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Now we know: Brady's injury left the NFL without a clear best team

Heading into the NFL's Week 7, we hold these truths to be self-evident:

• From a competitive standpoint, I'm here to make the case there has never been an NFL injury that had as much league-wide impact as Tom Brady's knee injury has had this season. That's right, never.

It's not an overstatement to say New England's loss of Brady in the first quarter of its opener has gone a long way toward reshaping the landscape of the NFL standings, giving a wide-open feel to the AFC for the first time in several years.

The ramifications of no No. 12 have been remarkable and become more apparent by the week. Like or loathe them, Super Bowl upset loss to the Giants or not, the Patriots with Brady were the team that the rest of the NFL measured itself against, and also the team that started this season with the best shot of playing for another title in Tampa on Feb. 1. But with the Brady-less Patriots (3-2) transformed into just another good, but far from dominant team, it feels as if almost anyone can dare dream of Super Bowl XLIII.

As the Browns showed us once again Monday night with their 35-14 shellacking of the previously undefeated and defending-champion Giants, there are no great teams in the NFL this year. Just a bunch of hungry contenders, knocking each other off and vying for the crown.

That's how you get a week like Week 6, where the winless Rams can go to Washington and beat a Redskins team that had all kinds of mojo going for itself; the Cardinals can hold off a Cowboys team that once owned them; the Jaguars can go into Mile High and bring the Broncos down to earth and the once-lowly Falcons can deflate a Bears team that was starting to grow a little 2006-like confidence in itself.

In the AFC, nine of 16 teams enter Week 7 with at least three wins and a record of .500 or better, and you can imagine just about all of them going to the playoffs and making some noise. Tennessee (5-0) is the only unbeaten remaining in the league, but there's no real favorite in a conference that has been dominated by the Patriots since 2003. Buffalo leads the AFC East at 4-1, and looks legit, but New England and the Brett Favre-led Jets are within striking distance at 3-2.

In the AFC South, the 3-2 Colts just might have salvaged their season with that home win against Baltimore, and Jacksonville's upset at Denver was critical in getting the 3-3 Jaguars back to .500 and within range of the first-place Titans. In the AFC North, Pittsburgh is comfortably ahead at 4-1, but has injury issues galore and an offensive line that remains its Achilles heel. And while Baltimore fades back to the pack at 2-3, losing three straight, we now can't completely disregard suddenly dangerous Cleveland (2-3), back from dead and winners of two in a row.

In the AFC West, Denver (4-2) is taking on water with two losses in the past three weeks, while San Diego's 30-10 humbling of the Patriots on Sunday night showed the rest of the league just how less-than-invincible New England can look when it's Matt Cassel instead of Brady pulling the trigger.

As for the NFC, two whole divisions are at .500 or better -- the NFC East and NFC South -- and 12 of 16 teams have won at least half their games. But is there really a dominant team? It doesn't feel like it. The Giants (4-1), Cowboys and Redskins (both 4-2) all lost in Week 6, taking some of the luster off the rugged NFC East, and Carolina on Sunday refused to create any sort of separation between itself and Tampa Bay (both 4-2) in the jumble that is the NFC South.

In the NFC North, Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota (all are 3-3) look like they're waging a contest in mediocrity, and while first-place Arizona is a solid 4-2 in the NFC West, it's still the same old can't-stand-prosperity Cardinals when you scrape off that first layer of paint. The bottom line in the NFC? Almost everybody's still in the Super Bowl chase, and without New England in the role of the Beast in the East, there's no AFC superpower to fear once February is here.

That's what Bernard Pollard wrought when he slammed into Brady's left knee early on the afternoon of Sept. 7, an NFL season devoid of a starting point to navigate from. The vaunted Patriots had provided us with a compass of sorts, but now they're searching for their way like everyone else. Maybe it'll be more fun like this, and maybe it won't. But without Tom Brady around, it's certainly different.

• I never thought I'd be saying this, but it's the offense that's the problem in Cincinnati, not the defense. The Bengals offense ranks last in the NFL in yards (227.8), 31st in rushing (72.2) and 30th in points (14.8). Cincinnati wasn't even getting it done when Carson Palmer was playing quarterback, but without him in the lineup, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co. are downright anemic.

By comparison, the long-maligned Bengals defense has been doing more than its share of the heavy lifting. In Cincinnati's 26-14 loss at the Jets on Sunday, which dropped it to 0-6, New York totaled just 252 yards of offense, and the Bengals twice picked off Brett Favre inside the 10-yard line.

