16. Arizona Cardinals: 2-6; Predicted finish 3-13
What's gone right: Running back Beanie Wells was Arizona's biggest early-season bright spot, racking up seven touchdowns and 506 yards on 113 carries (4.48 average) in the first seven games before knee and stinger injuries caught up to him in Week 9. Though rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson has been a liability in pass coverage, he's sparked the Cardinals' special teams with three punt return touchdowns, including last week's 99-yard game-winner against the Rams.
What's gone wrong: Arizona's defense is easy to move the ball against because it can't stop the pass. Safety Kerry Rhodes, the team's best defensive back in coverage, fractured his left foot on Oct. 9 and remains out indefinitely. No NFC team has allowed more completions of 20-plus yards. Offensively, quarterback Kevin Kolb has been a bust. Now injured, the $65 million summer addition has more turnovers than touchdowns and arguably the worst pocket presence in football.
What's next: Unless Kolb overcomes his fear of the pass rush, this team is headed nowhere fast. The defense lacks edge-rusher talent to cover up secondary deficiencies, and Wells has admitted that his knee won't be healthy the rest of the season. Unlike St. Louis, Arizona has already played the easy half of its schedule. Three wins from here on out would be an accomplishment.
15. Seattle Seahawks: 2-6; Predicted finish 3-13
What's gone right: The Seahawks play tough run defense, or at least they had been until Cowboys rookie DeMarco Murray burned them last week. And that's about it. While coach Pete Carroll usually gets his team to play hard on Sundays, his roster is too talent-poor to be competitive. At 2-6, Seattle is second in the brutal NFC West, but five games behind first-place San Francisco.
What's gone wrong: The quarterback and offensive line play have been among the NFL's poorest, and wildly inconsistent week to week. The front five is the biggest culprit, surrendering the league's second most sacks and opening enough holes to generate only the third-fewest rushing yards. Defensively, Seattle is 30th in sacks and has lost top corner Marcus Trufant for the season.
What's next: The Seahawks are the NFL's least talented team. They're almost certainly looking at a top-five pick in the 2012 draft, which figures to be used on a quarterback. Carroll and G.M. John Schneider didn't take the position seriously when they signed Tarvaris Jackson in July. They also need a running back, line help, and a difference-making pass rusher. It's a long road ahead.
14. St. Louis Rams: 1-7; Predicted finish 4-12
What's gone right: Since the Week 5 bye, tailback Steven Jackson is averaging over five yards a carry and 133 total yards per game. Jackson was in and out of the lineup for the first month with a quadriceps injury, but he's been St. Louis' most consistent offensive playmaker after preseason concerns that he'd lost a step. Trade-deadline acquisition Brandon Lloyd has given the Rams a receiver capable of separating from defensive backs. On defense, steady middle linebacker James Laurinaitis leads the team in tackles (61) and end Chris Long has a club-high seven sacks.
What's gone wrong: St. Louis played its first seven games against teams that have a combined 36-21 record, losing six straight to open the season before a stunning win over New Orleans. The Rams failed to build on the upset by falling 19-13 to the Cardinals in Week 9. St. Louis lost its top three cornerbacks to year-ending injuries and quarterback Sam Bradford to a high ankle sprain. But injuries aren't a viable excuse. This is a roster short on talent and still in a rebuilding phase.
What's next: Whereas their first seven opponents are 36-21, the Rams play their next five games against teams with a 16-24 record. St. Louis can make up some ground in the NFC West with five division games left. With Bradford healthy, a fast finish isn't out of the question. But coach Steve Spagnuolo will need to worry about his job security if the Rams keep losing to teams such as the Cardinals.
13. Minnesota Vikings: 2-6; Predicted finish 5-11
Adam Bettcher Getty Images Vikings running back Adrian Peterson leads the NFC in rushing yards. Image: Peterson
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson leads the NFC in rushing yards.
