It’s always an honor to fill in for the 10 Thoughts column. Let’s take a tour around the league.
1. The NFC East stinks.
The NFC East might be the worst division in recent memory while the NFC West looks stout from top to bottom. By luck of the draw, the two divisions play each other this year, with the Rams already sweeping the entire division. NFC West teams have racked up eight wins to only one loss, the 49ers losing to the Eagles. The NFC East also plays the AFC North, which isn’t quite as strong top-to-bottom as the NFC West, but it features two top contenders. The NFC East has yet to strike a win against the AFC North, compiling an 0-6-1 record. This got me thinking about “historically good” vs. “historically bad” divisions and if we’ve had a situation where the two have played each other during the season. The best comparison we have to what this disaster-in-the-making NFC East would be the two times divisions sent their champions into the playoffs with a losing record.
The 2010 NFC West crowned the Seattle Seahawks at 7-9. The NFC West turned in a record of 3-11 against the NFC South that season, a division that had three squads compile 10 or more wins and Jimmy Clausen’s Carolina Panthers who struggled to win two games that year - both against the NFC West.
The 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers represented the 2014 NFC South, edging out the 7-9 New Orleans Saints. The NFC South played a good AFC North that year, who sent all but the 7-9 Browns to the playoffs. The NFC South earned 3.5 wins (3-12-1) against the AFC North that year.
I’m sure there’s an anomaly somewhere in the record books, but that’s the most lopsided I could find with some of the worst divisions since the division realignment. The NFC East at 1-8 against the NFC West and 0-6-1 against the AFC North would appear to be on track to set a record of futility that would be difficult to break.
2. The Buccaneers plan came together, fast.
The Bucs retooled in the off-season by bringing in Tom Brady to run the Bruce Arians offense. A lot of people wondered if Tom Brady could survive outside of the New England bubble, but if you’ve followed Arians’ career, this shouldn’t surprise you. The Arians book The Quarterback Whisperer, details his career with a wide variety of QBs and the success he had with some of the biggest names in the game.
I’m not surprised he was able to woo Brady to the Swashbucklers and even less surprised that they’ve got the offense clicking. The Bucs currently lead the league in points and point differential through seven weeks. The point differential piece has a lot to do with Todd Bowles and his top-rated defense. When Vic Fangio left for Denver, the top candidate to replace him in Chicago was Bowles, who showed interest in the job but had already promised Arians he’d rejoin him. The combination of Bowles and Arians, with Brady serving as the Triggerman, looks like the most balanced team in the senior circuit. If the Bears want to make a deep run in the playoffs, there’s a good chance they’ll have to beat Brady again.
3. Kyler Murray: Fast, Fun, and Fearless.
Arians’ old team, the Arizona Cardinals, established themselves as one of the early-season surprises with a 5-2 record. The Cardinals were one of my favorite preseason bets as they appeared poised to take a leap in Year 2 with Kyler Murray to lift them to Wildcard contention. Murray’s running has actually increased from his rookie season, currently on pace for 999 yards. If he’s able to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, he’d join only Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson as the only QBs with that distinction.
He’s been more accurate in the passing game and cut down on the number of sacks he’s taking by a wide margin, but the interceptions are still an issue. The real surprise has been the defense, which looked completely lost a year ago. The defense has improved greatly, getting torched by the great Russell Wilson notwithstanding. They could be a player in the NFC West race down the stretch and will certainly be in the mix for the postseason.
4. Could the Dolphins make the AFC East interesting?
The Jets are a laughingstock, headed for a possible 0-16 campaign. The Patriots, after losing Brady and watching a league-high number of players opting out for the year, look like their roster issues are too great for even for Bill Belichick to overcome. Easy path for the Bills to the title, right? Not so fast, my friends.
The Dolphins tanked for Tua (well, they were tanking for the #1 pick, started to play well at the end of 2019 and almost played themselves out of position, but an injury to Tua allowed him to fall back into their lap...) and will start the young signal-caller in Week 8. Ryan Fitzpatrick played well to hold the seat down, but starting Tua after a bye week represents a classic move and probably something that was determined according to a bigger plan. Kudos to Brian Flores for how he’s got this young squad playing in the early going in 2020, in the thick of it for an AFC playoff spot. If Tua can show out like his fellow rookies Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, the Dolphins should be able to make the Bills sweat down the stretch.
