There are contenders and there are pretenders, and sometimes this late in the season it’s impossible to separate the two. One moment a team like the Buffalo Bills can look like the best team in the AFC East. The next their fast start can fall like a house of cards.
Fortunes can change in reverse that quickly, too. Just ask the Green Bay Packers, who at this point last season were in a dogfight for the sixth and final NFC playoff seed which they didn’t lock up until the final week of the season. Then they went on a run for the ages to the Super Bowl championship, and judging by their 9-0 start this year they’ve never looked back.
So we may not know who the frauds and the hidden gems really are until the final chapter of this season has finally been completed. But if you’re looking for teams not to believe in, here are five that seem clearly overrated even though they’re teetering on the brink of contention.
In other words, these are four bandwagons you can avoid riding down the stretch …
Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
They may win the NFC East before this is over, but don’t get excited. If they win it, it’ll only because of a Giants collapse and the complete and utter failure that is the Philadelphia Eagles. This division, which once was an NFL powerhouse, is beginning to look mediocre at best.
This is what you need to know about the Cowboys, though: Tony Romo is good, but prone to bad mistakes and he usually makes them at terrible times. He’s always been on the verge of becoming a top quarterback, but then he finds a way to shoot himself in the foot.
So do you trust him? I don’t. Not this year. Not now. And I’m not impressed by the fact that they’ve won three of their last four games to salvage a 2-3 start either. They beat the Rams, Seahawks and fading Bills – all at home. The one loss was a 34-7 smackdown in Philadelphia against an Eagles team that’s been the biggest disappointment in the league.
Chicago Bears (6-3)
Four straight wins by Da Bears has everyone remembering that they were in the NFC championship game last season and even nearly won it. And that’s true.
The problem is they were a different team last year with a better defense. This year’s Bears defense ranks 25th in the league – 29th against the pass. They’ve won with thanks to turnovers (they are plus-9), great special teams play, and the MVP-like performance of Matt Forte.
Jay Cutler, meanwhile, is running a shockingly low-powered offense. He has 11 touchdown passes through nine games and his leading receiver is Forte, his running back. That’s usually a bad sign. If the defense isn’t strong and the quarterback isn’t strong, how can this team be trusted in a big spot down the stretch?
New York Jets (5-5)
All you needed to see from the Jets was their horrendous loss to Denver on Thursday night, where the two teams turned the NFL’s offensive clock back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Broncos ran the wishbone, for crying out loud, and they still had a more explosive offense than the Jets.
The Jets made the AFC championship game the last two seasons thanks mostly to their defense, which is a shell of its former self. Worse, quarterback Mark Sanchez looks like he’s taken a big step back in Year 3. He’s inaccurate, he’s making bad decisions, and it sure looks like his diva receivers (Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress) are getting frustrated.
Add in Rex Ryan’s mouth and the New York media and this could be a disaster in the making.
Oakland Raiders (5-4)
They looked for a while like one of the best stories in the NFL, the revival of a proud franchise that had been a joke for years. But there are few teams that could survive the loss of their starting quarterback (Jason Campbell) and starting running back (Darren McFadden) and continue to thrive.
Surviving the loss of McFadden will be easier, because of Michael Bush (not to mention the fact that McFadden will be back). The loss of Campbell, though, is huge. Yes, they made a bold move for Carson Palmer, but some thought he was on the decline when he last played for Cincinnati. Now, miracles are expected of him despite sitting out half a season and having to pick up a new offense on the fly?
This is a good team that will be a popular pick of many to do some playoff damage in 2012. But Palmer has thrown 7 interceptions in his first 76 attempted passes. That’s not good, and it’s only going to get worse.
By RALPH VACCHIANO