What's gone right: Tailback Adrian Peterson leads the NFC in rushing yards and defensive end Jared Allen leads the league in sacks, but those individual stats don't translate to wins when you can't pass the ball or defend it in a passing league. The lone other bright spot has been Minnesota's run defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL and allows just 3.81 yards per carry.
What's gone wrong: The Vikings' offseason trade for Donovan McNabb was a disaster, and they were forced to bench him for rookie Christian Ponder after six starts. Minnesota surrounded McNabb with the worst combination of offensive line play and outside receivers in the league, but the 34-year-old's nonexistent mobility and accuracy were his undoing. On defense, top cornerback Antoine Winfield has missed four games with a neck injury and promising No. 2 corner Chris Cook was suspended indefinitely by the team after a felony domestic assault charge.
What's next: Ponder has moved the chains far more efficiently than McNabb through two starts, and the Vikings will continue to lean on Peterson and slot receiver Percy Harvin to buoy the offense. Although Minnesota scored 24 points in just 1 of 6 games with McNabb under center, they've done so in both of Ponder's starts. A tough second-half schedule probablky will merit the Vikings a top-10 pick in 2012, but they should at least be more competitive in the final eight games.
12. Washington Redskins: 3-5; Predicted finish 5-11
What's gone right: The Redskins had the look of a playoff team in the season's first month, destroying the Giants and making quick work of Arizona and St. Louis. A quarterback change ensued when the Eagles picked off Rex Grossman four times after the Week 5 bye, and the 'Skins are officially reeling with four straight losses. The bright spot has been the rookie class. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has three sacks, a pick-six, and two forced fumbles, while tailback Roy Helu, wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, and guard Maurice Hurt have all earned starting roles.
What's gone wrong: Washington entered the season with little to no depth, so losing top wideout Santana Moss (fractured hand), running back Tim Hightower (torn ACL), left tackle Trent Williams (high ankle sprain), and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger (torn ACL and MCL) were particularly big blows to the offense. New starting quarterback John Beck hasn't been an upgrade on Grossman, checking down constantly and holding onto the ball far too long. The Skins just can't score.
What's next: The Redskins are who we thought they were in the preseason: a bad, quarterback-less team in need of two or three more deep draft classes to re-charge the roster. Early returns on the 2011 class are promising, but this isn't a team destined to finish with many more victories.
11: Carolina Panthers: 2-6; Predicted finish 6-10
What's gone right: At the halfway point, No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton is a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. Ranked sixth in passing yards, fourth in yards-per-attempt, and third in rushing touchdowns, Newton has exploded onto the scene with a dynamic all-around game, keeping the Panthers competitive each and every week. Of Carolina's six losses, only one was greater than one score. Clearly still in his prime, 32-year-old receiver Steve Smith is second in the league in receiving yards, first in 20-plus yard receptions, and second in yards per catch.
What's gone wrong: The defense can't stop anyone. Carolina ranks 27th against the run, giving up 4.63 yards per carry and the most rushing touchdowns in the league. The secondary has been a sieve, though opponents typically just run the ball down Carolina's throat.
What's next: The Panthers already have shown the ability to score with the best offenses in the game; they had Green Bay on the ropes in Week 2 and narrowly lost to the Saints, 30-27. The schedule eases up a bit in the second half, with the reeling Titans, 0-9 Colts and beatable division-rival Bucs constituting three of the Panthers' next four opponents. This team will finish fast if the defense so much as slightly stiffens, and Newton continues to pour points on the opposition.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4-4; Predicted finish 7-9
Brian Blanco AP Quarterback Josh Freeman has hurt Tampa Bay with his inconsistency. Image: Freeman
Quarterback Josh Freeman has hurt Tampa Bay with his inconsistency.
What's gone right: The Bucs are lucky to be .500. Though many of Tampa Bay's skill players and its defense have regressed from last season, the coaches get the game-day 46 to play hard on a weekly basis. The Bucs have eked out wins over the Falcons and Saints by nine combined points, while taking care of business against the Colts and Vikings.
