolutely nothing. This year, the Green bay Packers are adding talent without having to spend any extra money by simply getting healthy. Last year, their starting running back, Ryan Grant was injured for most of the year. The Pack won the Super Bowl without him. With the emergence of an unheralded rookie running back, James Starks, the Packers surged through the playoffs. Oh, and there was that Rodgers guy. Aaron Rodgers is one of four quarterbacks in the league that makes his teammates better on every play. Though he does have one great wide receiver in Greg Jennings, he completes passes to everyone and anyone on the team that gets open. Since anyone is a threat to catch the football on any given play, the Green Bay offense is completely unpredictable. If you add the hundreds of formations that the Packers line up in, then they can not be stopped on the offensive side of the ball. Their defense returns all the key players from last season and that defense lead the league in turnovers. Charles Woodson is a ball hawk and Clay Matthews, Jr. is a sack machine. Everything is in place for the NFL’s first repeat champion since the Denver Broncos.