Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The NFL's "Elite 8"

Since ESPN just came out with their initial NFL power rankings today, I was in the mood to do something similar. Most people would agree that the NFL is the hardest league to predict year in year out. The fact that there are only sixteen games, a multitude of injuries, a hard salary cap, and short primes for even the best of players, all contribute to a league that prides itself on parity. Although there is always a chance that a random 7-9ish team can win the superbowl one year later (Cowboys in 2011?), this years NFL has an elite group that should stake claim to the Lombardi Trophy this winter. The amazing thing about this "Elite 8" is that they are equally distributed amongst the AFC and NFC. Just for fun, I decided to categorize the 8 teams based on their likelihood of winning it all. In reality, each of these eight teams has a pretty equal shot.

The Favorites: These three teams have the fewest flaws of any of the teams in the "Elite 8". All three have elite signal callers, depth and talent at almost any position, and very few fatal weaknesses. The Packers rushing attack, Patriots pass rush, and Steelers coverage all could be exposed, but in reality, the only thing that will bring these teams down are either a hot quarterback or an unfortunate matchup.
Sam Bradford Sr.
Packers: Can't bet against a defending champ who returns almost every impact player. The one thing that makes me question this squad is that they were the 6th seed before going on their playoff run. I also am a bit uneasy about their offensive line and rushing game.

Patriots: Going into the playoffs the Patriots were the team to beat. Tom Brady was playing out of his mind and the team was clicking. Unfortunately, the Jets scored an upset in the first round that derailed New England's post season dreams. The Patriots are going to be much better personel wise this season, with the potential to have a dominant defense the likes of the Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Richard Seymour units of the early 2000s.

Steelers: It is pretty unfair that someone has to choose between the Patriots and the Steelers in the AFC. The teams are neck and neck. The only reason I put the Patriots a notch ahead is because of match-ups (and personal bias). The Steelers defense is punishing and Ben Rothlesberger is the ultimate playoff gamer. Any team that can rush the passer, run efficiently, and make plays on third down as well as the Steelers can will always be in the Superbowl discussion.

Hot Commodities: Each of these three teams have the explosive talent to make a run during the postseason. Coincidentally, each of these teams also improved in the offseason. The only thing keeping them from the "Favorites" category is because they have a few too many question marks.
Start praying for a full season now Eagles fans
Eagles: Nobody improved this offseason as much as the Eagles. Their secondary should be outrageous while their pass rush should be much improved with the additions of Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins. The one question about this team that is beyond scary is the health of Michael Vick. Vick is almost guaranteed to miss a couple of games at the least. Eagles fans better hope these games missed are not at the wrong time in the season.

Saints: The Saints beefed up their defensive front with the additions of Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. These additions will help toughen up a defense that couldn't cut it last year. The Saints are not as good top to bottom as most of the teams in the "Elite 8", but have the ultimate X factor in Drew Brees. When Brees is hot, the Siants have enough around him to make another run.

Falcons: Last year, the Falcons went 13-3 before being humiliated by the Packers. In the offseason, they added another deep threat in Julio Jones, and another pass rusher in Ray Edwards. This team resembles the Packers in many ways with elite talent on almost every unit. Matt Ryans inability to take over games like the Bradys, Rodgers, and Rothlesbergers of the world takes Atlanta down a notch.

Old Stalwarts: These teams have some major question marks going into the season, but have select personel and a history of winning that still makes them viable.
He told me I had to put the Ravens in the "Elite 8"
Ravens: Their offense lacks explosion and Joe Flacco still hasn't taken the next step in becoming an elite quarterback. In addition to those problems, the Ravens have more holes in their defense then anyone in Baltimore would care to remember. So what makes them so dangerous? The fact that Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed are still lined up down the middle of that defense. Each of those players makes everyone around them so much better that the purple and black can still play with the big dogs.

Colts: The Colts are another team that is in decline. Their core group are all aging, and Peyton Manning has less to work with than he has in a while. In addition, Manning had a major surgery (Neck) this offseason and is still being held out of camp. These factors make the Colts the only team in the "Elite 8" that has a decent shot at going 6-10. My hunch, however, is that Manning will be fine and will be as devastating as ever. If a team has a healthy Peyton Manning, you can never count them out of the discussion.

The Wild Card
Jets: The Jets are the only team that has a viable claim of being in the "Elite 8" that did't make the cut. In some ways it was hard putting them below the Colts, but in the end, New York had too many fatal flaws to be included in the conversation. Mark Sanchez is mediocre at best, and the defense is not good enough to carry them all the way. Few people remember that the Jets were cinderella stories the last two postseasons and still didn't even make the Superbowl.


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