What's gone wrong: In theory, the NFL's youngest team should improve on last year's 10-6 finish. For Tampa, it probably won't happen. Quarterback Josh Freeman has reverted to the turnover-prone ways of his rookie season in 2009, and his receivers have struggled to create separation outside. Running back LeGarrette Blount missed three games with a torn MCL. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is out for the year, curbing both the pass rush and run defense.
What's next: This is still a promising team with an average age of 25.8 for starters on offense and 25.9 on defense. In terms of second-half schedule, the Bucs face only three teams with winning records. While the projected finish here is probably more realistic because the Bucs just aren't that good, the remaining opponents are weak enough that Tampa can still turn its season around.
9. Philadelphia Eagles: 3-5; Predicted finish 8-8
What's gone right: Generating comparisons to Barry Sanders, LeSean McCoy has emerged as perhaps the NFL's most dynamic all-purpose back. McCoy is averaging a scintillating 5.46 yards per carry, and is on pace for career highs in total yards (2,018) and touchdowns (22). Philly ranks in the top 10 in sacks and pass defense, creating consistent pressure with new line coach Jim Washburn's Wide-9 scheme. After a scary offseason bout with an undisclosed illness, Jeremy Maclin has emerged as quarterback Michael Vick's top receiver and is on pace for 1,212 yards.
What's gone wrong: After an offseason heavy on turnover, the Eagles started slowly. While Washburn's system has sparked the team's sack total, it has created holes for opposing ground attacks to exploit by sacrificing gap control in favor of up-field pass rush. The Eagles don't have good enough linebackers to fill the lanes, and the run defense has been among the NFL's poorest. Opponents have largely taken away Philadelphia's vertical passing game by playing two deep safeties, and long-ball extraordinaire DeSean Jackson has been held in check.
What's next: In order to make the playoffs, this team will have to finish at least 7-1. There is next to no margin for error. While coach Andy Reid and G.M. Howie Roseman did well to assemble a talented roster, they picked the worst possible time after a lockout eliminated offseason workouts. The Eagles will be on the couch in January.
8. Dallas Cowboys: 4-4; Predicted finish 9-7
What's gone right: Dallas may have unearthed a star in third-round rookie DeMarco Murray, who replaced injured Felix Jones as the Cowboys' starting tailback in Week 7. Averaging 8.47 yards per carry in the last three games, Murray will keep the job when Jones returns. Even with Miles Austin (hamstring) sidelined into December, the passing game can stay among the league's most explosive with quarterback Tony Romo healthy, Dez Bryant emerging as a true No. 1 receiver, and Jason Witten playing as effectively as ever. The Cowboys field a top-10 run defense, and linebacker DeMarcus Ware ranks second in the league in sacks with a dozen.
What's gone wrong: Injuries have been the Cowboys' biggest obstacle. Bryant, Jones, Romo, and Austin have been banged up, and on defense inside linebacker Sean Lee will now attempt to play through a dislocated wrist. Top cornerback Mike Jenkins will miss at least two more games with a hamstring injury. The offensive line has been constantly re-shuffled.
What's next: This is a better team than its record suggests, and will make the playoffs if it can overcome the first-half string of bad luck. The Cowboys have a soft schedule over the next month, facing Buffalo, Washington, Miami, and Arizona, who boast a combined 11-21 record. The final month isn't as easy, so Dallas must emerge from the soft stretch with three to four victories.
7. Atlanta Falcons: 5-3; Predicted finish 9-7
What's gone right: Old reliables Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner have been as solid as you'd expect, but Julio Jones has added a difference-making element on the perimeter. Bypassing Roddy White as the Falcons' No. 1 receiver, Jones has over 100 yards in three of his last four games, including a 164-total yard, two-score destruction of the Colts in Week 9. Atlanta's run defense has been a steadying force on the opposite side of the ball, ranking seventh in the league and allowing under four yards a carry. Defensive tackle Corey Peters is having a breakout year.
