Balance of power shifting from East to North divisions
[url="http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2009/nov/08/balance-of-power-shifting-from-east-to-north-divis/"]http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2009 ... rth-divis/[/url]
Published: November 8, 2009
The NFC East and AFC East are no longer the toughest NFL divisions in which to make a living. That popular notion has gone the way of efficient offense in Washington and Buffalo.
Now, the most competitive climate in pro football is to the north. The AFC North might be the best division, followed closely by the NFC North.
That doesn't mean the Super Bowl will match the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals, but for weekly excitement and excellence, the Black and Blue Divisions are golden.
Consider how the Steelers (5-2) built on their championship, not by going deeper into their time-tested philosophies of winning with the running game and playing big-time defense. No, these Steelers can pass with anyone, which has been especially significant because their running game has stagnated.
What's more electrifying in the NFL than Ben Roethlisberger creating big plays that seem to come straight from the sandlot? He did it on the decisive touchdown in the Super Bowl, and he has kept on doing it.
"I think some of it comes from that being what the Steelers always did in the past. I always say you have to keep up with the times," Roethlisberger said. "That's kind of evolving into a passing offense league-wide. People talk about the Steelers and the run game because we want to be physical. When you want to be physical, people assume that's the run game. But that can mean a lot of different things.
"I guess you can go all the way back to the '70s, and we were a grind-it-out team. We're not that '70s team. We're our own identity and that includes a lot of no-huddle stuff. It's been good."
And consider what the Ravens have become, ranking seventh in offense and only 13th in defense. Sure, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still in Baltimore making key plays, but the Ravens are defined just as much by what quarterback Joe Flacco and the three-pronged running attack do.
"Defense wins championships, but you need the offense to score points. To be saying we're an offensive team doesn't fit us," running back Ray Rice said. "When they talk about this Ravens team, they're going to say, ‘That team is a physical, good football team.' "
Lest we forget, the Bengals' stunning run of down-to-the-wire games has marked them not only as far more resilient but also as contenders. The Bengals of the past would have floundered after that fluky last-second loss to Denver in the opener. This team has flourished.
The rise of the AFC North has overshadowed the collapse of the AFC East. At 5-2, the Patriots are about where everyone expected, even if they were anything but dominant until the last two games.
Then again those routs, by a combined 84-7, came against Tennessee and Tampa Bay, both winless when they lost to New England.
What has happened to the rest of the division? Miami won the AFC East last year, going 11-5 and unveiling the wildcat, but is now 3-4, with two of their victories over the Jets. For all the bluster coming out of camp, the Jets have had breakdowns in every facet since going 3-0. Although the Jets are a thousand times more entertaining under Rex Ryan than Eric Mangini, they're still headed for a .500 season. And Buffalo? That Terrell Owens-Lee Evans combo has a total of 46 catches and four touchdowns.
In the NFC, the North has one dominant team and two wild-card contenders.
Even some Cheeseheads would now have to admit that watching Brett Favre in Minnesota is enthralling. No game had more intriguing elements than Favre's return to Lambeau Field, and he certainly delivered.
The Vikings as a whole are delivering, too, because of a superb pass rush led by Jared Allen, and the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson. But that doesn't make Green Bay or Chicago also-rans.
The Packers have lost only to Minnesota (6-1) and Cincinnati (5-2). The Bears have lost to Green Bay, Atlanta and Cincinnati, all winners. In Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, Green Bay and Chicago have quarterbacks as capable as Favre. They trail behind mainly because each team has a major weakness on the offensive line that plays directly into Minnesota's hands.
The NFC East has three teams capable of making the postseason, but none have been dominant.
New York was 5-0, then was routed by New Orleans and Philadelphia and outmuscled by Arizona. The secondary is a sieve, and teams are bulking up to thwart the pass rush that has become the only real line of defense.
Philadelphia and Dallas are enigmatic at 5-2. When at full strength, which has been very rare through seven games, the Eagles are dynamic on offense, efficient on defense. Then they throw in the biggest stinker of the year by any favorite, losing at Oakland.
The Cowboys are on a three-game roll and finally pressuring quarterbacks. But the pass defense is mediocre, and they have just nine takeaways (winless Tampa Bay has 11).
For now, let's shift the spotlight from East to North.