Cover-Two: Taking stock of the division leaders from AFC East to NFC West
At the NFL season's halfway point, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar look at every division leader, judging their stability at the top. Are these teams worth buying or selling as Super Bowl contenders?
AFC East: New England Patriots
Chris Burke: Sell. To me, this Patriots season has all the makings of an AFC East crown and divisional-round defeat. There's always the possibility that Tom Brady cranks it up a few notches in the postseason, but his cast of characters remains unsteady (more so now with Sebastian Vollmer done for the year). This remains a very good team. It's just not a Super Bowl squad at the moment.
Doug Farrar: Buy, for now. In many ways, the current Patriots team mirrors the one that won three Super Bowls in the early 2000s -- a surprising defense led by unexpected contributors, and an offense that is just good enough to win at the right time. That's the positive take on this depleted team -- that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have won it all this way before. The downside is that the offensive and defensive lines are not what they used to be, and that's where Belichick prefers to build things. We'll see how far they go in the playoffs, but I do believe this Patriots team will win the division.
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
Burke: Buy. It would be stunning if the Bengals did not walk away with the AFC North crown, given the difficulties their rivals have encountered. Cincinnati's simply on another level in that division, especially as long as QB Andy Dalton keeps playing as he has in recent weeks. The make-up of this team does not appear all that different from that of the Super Bowl-winning Ravens.
Farrar: Buy. The Bengals are as much of a division champion lock as any team in the NFL for two reasons. First, all the other AFC North entrants are dealing with significant flaws. Second and more importantly, the Bengals have married their usually great defense and sound running game with a newly-efficient passing attack. Third-year quarterback Andy Dalton has exceeded expectations this season, and as Marvin Jones proved with his four-touchdown performance against the New York Jets last Sunday, the receiver corps isn't A.J. Green and the Pips anymore. This may be the team that no AFC contender wants to deal with come playoff time.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Burke: Buy, with a Reggie Wayne-shaped asterisk. Indianapolis has earned its way into the title discussion with wins over San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. But how will the Colts respond to losing Wayne, their top receiver and one of the most reliable players in football, for the season? It's a storyline that cannot be overlooked, because Andrew Luck does not have anyone else he trusts nearly as much as he did Wayne.
Farrar: Buy, in short supply. There's a lot to like about the Colts. Andrew Luck is everything he was cracked up to be and then some, and it's clear the defense, set up for years to be effective in Cover-2 and Tampa-2 schemes, has adapted to Chuck Pagano's hybrid concepts. And if Reggie Wayne were still on board, I'd say that this Colts team had a shot at a possible AFC Championship berth. But the loss of Wayne for the season with a knee injury could be devastating in a lot of ways -- there won't be that veteran leadership on the field (Wayne is one of those players who transcends the cliche), Luck's other targets are inconsistent at best, and the run game -- which was supposed to be fixed with the acquisition of Trent Richardson -- has lagged behind. The Colts will win a weak division, but it's hard to see them as buy-long contenders in January and February.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
Burke: Buy. Is Alex Smith a Hall of Fame quarterback? No. Is he capable of doing enough for three or four playoff games to support a dominant defense? Yes. If the Chiefs' defense keeps playing the way it has been, Smith won't need to hang 30 or 40 points on anyone in the postseason, meaning he and the Chiefs can take whatever comes on offense.
Farrar: Buy, but with caution. The Chiefs are in an odd position: They're the league's sole remaining undefeated team, but they have the NFL's best offense bearing down on them twice in the next month in the form of the Denver Broncos, who stand right beneath them at 7-1. According to Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, the Chiefs schedule has been insanely easy to this point, and one may wonder when Alex Smith's inevitable limitations as a quarterback will come up to bite them. This is not to undermine the amazing job Andy Reid has done as the team's new head coach, and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton ... well, we can't say enough good things about him. But we'll know a lot more about how valid these Chiefs are after they go home-and-away with a Broncos team that is currently averaging 42.9 points per game. Can Sutton's defense hold that number down, and can Smith play catch-up if that proves impossible?
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
Burke: Sell. It took only the last 70 seconds against Detroit to see why. The Cowboys defense simply is not championship-caliber, and the Tony Romo-led offense still suffers through moments of anguish. Even if Dallas hangs on for an NFC East title, it's looking at a potential playoff road of Seattle/San Francisco in the wild-card round and a trip to somewhere like New Orleans in the divisional round, just to get to the NFC title game.
Farrar: Sell. Sell like Randolph and Mortimer Dukes should have at the end of Trading Places. As was shown yet again in the Cowboys' 31-30 loss to the Detroit Lions last Sunday, Dallas' pass defense has established a new low in futility, with four games in which more than 400 passing yards were allowed ... in half a season. There's no running game to speak of, the offensive line was iffy before the season-ending injury to Brian Waters and aside from the front seven and Tony Romo's performance, there's nothing to really hang your hat on when looking at this team. It may win the NFC East because the other three teams in the division seem bent on losing it, but it willl get rolled in the playoffs if it looks then as it looks now.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
Burke: Buy ... hesitantly. Thanks to Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have sidestepped any trouble that a rash of injuries could have brought on thus far. But what happens if Green Bay is not 100 percent come playoff time? Eventually, the points are going to be harder to come by, and I'm not entirely convinced this defense can rise up when needed in January.
Farrar: Buy, but watch out for the Lions. As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, it doesn't really matter how many receivers they're down, and their secondary seems to be good enough to overcome an injury-plagued pass rush. They've developed a very effective run game with rookie Eddie Lacy, and their run-stopping ability has them winning with old-school smash-mouth as much as their traditional aerial attack. However, the Lions are pinning the needle right now at 5-3 to Green Bay's 5-2. When the two meet on Thanksgiving Day, that could be for all the marbles in this division.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
Burke: Buy. A much-improved defense, Sean Payton on the sideline, Drew Brees at quarterback and the possibility of home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs? Not seeing anything at this point that would point to New Orleans being a fraud.
Farrar: Buy. While the Panthers certainly look more than pesky with their excellent defense and Cam Newton's outstanding season, this Saints team looks a lot like the one that won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2009 season -- with Drew Brees at the helm of a dynamic offense, and with a new defense led by Rob Ryan that closely resembles the group led by Gregg Williams that season -- without all the ancillary bounty stuff. If the rushing attack picks up, this looks very much like a team that could go anywhere in any weather and win. In the Superdome? They might be the toughest out in the league when the games count the most.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
Burke: Buy, though not as enthusiastically as earlier this season. The reason for that mainly lies up front, where Seattle still has significant questions on offense, as proven by St. Louis in Week 8. Add in a Sidney Rice injury, and even the impending return of Percy Harvin leaves the Seahawks with some question. They're still a top-three team in the NFC and it's hard to envision them losing a home game in the postseason, so they're a contender by default.
Farrar: Buy, but with extreme caution. The Seahawks may have the NFL's best defense -- they certainly have the NFL's best secondary. And Russell Wilson has proven to be incredibly dynamic when he's given time to throw, which sets up the problem. Down their starting offensive tackles over the last month, Seattle's offense has been slow to start and ugly to finish, and Wilson has been running for his life, instead of rolling out of the pocket when it suits him. According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, Wilson has been pressured on 46.7 percent of his pass attempts -- the most in the NFL for any starting quarterback. He's somehow managed to throw seven touchdown passes under pressure, but with receiver Sidney Rice out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, and Percy Harvin still in the recovery process from his hip injury, Seattle's offense looks less and less like the kind you'd see in the Super Bowl. There's also the small matter of the 6-2 San Francisco 49ers, who have won five straight and are on quite the roll these days.