The NFC North has been turned on its head, with the results from NFL Week 5 pushing the divisional revolution further along. Minnesota is rolling at 4-1, Green Bay is flailing at 2-3 and what looked to be the toughest division in football at the start of the year is at least the most surprising.
No one has been a bigger surprise this year than the Vikings, who continued their strong start with a 30-7 thrashing of Tennessee. The Vikes shut down the run on the defensive side and the Titans lacked the capacity to go over the top and create anything offensively. On the flip side, while Christian Ponder did throw two interceptions, the quarterback also had his best game when it came to making plays down the field. He hooked up with Percy Harvin eight times for 108 yards, and Ponder finished 25/35 for 258 yards.
Minnesota hasn’t played a great schedule to date—while they’ve got the impressive win over San Francisco, other scalps have come against Jacksonville and a Detroit team that had to try and fix some dysfunction during a bye week. But the Vikings lone defeat—a last-play loss at Indianapolis, no longer looks so bad in light of what else went down this past Sunday.
When Green Bay jumped out to 21-3 halftime lead in Indy, there was every reason to think the game was over. Then Andrew Luck consistently found Reggie Wayne, getting over 200 yards in the passing game to the veteran receiver alone. Aaron Rodgers looked uncharacteristically off-kilter, including a momentum-turning interception. The Packer offensive line continues to show that it provides the worst protection since Salvatore Tessio handled security for Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather. Rodgers was sacked five times in the second half and Indianapolis eventually pulled out a 30-27 win.
Green Bay’s path doesn’t get any easier with a Sunday night trip to Houston, followed by another road game at now-competitive St. Louis. The Packers not only trail Minnesota by two games, they also trail Chicago by the same, thanks to the Bears utter dismantling of Jacksonville behind a strong running performance by Matt Forte.
And while Green Bay can write off Rodgers’ bad game and put it in the “he’s entitled to one every now and then,” category, there’s no sign the offensive line can even be adequate. Mike McCarthy has a lot of work to do, as the wins everyone expected his team to get seem to have been shipped a few hours northwest.
Let’s go division-by-division with some other thoughts as we sort out last Sunday…
NFC WEST: Is this a four-team race now with St. Louis’ win over Arizona last Thursday night. The Rams did a terrific job in shutting down the run and getting after Kevin Kolb, as the Cardinals’ offensive line finally looked what we expected back in August when this team had no expectations. Seattle got a win at Carolina, although Russell Wilson needs to be advised that while his 19/25, 221-yard game was solid, his two interceptions can’t be tolerated. The Seattle defense can win this team games without the yardage, but they won’t survive with the picks—and wouldn’t have on Sunday if Cam Newton hadn’t bailed them out.
NFC SOUTH: I knocked Newton’s showing for Carolina, and his 12/29 for 141 yards, plus an absolutely terrible throw into the end zone that bounced in front of a receiver wide-open for the game-winner, would back that up. But what’s happened to the Panther running game? It was non-existent, something that’s a patter. If they’d have run the ball, the last drive wouldn’t have mattered. Carolina’s 1-4, and four games back of Atlanta. The Falcons had a play-well-enough-to-win kind of moment in Washington, the kind that teams who have big years find ways to pull out.
NFC EAST: It’s no surprise the Giants beat Cleveland at home. And given New York’s propensity to have some clunkers on their homefield, it wasn’t even a shock they fell behind 17-10. But it certainly must have warmed the heart of Tom Coughlin to see his running game get into full gear, with Ahmad Bradshaw rushing for 200 yards, the team playing no-mistakes football and allowing Eli Manning to be efficient, but not spectacular.
New York moves into a tie for first with Philadelphia. The Eagles’ luck ran out in Pittsburgh when they finally lost a close game. Media coverage focused on Michael Vick’s fumble in the end zone. Fair enough, but the media should also wonder why a talented Eagle defensive front four did absolutely nothing against a weak Steeler line and enabled Ben Roethlisberger to manage the game.
AFC EAST: The New England defense has got to get past this fourth quarter problem they seem to have against good offenses. After building a 31-7 lead over Denver in a way that reminded you of their best Super Bowl teams in 2003-04—running the ball, playing defense, cool efficiency from Tom Brady without completely depending on him—the Patriot defense suddenly allowed Peyton Manning to move up and down the field with ease.
Willis McGahee bailed the Pats out with a dropped fourth-down pass and a crucial fumble, but this was the continuation of a pattern we also saw from New England against Baltimore. Bill Belichick’s team is still up a game in the division—and with the competition between the Jets, Dolphins and Bills, that’s a margin that feels like it’s about five games—so they have time to work on these close-out issues during the regular season.
AFC NORTH: Baltimore isn’t looking impressive, to say the least, as an ugly 9-6 win over Kansas City follows up a narrow escape over Cleveland. But the Ravens are winning games, and their division rival Cincinnati proved that’s not always a guarantee. Cincy could not run the ball against Miami and dropped a 17-13 decision, slipping a game back.
As for Baltimore, they were outplayed by Kansas City—the Chiefs ran it down their throats, Joe Flacco played poorly and the team never got in the end zone. But Kansas City saved them with huge turnovers, including on the goal-line and ill-timed penalties. Baltimore’s got problems, but in getting wins, they’re buying John Harbaugh time to figure out a solution.
AFC SOUTH: Jacksonville and Tennessee look like hopeless cases, and Houston’s Monday Night win over the disintegrating Jets—albeit closer than the experts thought at 23-17—means this division race is not going to have much in the way of storylines. But Indianapolis, whose win we noted above, is shaping up like a team that’s going to be a tough out at home and with head coach Chuck Pagano fighting leukemia, they’ve been given an emotional rallying cry. Stay tuned, this could get very interesting, at least at the fringes of the playoff picture in a weak AFC.
AFC WEST: Denver might be 2-3, but when San Diego lost to New Orleans on Sunday night it means the Broncos are only a game back, and have their road games with Atlanta & New England completed, along with a home game against Houston. If it’s possible for a sub-.500 team to feel like they’re in first place, Bronco fans can indeed feel it.