My fingers are crossed for NBC to find some loophole to pull the plug from Eagles-Cowboys and replace it with the 6-0 Steelers traveling to Baltimore to take on the 5-1 Ravens so everyone can watch this one. The Ravens came into 2020 as the overwhelming favorites to repeat as division winners despite the fact that the Steelers roster was brimming with talent and the return of Big Ben offered a path to dominance.
There are only four teams with a point differential of 60 or more - the aforementioned Bucs (80), Chiefs (75), Ravens (75), and the Steelers (65). They’re winning games and winning them comfortably. Looking at the schedule for both teams shows it might take something like 13 wins to take this division given that both teams should be able to walk through the NFC East games. If you’re someone who only watches the Bears or picks and chooses your viewing, move your schedule around to try and catch this one.
6. The Titans doubled down and it paid off.
The betting line that made the least sense to me coming into the year was the Titans over/under wins set at 8.5. This was a squad that made a deep playoff run and absolutely could have made and won the Super Bowl with how well they were playing. Oddsmakers put them as the second-place team to the Colts and no offense to the Colts, but the Titans had a plan that was already realized where the Colts were bringing in a lot of pieces.
I still like the Titans to win the division by the end of the season but it’s going to be a good race. The Titans are the type of team that Bears fans would love to see in Chicago. Tough and gritty with a power run game and an efficient QB that takes care of the ball. The Bears were already outclassed by the Colts earlier this year. It may be a bitter pill to swallow when the Bears travel to Nashville in two weeks.
7. Justin Herbert proving doubters wrong.
Many scouts were down on Herbert and panned the selection when the Chargers made it. The offseason chatter centered around Tyrod Taylor leading the team while Herbert took a redshirt year. Well, a poorly administered shot to Taylor led to Herbert taking a spot start and never looking back. Herbert’s first five starts have him hitting 67% of his passes with a 12-3 TD:INT ratio and oh, by the way, he’s run for another 120 yards and 2 scores. He picked up his first career victory against the lowly Jaguars (and preserved my Survivor record in the process) on Sunday and vaulted himself into the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation.
8. The Vikings are broken, so that’s nice.
Let’s ignore the success of that other team in the division and revel in some schadenfreude, shall we? The Vikings tried the “re-tool on the fly” approach by trading away Stefon Diggs, cutting some contracts, and rebuilding their secondary from the draft. While the early returns on Justin Jefferson look great, the offensive line still struggles and the newly-extended Kirk Cousins is, well, still Kirk Cousins. The extension for Cousins puts him on this roster in 2021 with a reasonable out in the ‘22 offseason. The Vikings also extended Mike Zimmer before the season, so I imagine that they thought he could coach through this. If the bottom falls out for this team, it could be one of those disasters that lasts multiple years. Again, it’s nice when things aren’t going well elsewhere in the division.
9. The Bears are stuck in purgatory...
Let’s face it, the Bears have enough talent to be a fun watch on most weekends (Monday night being a glaring exception). They have elite players at all three levels of the defense playing some good football. The referees seem to love showering their play with yellow laundry but that’s a different story for a different time.
However, they’re not good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs with this offense. The Bears tried to make a play for Teddy Bridgewater, who looks good in Carolina. Maybe they should have just cut Mitchell Trubisky before Free Agency to signal to someone like Bridgewater that the job was his. The Bears may have made a play for Tom Brady too, who looks fantastic in Tampa Bay. The point is that Ryan Pace tried to make the right call but ultimately couldn’t woo those players to the Windy City.
He went with what we know was at least the third option, Nick Foles. The journeyman QB has been about as expected, a guy who can read a defense but runs hot and cold. Indeed, the Follercoaster is a most apt description. The Bears should find themselves playing on Wildcard Weekend with a draft pick in the low 20s and a low chance to snag a top signal-caller in next year’s draft. It’s a tough place to live.
10. But maybe we can enjoy it anyway?
Here’s my plea. 2020 has been an incredibly challenging year with a global pandemic, a contentious election, and everything in between. We’ve been gifted this opportunity to watch the game of football with limited issues. No, the Bears are not the best team in the league and yes, they need to address their offensive line, and who knows if they will they ever find a franchise QB. All of that is true, but maybe, just maybe, we can set reasonable expectations for what this team is, put on our navy and orange gear on Sundays, and cheer like crazy for this team. Stay safe and Bear down.
Follow JB on Twitter @gridironborn and listen to his podcast Bears Over Beers with EJ Snyder.