What's gone wrong: As a whole, the passing game has sputtered. G.M. Thomas Dimitroff made upgrading quarterback Matt Ryan's receiver corps a top offseason priority, but the coaching staff has gotten away from upper-management's design with a run-heavy offense due to Ryan's early-season woes. Losing position coach Bill Musgrave may have affected Ryan more than anyone anticipated. Defensively, it hasn't helped that Atlanta is tied for 27th in sacks and has gotten poor performances from virtually every member of the pass defense save cornerback Brent Grimes.
What's next: The Falcons start the second half on a three-game win streak and have just three opponents left with winning records. While the schedule fits nicely for a playoff push, Atlanta is difficult to trust because it has yet to put together a complete game against a tough opponent.
6. Chicago Bears: 5-3; Predicted finish 10-6
What's gone right: The Bears have overcome a shaky start that included decisive losses to the Saints, Packers, and Lions in the first five weeks by reeling off back-to-back-to-back wins against the Vikings, Bucs, and Eagles. Offensive line guru Mike Tice has seemingly fixed early-season pass protection woes, and quarterback Jay Cutler has taken just three sacks during the three-game win streak. The star of the show, however, has been Matt Forte. The contract-year running back is averaging a league-high 155 total yards per game and a career-best 5.44 yards per carry.
What's gone wrong: As a team, the Bears struggle mightily for consistency. The Jekyll & Hyde unit has been hit or miss in both run and pass defense, and it remains to be seen whether the passing game can stay effective for a long stretch. Chicago still has precious little depth, so any big injury to a key cog like Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, or Forte could quickly alter the team's destiny.
What's next: The Bears still have the entire AFC West and Seattle left on their schedule, plus the Vikings in Week 17. Aside from the Packers in Week 16 and Lions in a Week 10 home game, the remaining slate isn't at all intimidating. Chicago is set up well for a second straight playoff berth.
5. Detroit Lions: 6-2; Predicted finish 10-6
What's gone right: Across the league, there isn't a hotter quarterback-to-receiver connection than Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. Through eight games, the duo has hooked up for 11 touchdowns and an average of over 17 yards per completion. Detroit's aggressive defense ranks fourth in sacks and sixth against the pass, and first-round pick Nick Fairley hasn't so much as made a dent yet. Some observers have doubted the Lions' fast start, but the talent was always there. Stafford is allaying health concerns, and is on pace for 38 touchdowns and 4,358 yards.
What's gone wrong: Explosive tailback Jahvid Best is out indefinitely after suffering his second concussion since camp. The Lions have reliable backups in Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams, but neither possesses Best's game-breaking speed. While Detroit has an attacking mentality up front on defense, it remains susceptible to ground attacks. The Lions rank 28th against the run and 31st in yards per rushing attempt allowed, surrendering an average of 5.24 yards per carry.
What's next: Detroit has a high enough skill level to stay in the playoff hunt into late December, but the remaining slate is unforgiving. The Lions play the Packers twice, Bears and Saints away, and the Chargers at home. There may not be a tougher second-half schedule in the league.
4. New Orleans Saints: 6-3; Predicted finish 11-5
What's gone right: Behind the Packers, the Saints may be football's most dominant home team. In four games at the Superdome, New Orleans is undefeated by a 159-69 margin. Drew Brees is 115-of-152 passing (75.7 percent) in those games with a 306-yard average and 13:3 TD-to-INT ratio. While the defense has been shaky, particularly against the run, the Saints simply score too many points for most opponents to keep pace. Former college basketball player Jimmy Graham has emerged as Brees' top target, statistically lapping the NFL's tight end field.
What's gone wrong: It goes without saying, then, that the Saints have been a hit-or-miss team on the road. They've dropped should-be wins to the Rams and Bucs in away games and play three of their next five contests in other teams' venues. Defensively, the Saints would have nothing going right without exceptional secondary play. The pass rush has been maddeningly inconsistent despite blitzing on 70 percent of their snaps, and they're doling out a league-high 5.33 yards per carry.
