Mistakes have been made. I am not afraid to admit it.
We have reached the point in the season where organizations are beginning to separate from the pack, and sample size allows for more sweeping analysis to be made. And I can already tell, in several instances, where I whiffed on my appraisal of certain teams from this summer. As I sized up potential playoff teams and broke down divisions, in an attempt to get a bead on what this 2021 NFL season might have in store, I definitely whiffed on a few clubs. For better, or for worse.
I underestimated the Cowboys and Packers. In the case of Dallas, pretty badly. I fell for the okey doke with New England and fancied them a real wild card threat despite the AFC being so loaded. And, with a major mitigating circumstance here, it was folly for me to think that Seattle would be able to compete with the best of the NFC, and that Russell Wilson could be a one-man army again, as, alas, now Wilson won't be in that huddle again until the meaningful part of the Seahawks' season is effectively over. And, shame on me, it's the Cardinals, not the Seahawks, who are flashing as a potential playoff force out of the NFC West.
Craving even more NFL coverage focusing on previews, recaps, news and analysis? Listen below and follow the Pick Six podcast for a daily dose of NFL goodness.
No time for any victory laps here (but the Chargers possibly overtaking the Chiefs, the Dolphins being awful, the Steelers falling from grace, the Rams as top Super Bowl contenders and the Browns being for real all look like sold calls thus far). This is about facing the music and owning up to what I botched. Which I will own, digitally, starting now.
After becoming conditioned to avoid the annual Cowboys hype train, and coming out looker smart for it year after year, it seemed almost rote for me to fade them again in 2021. Dak Prescott hurt again in camp. Aging offensive line dealing with injury issues, again. A defense that hasn't been good in a long, long time. Throw in a Hard Knocks jinx and what I thought would be a ferocious defense in Washington, and I didn't fancy the Cowboys to contend for much even in a watered-down NFC.
Well, how 'bout dem Cowboys, now?
The offensive line has been arguably the best in football. Dak picked up right where he left off and is spreading the ball around to an array of weapons. They have two starting caliber running backs. They can score in a bunch of different ways from anywhere on the field. And, well, they have stars playing like stars on defense. I fancied Micah Parsons for a rookie of the year candidate … but this has exceeded even my expectations. Diggs is a playmaking machine. Randy Gregory is bringing it. Everyone is on the same page and bought in. Epic failure is no longer a hallmark. And the rest of the NFC East is dealing with drama and tumult. The Cowboys are going to bank a bunch of wins. My bad.
This Tom Brady v. Bill Belichick post-divorce thing is one-way traffic. Brady and the Bucs are slaying everything and the rebuilding Patriots were lucky to beat the tanking Texans last week. Could New England get a little better as the season goes on? Sure. Mac Jones is stable enough as a rookie QB. But there isn't much special about this team, nothing comes easy, the offensive line has become a serious concern and they just don't look particularly close to winning anything meaningful to me.
I thought they would be a scary team to face in the wild-card round. But I have a hard time seeing them in the postseason, now, and this feels a lot like last year's 7-9 season to me. Matt Judon can only do so much, the secondary is a mess (could've used Stephon Gilmore last week! Too soon?) and Belichick the GM is doing Belichick the coach no favors. Look, if Jones continues on this arc, then the season is a success in terms of the long-term rebuild, but I thought the program overall would be further along for 2021.
No player has covered up more warts, for a long period of time, than Wilson. And this year it was happening again in the early going. Staccato at best running game with Chris Carson's health an issue. Offensive line is flux and transition and still lacking enough blue chip players. Add in Jamal Adams being a big liability after giving him huge money, and becoming the face of a defense that looks historically bad, and doing so while facing a tough schedule in the NFC West, and the whole thing starts to crumble.
Now, take Wilson out of the mix for the meat of the season, and you run the risk of picking in the top 10. Geno Smith looked sharp in rushed duty after Wilson suffered a serious finger injury last week, but his track record has to give you pause. This was a team already hunting for an identity with a future Hall of Fame QB at the helm. Now? Yikes. No beuno. Let's just say I have some major reservations about this team sniffing the postseason.
The last undefeated team in the NFL. Raise your hand if you called that. I certainly did not. The offense, I bought. Well, Kyler Murray and the ability to make plays, I bought. I was a skeptic about how much off-script improvisation it would require to win games, but the Cardinals have been humming much of the season within the construct of the offensive plan. And new weapons continue to emerge.
But what really made me doubt a breakthrough was the defense. Could they get all of the individual pieces to fit? You could see special traits in many of their emerging players or recent drafts picks, but could they blend that together into a cohesive unit. Did J.J. Watt have much left in the tank? Would they be good enough to compliment the offense?
Um, yeah. So far, they have been very impressive. It doesn't have to be perfect, and they can win shootouts given the talent on the other side of the ball. They just need some splash plays to steal a few possessions, and the ability to change momentum, and there has been plenty of that thus far. I do wonder how some of the older players will hold up, and I am not ready to crown them, but the Cardinals are certainly better than I gave them credit for, and their exciting style of play deserves our attention.