The Broncos’ 24-point second-half comeback capped what proved to be another wild and unpredictable week in the NFL. It was a weekend that saw a previously unbeaten team losing by 18 points, Russell Wilson outgunning Tom Brady in a comeback victory, the Bills winning at 4-1 Arizona, and the Browns finally getting their first victory. Still, it may be possible to look at this past weekend and take away a few things with regard to figuring out how some of the NFL’s so-far elite teams will fare as the year goes on. Here are three questions that were raised by the events of this past weekend, and some possible answers.
1) Can the Ravens win after losing Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb for the season?
The Ravens are well-seated in the standings, two and a half games ahead of the team thought to be their biggest divisional challenger, the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, even the dramatic victory this past weekend over Dallas that put them in that position is not foremost on the minds of the Ravens and their fans, given that Lewis and Webb are out for the year. So, in losing the face of their team in ILB Lewis and a burgeoning cornerback star in Webb, are the Ravens done for? Well, the injuries may hurt, but this team remains a contender.
The injury to Lewis may get more attention, but Webb’s loss may have more impact on the Ravens’ D. According to Football Outsiders, Webb is giving up fewer than five yards per pass this season, numbers that approach Darrelle Revis territoty. There’s nothing to say Webb would have kept up this performance over 16 games, but he had definitely turned into one of the league’s premier cover guys. The Ravens’ 2011 first-rounder, Jimmy Smith, will likely take his spot in the lineup, and this means a serious downgrade. Smith has played well as a nickelback, but it’s unlikely that his success in that scheme will translate to similar effectiveness in a full-time role. Thankfully the Ravens still have Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed to help out the corners, who will almost likely be tested a lot in the coming weeks.
Lewis is one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL, but the wear and tear of his 17 years had been showing even before the injury. He remains a tackle machine, but he may have lost a step and he doesn’t have great support from the rest of the Ravens’ defense. This is a big reason why the Ravens are giving up well over 100 yards per game on the ground, and why replacing Lewis with Dannelle Ellerbe may not have as big an impact as expected. Essentially, they can’t get much worse when it comes to the running game. Where they’ll miss Lewis more, however, may be as on-field coach and motivator. Nobody brings the intangibles quite like number 52, and the team will need another vet like Ed Reed to step up in this area.
With an efficient offense that can put up yards on the ground and through the air, this team remains a threat. It may not be the injuries that present the greatest threat to success, but instead a killer schedule the rest of the way. Besides Cleveland and Oakland, there aren’t any lightweights on the schedule. This team still has two games against the Steelers, road games against the Texans, Chargers, Redskins and Bengals, and tough home dates with the Giants and Broncos. The adjustments on defense will definitely be tested by guys like Roethlisberger, Schaub, RGIII and the Mannings. Ravens fans should also take heart, though, in the hopefully-soon return of Terell Suggs, who should help what has been a weak pass rush. If Suggs returns and is effective, the Ravens should still be playing in January.
2) Can the 49ers win a Super Bowl with Alex Smith at QB?
This is probably an unfair time to ask this question, given that Smith is coming off his worst performance of the season against the Giants. Given his underwhelming yardage numbers and the fact that Smith performed poorly in this NFC title game rematch, however, it’s a question that has to be asked. And if we can look past what was obviously a poor outing, the answer is that the 49ers still have the ability to win a title with Smith under center.
The 49ers have one of the league’s best rushing attacks led by Frank Gore, and a group of receivers that has been significantly upgraded from a year ago. Vernon Davis remains a monster at tight end, Michael Crabtree now looks as good in the pros as he did in college, and new additions Mario Manningham and Randy Moss are excellent targets that can stretch the field. This upgrade is reflected in Smith’s improved quarterback rating, and in the fact that he’s throwing for about 20 yards more per game this year than in 2011. Overall this is one of the league’s most efficient offenses, both on the ground and through the air.
There aren’t many questions about the defense, even after this last week. They have had only one game in which they looked outmatched, and that came against an inspired Christian Ponder-led Vikings team. If those two teams played ten times, the 49ers likely win eight of them, but they just got caught on a day when everything went right for Minnesota. Even this past weekend in which the Giants scored 26 points, the Niners’ D did a good job of shutting down Eli Manning. Ahmad Bradshaw did have a good running day with over 100 yards, but this isn’t something that normally happens with San Francisco. The defense should remain a top-five unit capable of shutting down opponents.
So what does Smith need to win? He needs a line that will protect him, and he needs to make good decisions. This is a guy who had a 17/5 TD/INT ratio in 2011, so his judgment in making passes is usually pretty good. If anything, he tends to hold the ball too often which explains some of the 18 sacks against the 49ers already this season. Smith needs to make decisions more quickly, and to get rid of the ball instead of taking the sack. If he does that, the 49ers remain one of the biggest threats in a very deep conference. If he turns back to “bad” Alex Smith as he did this past weekend, however, the 49ers will likely suffer another disappointing home playoff loss. And if Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson can win Super Bowls, why not Alex Smith?
3) Do the Giants have any chance of repeating as Super Bowl champs?
It’s likely that most football fans have learned over the past five years that they should not doubt Eli Manning and the Giants. Twice they have found their way to the Super Bowl, and twice they have dramatically upended the favored Patriots. And while the G-men are only a game ahead of division rivals at this point with no guarantee of even making the playoffs, early results would suggest that this team should not be discounted until they have been officially eliminated.
The blemishes so far on the Giants’ season were an opening-season defeat at home against Dallas, and a road game in Philly where they had a chance to win on a last-second field goal. They also have two rather ugly wins against inferior opponents in the Bucs and Browns. However, the performance they put on in San Francisco this past weekend is exactly why everyone should remain wary of the Giants come playoff time. They put enormous pressure on Alex Smith, forcing three interceptions, and then used a strong run game to control the tempo. Eli Manning has been good, and showed in the Cleveland game that he can light it up when he needs to do so.
According to the metrics used at Football Outsiders, the Giants have the league’s most efficient offense and it’s something for which they probably don’t get the deserved credit. Their defense has not been great especially early in games, but against both Tampa and Cleveland they performed better later in the game. This is also a defense that has proven in the past that they can perform in the playoffs. They have only been about league-average this season, but that’s good enough so far to have them at 4-2. There are still a lot of fans who believe that one or both of the Giants’ recent Super Bowl wins were flukes – and some players including Clay Matthews who believe they shouldn’t have even made it there last season – but this is a very good and very dangerous team.
Betting six weeks into the season about what will happen come January in the NFL is a proposition fraught with risk, but it would surprising to see the three teams discussed here not in the mix come playoff time. Even with injuries for the Ravens, more questions about Alex Smith and the annual doubting of the Giants, all three remain serious threats. How they play over the next four weeks should give us a better idea of just how serious those threats may be. No matter what happens with them, it’s a guarantee that this NFL season will continue to provide plenty of surprises.