With 32 of the NFL’s 256 regular-season games now in the books, a sizable 12.5 percent chunk of the schedule has already been played. That’s more than enough time to engage in a little exercise we like to call perception versus reality:
• Perception: The Saints’ Super Bowl hopes are doomed at 0-2, since only 12 percent of 0-2 teams rebound to make the playoffs, let alone reach the game so big it requires Roman numerals.
• Reality check: The conventional wisdom goes that New Orleans’ only route to the Super Bowl requires it winning the NFC’s top seed and making sure the road to that game goes through the Superdome. That’s the way the Saints did it in 2009, and with the road issues Sean Payton’s team has, it sounds logical enough. At 0-2, going the necessary 12-4 or 13-3 to claim the top spot is almost already out of the question.
But the No. 1 seed in the NFC by no means guarantees a Super Bowl berth, as the 11-win, No. 2-seeded 49ers of 2012, nine-win, No. 4-seeded Giants of 2011, 10-win No. 6-seeded Packers of 2010, nine-win, No. 4-seeded Cardinals of 2008, and 10-win, No. 5-seeded Giants of 2007 have shown us, repeatedly. So stop with the dubious assumption that it can’t happen again, because the Saints last year proved they can win a single road playoff game (and if they can earn the No. 2 seed, that’s all they would potentially face in terms of road games in January). If they get hot at the right time of the year, of course they have enough talent to run the table and earn a ring. We’ve seen lesser teams do it.
The Saints have lost a pair of road games by a field goal, failing to protect fourth-quarter leads at Atlanta and Cleveland, and their defense so far is not the improved entity we thought we’d see. But all is far from lost. They play home against Minnesota, at Dallas, home against Tampa Bay in the next three weeks, which could easily translate into a 3-2 record as they take their Week 6 bye. Let’s see what the world looks like at that point in New Orleans. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Saints go 8-0 at home, and then win four of their remaining six road games. The only road game they have all season against a 2013 playoff team is at division rival Carolina in Week 9. I’m not remotely ready to bail on my NFC Super Bowl pick with that kind of schedule ahead.
• Perception: The defending AFC North champion Bengals are better than ever at 2-0, with a confident and improved Andy Dalton ready to chuck the training wheels and throw downfield; a deep and dominant defense that has produced six takeaways in two games; and a reliable running game built around the dual talents of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
• Reality check: Cincinnati indeed looks great so far and seems headed for its fourth consecutive playoff berth and fifth in six seasons. But repeat after me: Nothing matters for the Bengals this season but winning in the playoffs. Nothing. January will tell the whole story. Marvin Lewis knows it. Dalton knows it. Bengals fans know it. Lewis is 0-5 in the postseason and has coached one team longer than anyone in NFL history without earning a playoff win. Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs, despite the Bengals now paying him like he’s a proven postseason performer.
As Lewis told me this offseason: “[Dalton] and I both, we know what we’re up against. We’ve set a high standard and now the expectations are to win everything. That’s the good thing. Winning is just not good enough any longer. Winning the division is no longer good enough. The opportunity to win enough to get to the playoffs and become world champions is the goal. Otherwise people will feel this has been a failure.’’
Lewis is correct in his framing of the Bengals’ 2014. So enjoy the regular season in Cincinnati. But everyone knows what’s coming. It’s time for the franchise’s 23-year playoff victory drought to end, or it’s just another failure for the Bengals.
• Perception: The 49ers’ new $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium facility, with its state of the art amenities, will boost San Francisco’s fortunes after the franchise’s years spent in the dump known as Candlestick Park.
• Reality check: San Francisco went 21-4-1 in Candlestick in the past three seasons, including the playoffs, so how much room for improvement is there really? Especially since the 49ers are already 0-1 in their new building, embarrassingly blowing a 17-point lead against Chicago in Sunday night’s grand-opening affair. There have been early issues with some shaky field conditions, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has already weighed in with some disappointment in terms of the lack of crowd noise and energy (maybe everyone was enthralled by the superb Wi-Fi?), and there’s almost always a breaking-in period of adjustment for a team when it comes to a new stadium.
You have to admit, Candlestick had some magic in its history, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to new digs. In recent years, you heard teams like the Bears, Giants, Broncos and Redskins talk about the possible loss of some precious home-field atmosphere and advantage when they abandoned their old homes for new or dramatically renovated environs. It has never really sounded the same on gamedays at new Soldier Field, MetLife Stadium, Sports Authority Field or FedEx Field. And sometimes that does take time to compensate for. It’s a reminder: It’s not as if new is always improved.
• Reality check: Not this year. Running back DeMarco Murray has quickly proven to be the most important player in Dallas this season, and the Cowboys’ win total will have a direct correlation to his success and production. If you’re a Dallas fan, don’t stress about the health of Romo’s back. Be more concerned that Murray stays upright and in the lineup. You’ve seen Romo roll up big numbers and lose, but the Cowboys are now an impressive 12-1 when Murray runs at least 20 times in a game.
With an offensive line that features three first-round draft picks over the span of the past four years, Dallas is built around Murray’s ability to handle a heavy workload and keep the chains moving. The Cowboys ran 43 times for 220 yards in their 26-10 win at Tennessee on Sunday, and that’s a formula that will shorten games and keep Dallas’ undermanned defense off the field as much as possible. Murray had a career-high 29 carries for 167 yards against the Titans, and his 285 yards rushing leads the NFL, with his 51 carries in the first two weeks representing the highest two-game total of his career. Dallas put the Titans away early thanks to Murray, who gained 115 yards on 17 first-half attempts, helping the Cowboys build a 16-0 lead that also represented their final margin of victory.
After the game, Dallas coach Jason Garrett actually called Romo “more of a “complementary player’’ for the Cowboys against Tennessee. In Dallas, as Garrett has well realized, the best shot of winning this season is to keep calling Romo that, and keep calling running plays for Murray.
• Perception: Bitter AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore still make for the best smash-mouth rivalry in the NFL.
• Reality check: Uh, not so much on the smash-mouth front. Did you happen to take in Baltimore's 26-6 throttling of the visiting Steelers last Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium? Every time either team attempted to hit like it was a Steelers-Ravens game of yore, a referee threw a flag for unnecessary roughness, hitting a defenseless receiver or pulling a face mask. Whether it was warranted or not (it usually wasn’t). Alas, the Steelers and Ravens simply can’t play like they used to play. Not in today’s flag-infested NFL.
Two personal foul calls against Pittsburgh early in the third quarter illustrate how much this rivalry has to tame itself down in the current climate. On the first, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was flagged 15 yards for hitting Ravens tight end Owen Daniels in the helmet -- a very dubious call from all appearances. Then, two plays later, in an even more egregious decision, Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell was hit with an unnecessary roughness/defenseless receiver penalty on Baltimore receiver Steve Smith in the end zone.
The contact was solid, but Mitchell led with his shoulder, not his helmet, and replays showed he didn’t hit Smith anywhere near the head, but below the neck. That call gave the Ravens a first down on the Steelers’ 1 and set up Baltimore’s second and most pivotal touchdown, essentially sealing the game at 17-6. Baltimore had its own beef with the refs, drawing a very questionable roughing the passer call on Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who drilled Ben Roethlisberger in the chest on Pittsburgh’s opening drive. That third-down flag kept the Steelers drive alive, even though Upshaw did not appear to lead with his head on the pile-driving sack.
The Steelers and Ravens still don’t like each other at all. But in today’s NFL, they just can’t show it very much.