Last week, one half (7 of the 14 games) were decided by three points or fewer, a picture of parity, and, amongst those wins, surprising victories jump out.
The Raiders’ close loss to Atlanta almost gave the Falcons, currently the only undefeated team in the league, their first loss of the season, but that was before Matt Ryan manufactured a clutch 43-yard drive in 39 seconds to set up a 55-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
With the drive, Ryan set a league record in the Super Bowl era with 19 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime and extended the Falcons’ best start in franchise history.
The Detroit Lions, who were 1-3 before their contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, were able to come back from a 10-point deficit with 3:32 left in the fourth quarter to beat the Eagles. The Denver Broncos, whose quarterback, Peyton Manning, is now 12-for-16 in Monday starts, erased a 24-point halftime deficit to beat the San Diego Chargers by 11 points and become the first team in NFL history to win by a double-digit margin in a game trailed by at least 24 points.
The Seattle Seahawks rallied from being 14 points behind in seven minutes, thirty-one seconds and beat the Patriots after Russell Wilson threw a 46-yard touchdown with 1:18 on the clock and the defense subsequently stopped Tom Brady. The Buffalo Bills were able to end the Arizona Cardinals’ eight-game home winning streak with a rally in overtime.
Thus, the NFL, week to week, is impossible to predict.
In all, 20 of the 32 teams currently have records of .500 or above, and four of the eight divisions have at least three teams with records .500 or above. The NFC East has three: New York Giants (4-2), Philadelphia Eagles (3-3), and Washington Redskins (3-3). The NFC North has three: Chicago Bears (4-1), Minnesota Vikings (4-2), and Green Bay Packers (3-3). The NFC West has four (Arizona Cardinals (4-2), San Francisco 49ers (5-2), Seattle Seahawks (4-3), and St. Louis Rams (3-3). And the AFC East also has four: New York Jets (3-3), New England Patriots (3-3), Miami Dolphins (3-3), and Buffalo Bills (3-3).
Entering Week 6, the only division with all four teams above .500 was the NFC West, a surprising occurrence considering recent performances of the division, especially 2010 when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks were able to make the playoffs because their division was just horrendous. However, heading into Week 7, the AFC East, which has all four teams tied with 3-3 records, has all four teams at .500, marking the first time since the 2002 realignment that all four teams in a division have been tied in Week 6 or later.
The Southern divisions, the AFC and NFC South, are the least contested divisions as the Houston Texans (5-1) and Atlanta Falcons (6-0) are three wins over their closest divisional competitor. The southern divisions are the also the only divisions with one team above .500, followed closely by the AFC North, where the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3) are two games behind the Baltimore Ravens (5-1), while the rest of the division, including the surprisingly slow-starting Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3), are below .500.
The most drastic changes to team’s success, however, are sprinkled all across the league. The New Orleans Saints are 1-4 after posting a combined 37-11 record from 2009-2011, when they made three consecutive playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl victory in 2009. The Pittsburgh Steelers are off to a 2-3 start after finishing 12-4 the last two seasons, and the last time the Steelers entered Week 7 with a .500 record was 2006, when they went 8-8, so, currently being one game under .500, they need a quick turn around.
The Green Bay Packers are off to a 3-3 start despite coming off an emotional 42-24 win against the Houston Texans, yet they currently reside in third place in the NFC North behind the Chicago Bears (4-1) and Minnesota Vikings (4-2). The last time the Packers headed into Week 7 with a 3-3 record was 2010, and they won a Super Bowl that year. On the flip side, though, they also started 3-3 in 2008, and, then, they finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the only time in the past five seasons. Thus, their future is difficult to predict.
The New England Patriots (3-3) have won their division for four consecutive years, but, six weeks into the 2012 season, and despite leading the league in points per game (31.3), they have found themselves on par with a muddled up mixture of 3-3 teams in the AFC East.
However, their losses have occurred by a combined margin of four points while they have beaten their opponents by a combined margin of 117-62 in wins, including a 52-38 rout of the Buffalo Bills. Nonetheless, the feast-or-famine scenario is a rare occurrence for the Patriots. The last time the Patriots were 3-3 after six weeks was 2005, and, in that season, they rallied to go 10-6 in the regular season before losing to the Denver Broncos in an AFC Divisional playoff game.
On the other side of the coin, the most surprising turn-around team this season is the Minnesota Vikings, and the success starts with the improved play of Christian Ponder. Ponders’ 68.6 completion percentage ranks second behind only Robert Griffin III (70.2 percent), and it represents a vast improvement over his 54.3 percent completion percentage last year.
Additionally, his yards earned in six starts this season (1,434) are just 419 less than the 1,853 yards he finished with in 2011, when he went 2-8 as a starter. Although the offense has been bolstered by Ponder’s improvement, resurgent weapons Adrian Peterson, who is have a strong year after last year’s season-ending knee injury, and Percy Harvin continue to provide the backdrop for a strong offensive force. Peterson has 499 yards and two touchdowns in six games this season, and, since he entered the league in 2007, his 7,251 rushing yards and 66 rushing touchdowns leads the league.
Harvin has 111 catches, ranked 2nd in the NFL, since Ponder’s first start on October 23rd, 2011, and, on top of 49 receptions for 540 yards this season, Harvin is striving for his third consecutive 300-yard game in a row.
The defense is also a key area of strength for the Vikings. In their three-game winning streak that started before last week’s game loss to the Redskins, the defense held their opponents — San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, and Tennessee Titans — to a combined score of 33 points. Their rushing defense ranks 10th in the league and has held opponents to under 100 yards rushing in four of their six games (Weeks 2-5), and if it were not for RG3’s rushing for 138 yards on 13 carries last week, including a 76-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, the Vikings could have held the Redskins to under 100 yards.
The Vikings held Redskins burgeoning running back Alfred Morris, whose 538 rushing yards ranks fifth in the league, to just 47 yards. Their passing defense, which ranks 11th in the league, has not allowed a 300-yard passer against them this season (they had two after Week 6 last season). The question remains, however, whether or not they can continue their success.
With so many close games combined with consistently good teams falling behind this season, the NFL is almost impossible to predict week to week. At the same time, though, that is what makes it fun to watch.