Despite being forced to defend short fields for much of the game, Cincinnati's defense stood up to the test fairly well, limiting Favre to just 189 yards passing. The Bengals defense even scored half of Cincinnati's points when Antwan Odom sacked Favre and forced a fumble that safety Chinedum Ndukwe returned 15 yards for a touchdown just 1:24 into the game.

On the season, the Bengals rank a respectable 16th in yards allowed (324.2), and are an impressive fourth against the pass (167.3). One of the Bengals defenders who has been performing impressively is middle linebacker Dhani Jones, whose leadership and intelligence have been valuable additions for a unit that has plagued Marvin Lewis's team.

Now about that offense, Marvin.....

• The Cowboys offense won't look the same with Brad Johnson at quarterback, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Johnson's 40-year old throwing arm won't be confused with Tony Romo's down-the-field gun, but Johnson will be accurate with the ball and he knows how to execute a game plan and take what a defense gives him.

Dallas offense won't be as explosive under Johnson, but it will be more efficient. Johnson will get the ball to No. 1 receiver Terrell Owens, but it may be with shorter to intermediate passes that allow Owens to produce yardage after the catch. If the Cowboys offensive line can protect Johnson -- who excels at getting rid of the ball quickly and avoiding pressure -- the Dallas passing game won't be its weak link in the three games that Johnson figures to start: at St. Louis, Tampa Bay and at the Giants.

Andre Johnson is a great NFL receiver, but that fact gets hidden by the Texans' struggling passing game. Houston's No. 1 receiver deserves more acclaim than he gets, and if he were playing for a better team and with a more consistent quarterback than Matt Schaub, he'd already be considered among the league's elite pass-catchers.

Johnson's 10-catch, 178-yard performance Sunday against Miami was no aberration. His 178 yards set a franchise receiving record, but it was his highlight-reel 23-yard catch on 4th and 10 during Houston's game-winning last-minute touchdown drive that best showed his skill level. Johnson made the catch despite being blanketed by a pair of Dolphins defenders, single-handedly keeping the Texans' drive -- and maybe their season -- alive.

• Despite playing in the NFL's weakest division, the 49ers still aren't close to being a success in the Mike Nolan coaching era. Up 26-17 entering the fourth quarter at home against the Eagles on Sunday, the 49ers were 15 minutes away from a significant win and getting their record back to .500 at 3-3. They didn't just fail, they failed spectacularly, allowing Philadelphia to outscore them 23-0 in the final quarter, perhaps sending the season spiraling down the drain in San Francisco.

Nolan received the reprieve of a fourth year on the job from 49ers management last offseason, but so far he and his team are not making the most of the opportunity. San Francisco is 2-4, two games behind first-place Arizona in the NFC West, and Nolan's 54-game record with the team is now 18-36, a dismal .333 winning percentage. Even more concerning, the 49ers still exhibit the same lack of direction and discipline that has marked Nolan's tenure.

• The NFL's four new head coaches were all the right hires for their teams. Despite Sunday's upset loss to the Rams, Washington's 4-2 start has been a credit to the energy, intelligence and coaching adaptability to Jim Zorn. Mike Smith has pushed all the right buttons thus far in Atlanta (4-2) and has handled playing with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan superbly. Miami's Tony Sparano has the Dolphins (2-3) playing hard and smart, and the team's innovative "Wildcat'' formation is one of the top trends in the league this season. And in Baltimore, John Harbaugh's Ravens have been more than competitive at 2-3 while he instills more discipline and accountability into his veteran team.

• The Cardinals defensive line is becoming one of the game's best. That red-clad group that pummeled Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo for much of Sunday afternoon, breaking the pinkie finger on his throwing hand in the process, is for real.

Arizona sacked Romo three times, causing him to fumble twice, and harassed him repeatedly in its 30-24 overtime win. The Cardinals are now tied for second in the league with 18 sacks, just three behind Philadelphia's league-leading 21. Arizona's defense has also forced a league-best nine fumbles, recovering eight (also tops in the NFL).

The Cardinals are getting strong seasons out of defensive end Travis LaBoy (four sacks), extra pass rusher Bertrand Berry (four sacks), as well as tackle Darnell Dockett (two sacks). Defensive end Antonio Smith and tackle Bryan Robinson have also contributed, giving Arizona the deepest, and most talented defensive line it has had in many years. What the Cardinals were able to do against the Cowboys' supposedly stellar offensive line could be just a preview of bigger things to come.

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