Saints, Chargers are the NFL's two best teams; here's what to make of the other contenders
Assessing the degree of concern for six flawed contenders, from the Rams to the Steelers
At this very moment I believe we could agree on which two teams are the best in the NFL. The Saints are the premier team in the NFC and the Chargers are the most balanced, complete team in the AFC. Doesn't mean they will win the Super Bowl, or even get there, but they are the best teams in football right now.
And while they are both certainly far from infallible – the Saints suddenly can't score in the first half of games and the Chargers have zero playoff pedigree, by and large – they are trending in a much better direction that most of their playoff brethren at this point. They have more going for them – at the quarterback position and on defense – than most of their postseason competition, and they just might be on a collision course for the careers of Drew Brees and Philip Rivers to intersect in a unique fashion once more, only this time with a Lombardi Trophy possibly at stake.
But what do make of the rest of the best (or the best of the rest, depending on your nomenclature)? How would we size up those teams? Because it seems to me that quite a few of the clubs that many in the media and public were clamoring to crown, to one degree or another, in October or November or even early December, are now suddenly sputtering and just might be running out of steam. They may have peaked too soon. They may be settling into a steady and uncomfortable descent.
All of them have some glaring deficiencies that just might bring their seasons to a close much sooner than most would have anticipated just a few short weeks ago, and here is how I would assess their degrees of concern:
Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff is a really nice QB when he has a top-flight run game and Todd Gurley is on the field for literally every snap. And when he has Cooper Kupp moving the chains on third down and when the entirety of the playbook is open to master tactician Sean McVay on drive after drive and when he is able to command the game early. But, well, none of that is really available to him lately and the results have been dire. If I am the Rams, I am giving Gurley a game off in the next two weeks to give him an extended bye – recall how they basically played no starters at all in the preseason – and anything short of that could lead to a one-and-done. It really is that dire if Gurley is anything less than the most dynamic, impactful player on the field for more or less every snap he is on the field.
Kansas City Chiefs
They are damn lucky not to have lost the last two games at home, and their massive issues on defense are being fully exposed now. You can run it on them all day long, control the clock and keep Patrick Mahomes of the field. And, well, when Sammy Watkins is their fourth- or fifth-best option on offense, they are stone-cold assassins. But you take Kareem Hunt out of the mix and Spencer Ware is beat up and the offensive line is beat up and Tyreek Hill is beat up and Travis Kelce is being smothered every play in double and triple coverage, and, well, it might be another sad January for Andy Reid. Add in the fact that they might blow home-field advantage and I would be quite worried about the current state of affairs. Of course, Mahomes is a freak in the best way possible and he can overcome more than almost anyone else in the NFL … but I still can't help but think this dream season comes to an abrupt end.
New England Patriots
We tend to project them into the Super Bowl every year, for good reason, but this team is severely limited now and Tom Brady cannot overcome that anymore. He is human and he is fallible and they are sorely lacking in playmakers and speed and size/speed match-up guys. They will never be as healthy again as they were in Pittsburgh, and still they had to resort to trickeration to move the ball. If anything, I suspect they become a dominant ball-control, run-game team in the playoffs – which their defense desperately needs – and that might keep them from going out early. But they need a bye they probably won't get and I'd start to worry about the brain drain that is likely on the horizon there. The ridiculous institutional genius of Brady and Belichick keep them from being atop this list, but this really does look like the end of the line.
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I don't think this team can play from behind against anyone, and when they face better defenses in the playoffs they might not grab an early lead. Mitchell Trubisky is one guy in the first quarter when he runs a script he has practiced all week – he ranks seventh in the NFL in first-quarter passing, competing 72 percent of his passes for 8.6 yards per attempt with five TDs and one INT for a 112.7 rating – and, well, he is someone very different indeed the rest of the game (when he completes 62 percent of his passes for 7.06 yards per attempt with 18 TDs and 11 INTs and a woeful rating of 88.7). In January, well, let him run into a team that can blitz him into some early mistakes and the Bears have to play from behind. Good luck with that.
This offensive line is no good. It survived for a while and Deshaun Watson has avoided the kill shot that ended his 2017 season up until now, but I don't like at all the way this is trending. There is a blueprint to exploit and, sadly for the Texans, just within their conference the Chiefs and Chargers and Steelers are all equipped to swarm them off the edge with their considerable pass rush. Watson has been getting thumped far too often and the run game is not nearly as robust as it was a month ago. What the Jets did to them last weekend has to be scaring the crap out of the Texans coaching staff. That nine-game win streak is over and they look quite vulnerable right now.
I could still see them in the Super Bowl. Their slump is finally over, Jaylen Samuels looks better than James Conner right now, they are fully healthy on offense and the defense, on any given game day, can bring the thunder on the pass rush. But, well, their once impervious kicker now looks like a train wreck, He is not right mentally or physically, and their postseason could very well end with him crapping out. Once Chris Boswell seemed to have a bead on the weird jet stream within Heinz Field in a way no one else did, but now those days are gone, and every single extra point he attempts is a potential misadventure. If the Steelers go out early, I strongly suspect he has much to do with it.
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