What's next: The Saints play the Falcons twice, Giants, Lions, and upstart Panthers in five of their final seven games. With a Week 11 bye, New Orleans' other two opponents are Tennessee and Minnesota, both on the road. There's little doubt that the Saints will be playing in mid-January, but their ability to overcome away-game hiccups will go a long way toward determining their seed.
3. New York Giants: 6-2; Predicted finish 11-5
What's gone right: This August, Eli Manning drew heavy criticism for calling himself an elite, top-five NFL quarterback in the same class as Tom Brady. He's been just that through the initial eight games. On pace for career highs in completion rate (63 percent), passing yards (4,754), yards-per-attempt average (8.5), and passer rating (98.8), Eli has silenced the critics with a breakout year at age 30. With his running game performing inconsistently, Manning has been aided by the emergence of big-play slot receiver Victor Cruz. On defense, the Giants lead the NFL in sacks.
What's gone wrong: Lead running back Ahmad Bradshaw is missing time with a fracture in his foot, though Brandon Jacobs admirably picked up the slack in a Week 9 win over New England. Not much has gone wrong for the Giants so far. New York's run defense has missed defensive end Justin Tuck when he's been held out of four games with neck and groin injuries, but Tuck used the Week 7 bye to get healthy and helped stymie the Patriots' rushing attack last week.
What's next: The Giants close out the season with an incredibly difficult schedule, heading to San Francisco in Week 10, New Orleans in Week 12, Dallas in Week 14, and to New York to face the Jets in Week 16. Their remaining home games are against the Eagles, Packers, Redskins, and Cowboys. The sledding isn't easy, but the G-Men have proven to be the cream of the NFC East crop so far.
2. San Francisco 49ers: 7-1; Predicted finish 11-5
What's gone right: Jim Harbaugh is playing old-school football in his first season as an NFL coach, and it's working. The quarterback manages games, the rushing attack is the centerpiece of Harbaugh's offense, and there may not be a more dominant defense. The 49ers do have explosive passing-game elements. Big-play wideout Braylon Edwards has returned from a torn meniscus, Michael Crabtree is playing the most consistent football of his life, and Vernon Davis has blocked at an All-Pro level. Defense is still the name of the game in San Francisco.
What's gone wrong: Frank Gore has rebounded, but got off to a painfully slow start with a 2.51 yards-per-carry average in his first three games. It was during that time that the 49ers appeared to be a pushover team, losing to the Cowboys at home and barely beating the Bengals. The Niners don't have a whole lot of offense. Just two of their seven wins have come by more than 10 points.
What's next: The 49ers' final eight games include five opponents in the pathetic NFC West. Put simply, this team is playoff bound. We just don't see many teams advance in the playoffs without effective quarterback play. Alex Smith will likely be this team's undoing, but there's no taking away what Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have done. It's been a magical season.
1. Green Bay Packers: 8-0; Predicted finish 16-0
What's gone right: Just about everything. There's a sizable gap between Green Bay and the rest of the league, and it's scary to think that virtually-unguardable tight end Jermichael Finley hasn't even hit his stride. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing the position at its highest level, leading the NFL in completion rate, touchdown passes, yards-per-attempt average, and passer rating. On defense, the Packers lead the league in interceptions and rank in the top eight against the run.
What's gone wrong: The stats are skewed by the fact that Green Bay pours on points and forces opponents into pass-heavy comeback mode, thereby inflating yard and touchdown numbers. But the Packers rank last in the NFC against the pass while serving up an NFC-most 38 20-plus yard completions. The pass rush has been inconsistent, and the running game is used more as a change of pace than a surefire way to beat defenses into submission.
What's next: The Packers are the NFL's lone undefeated team left. Most prominently standing in Green Bay's way of a perfect season are two games against the 6-2 Lions and a Week 13 trip to face the Giants in New York. Only an "off-day" could cause the Packers to drop one of those games, and they haven't appeared at any risk of a hiccup. This is easily the best team in football.