Here is our Football Relativity comparison after Week Nine. We’ve noted where we’ve moved teams up a level or down a level from the Week Eight comparison.
10 – Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints – The Colts and Saints both faced challenges and beat them back this week. The Colts rode a quick no-huddle attack to an early lead against the Texans and then withstood a last-second field goal attempt to eke out a 20-17 victory. The Colts sustained major injury issues last week, and those will be even more difficult to overcome next week vs. the Patriots, but for now they are 8-0 and in solid control in the AFC South after the win over Houston. The Saints fell behind to the Panthers 14-0 on two DeAngelo Williams touchdown runs, but the Saints worked their way back and got explosive plays from Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem to take the lead and then a defensive touchdown to put the game away. The Saints’ offense remains the most potent in the league, in large part because of the tremendous depth of targets, and the defense is opportunistic even if it’s not dominant. The one red flag is the fact that the Saints have been run on the last three weeks, and eventually that could jump up and bite them. A team that has a strong running game and a decent passing game – like Atlanta or, ironically, Cincinnati – could control the clock enough to keep the Saints offense off the field and pull an upset. In fact, the Bengals might be the one team in the league I’d feel comfortable picking to beat New Orleans on a neutral field. That would have to be a Super Bowl game, but still. In summary, the fact that there’s such a limited strategy that can beat New Orleans shows how dangerous this team is.
9 – Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers – The Vikings enjoyed their bye at 7-1. The Patriots got a solid if unspectacular 27-17 home victory vs. the Dolphins, but that was enough to put them in control in the AFC East. It’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots respond to the challenge of facing the Colts next week and to see if Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company can take advantage of Indy’s injury-riddled secondary. This seems like a matchup that could actually favor the Patriots, even if they’re on the road. Of course, New England’s defense will be severely tested in the process. That’s going to be one fun game Sunday night. The Steelers’ defense led the way in a 28-10 win in Denver. Now that Troy Polamalu is back to playing at full speed, the Steelers defense is back to being scary, and the offense is still good. This is a dangerous, dangerous team.
8 – Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals (UP A LEVEL), Dallas Cowboys (UP A LEVEL), Denver Broncos – The Falcons restored order by beating the Redskins at home by two touchdowns. That was a taking-care-of-business win – the kind that good teams have. The Bengals swept the Ravens with a supersolid 17-7 victory. They are a physical team on both sides of the ball, and it shows. The fact that Cincy could beat Baltimore twice at what used to be the Ravens’ own game shows how far the Bengals have come this year. The Bengals go for another huge division sweep next week in Pittsburgh, and if they win that they should be able to cruise to a division title since they still have home games against the Browns, Lions, and Chiefs. The Cowboys got a huge road win at Philadelphia to take the NFC East lead. Dallas isn’t a perfect team, but the Cowboys don’t have a lot of glaring weaknesses either. It’ll be interesting to see whether they can stem off their usual late-season fade this year, but for now the Cowboys are legit. We’ll leave the Broncos in place for right now because we still think they’re better than the Chargers, but that’s going to be a major race in the AFC West. Denver’s offense is starting to make mistakes, and the Steelers exposed their defense as well. Those aren’t yet trends, but they are red flags.
7 – Arizona Cardinals (UP A LEVEL), Baltimore Ravens (DOWN A LEVEL), Houston Texans, New York Giants (DOWN A LEVEL), Philadelphia Eagles (DOWN A LEVEL), San Diego Chargers (UP A LEVEL) – The Cardinals continued their hot play on the road by blasting the Bears in Chicago. They’ve also shown that they’re easily the class of their division, despite their hiccups at home. The Chargers got a big win on the road as well, going to New York and taking down the Giants. That may portend the second half rally that Norv Turner has led the Chargers on for several years now. There’s certainly enough talent in San Diego for that kind of rally to happen. The Giants, meanwhile, limp into their bye on a four-game losing streak. The defensive injuries are still an issue, but the running game that has led the team over its recent success isn’t the same now. The Ravens lost to the Bengals again, and we can’t help but conclude that the Bengals are serious playoff contenders and that the Ravens are much closer to the fringes of the playoff race. The Eagles also lost a key division game, only they lost at home to the Cowboys. The Eagles are good, but they’re not consistent enough to be considered very good at this point. Houston missed a big chance at Indianapolis, but they remain a team that will be in contention for a playoff berth, which is what this level entails.
6 – Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets – This is a group of teams with major flaws that still have a realistic shot of mounting a playoff charge if they can mitigate their serious problems. The Jets were on bye this week.
5 – NONE – This is the 8-8 level, and right now we’re going to leave the teams at 6 above this level because we believe they are still capable of 9-7 marks. Conversely, it’s now hard to see any of the teams below this mark streaking to a .500 record.
4 – Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars (UP A LEVEL), San Francisco 49ers (DOWN A LEVEL), Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans (UP A LEVEL) – The Panthers put up a valiant fight against the Saints, but ultimately Carolina’s inability and unwillingness to throw the ball proved fatal. That passing-game deficiency will end up being the difference between 9 or 10 wins that Carolina could have had and the 6 or 7 that they’ll end up with. The Jaguars won a game they should have won vs. Kansas City, although they nearly choked it away. But while they’re 4-4, the Jags look like a team that’s just a tick below average. Maybe there’s a roll they can get on, but we doubt it. The Seahawks won a home game they should have won against Detroit, but that doesn’t change their fatal flaws either. This was just one of the 6 wins they’ll end up with this season as well. The 49ers, who looked like playoff contenders early on, lost a home game to the Titans and now have lost five straight. San Fran just doesn’t have enough talent to be a truly competitive team, and now they’re facing an uphill battle just to get to .500. Tennessee is finally starting to show some of the strengths that made them a playoff favorite entering the season. Plus, Vince Young is adding a different dimension to the offense. He’ll never be a pure drop-back passer, but he can be a threat, and the Titans are using him as such. Amazingly, Young is now 20-11 as an NFL starter in the regular season.
3 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills were on bye this week, and the other teams sharing a level with them moved up. It’s hard to see the Bills doing better than 5-11 given their talent and how their season has gone thus far.
2 – Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins – We had to reshuffle the 2 and 1 levels now that Tampa Bay won and put themselves in this clump. When it shook out, we put the Lions and Chiefs above the rest of the dregs. Detroit took an early lead in Seattle but couldn’t hold it because of Matthew Stafford’s myriad interceptions. Still, Detroit is competitive, and they will jump up and surprise another team or two over the course of the season. The Chiefs are also capable of competing – remember that they took the Cowboys to OT in the game that started Dallas’ four-game winning streak. The Redskins are solid defensively, and that keeps them in games, but it’s hard to imagine the Skins mounting much of a charge beyond the 4-win level because the offense is so befuddled.
1 – Cleveland Browns (DOWN A LEVEL), Oakland Raiders (DOWN A LEVEL), St. Louis Rams (DOWN A LEVEL), Tampa Bay Buccaneers – As Tampa Bay took a small step forward, they caught this clump of teams, all of whom were on bye this week. The Bucs got a promising debut from rookie QB Josh Freeman, and with S Tanard Jackson back the pass defense might go from being abysmal to simply bad. We actually may have the Bucs a level too low at this point, but we’ll wait and see and console them with the fact that the 1 level is just a tad better than it was a week ago.