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What we've learned from first four games

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What we've learned from first four games

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What we've learned from first four games

Somehow, some way, 25 percent of the 2012 NFL season is already in the record books and I feel like I know less today than I did when the Cowboys and Giants went head-to-head with Bill Clinton on prime-time TV four weeks ago.

Let’s talk about the very few things we do know for sure. The first is if the Packers fail to make the playoffs because of a tiebreaker or miss being part of a tiebreaker by only one game, they will be the victims of the greatest screw job in the Super Bowl era of the National Football League. Conversely, if the Seahawks make the playoffs by one game or get in on a tiebreaker, they will be the biggest joke in the Super Bowl era. Should either team be in the playoffs and have their seeding or home-field advantage impacted by the completely avoidable mistake created by the owners’ lockout of the officials for the first three weeks of the season, it will forever leave an asterisk on this season. Of course, we could go on for quite a while on this subject.

I understand the position Roger Goodell and the owners are now forced to take of, “it happened, it’s over now, let’s move on and forgive and forget.” What else can they do or say? And the fact is, with an eight-year deal now in place and the games already looking dramatically better with only one week of real officiating in the book, there really isn’t any point in crying over spilled milk. Unless of course you’re a Packers’ fan and you continue to read quotes from a number of team owners, saying, “in a couple weeks nobody will even remember,” or claiming that such an egregious mistake could have been made by the real refs as well. What a crock!

It is over and it’s time to move on, but the fact that the other 31 owners and the commissioner are refusing to own the screwing they gave the Packers seems inexcusable to me. It isn’t the replacement officials who screwed the Packers and their fans; they should have never been there in the first place. It’s the NFL owners who are to blame and real closure can only come from them standing up and shouldering the blame.

Secondly, it’s time for Roger Goodell to drop the other shoe on Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. While the officiating debacle gave the commissioner some cover to put distance between himself and his botched handling of the discipline of those four players for their roles in “Bountygate,” any further delay will only make whatever ruling he comes back with next that much more controversial. For those of you who have forgotten, the suspensions the commissioner handed those four players were not overturned, they were just stayed until the players’ appeals were heard and the commissioner could issue a new ruling.

If Goodell now issues these players lesser sentences, he clearly will be accepting a firm slap on the wrist from the three-person appeals panel that sent the case back to him. If he sticks to his guns and waits too much longer to do it, he will only increase the amount of scrutiny his use of his power has come under in recent months. Either way, with the stain of the officials’ lockout now in the process of being cleansed, it’s time to put “Bountygate” in the rearview mirror as well.

What we don’t seem to know is if there are actually any potential Super Bowl champs in the NFL this season, and if there is any club we can put away until next year. Is this the year when the season ends with three 12-4 clubs, three at 4-12 and the other 26 all 8-8? Laugh now, my friends, but how are you distinguishing these clubs?

Even though the 49ers trail the Falcons, Cardinals and Texans by a game, I still feel pretty confident they’re the best team in the league, with Houston breathing right down their necks. How and/or why San Francisco came up as flat as it did in Minnesota in Week Three is a question coaches and fans have wrestled with for longer than there have been footballs. However, the more I watch them — and particularly after watching what they did to the Jets last week — the more I’m convinced they’re the most complete team in the league and one of the best I’ve seen the past four or five campaigns.

I like the Texans a lot, too, but they’re going to have to at least play a team with a shot at making the playoffs — not to mention beat one before I can put them in the same league with San Francisco. After Houston takes apart the Jets next Monday, we’ll start to get some idea of who it really is with consecutive games against Green Bay, Baltimore, Buffalo and Chicago.

I was on the Falcons’ bandwagon, but their struggle with Carolina last Sunday gave me pause. I love the skill players Atlanta has on offense, but that offensive line still might prove its undoing when the playoffs roll around, and I’m not seeing the top-end talent to keep that defense as stout as it was the first three weeks, either.

Rounding out the NFC with 25 percent hindsight I have now that I didn’t have when we made our preseason picks, I’m hard–pressed to see either the Eagles or Giants not being in the playoffs, assuming they can avoid injury epidemics. I was on the sidelines for the Dial Global radio network on Sunday night on the Giants-Eagles broadcast, and it was the best football game I’ve seen this season. Both clubs are extremely physical and fast on defense, and both are capable of scoring points in bunches, but both are really struggling on the offensive line and Mike Vick still looks more like an athlete playing quarterback than a QB who has arrived.

Believe what you want about the 4-0 Cardinals and 3-1 Vikings, both clearly much better than anyone thought they would be, but I still don’t see either of them as playoff clubs. The Vikes’ win over the 49ers was actually the real deal  — as opposed to the Patriots beating themselves the day the Cardinals showed up in Foxborough — but each of these teams has holes in their depth charts you can drive Jerry Jones’ ego through, and both will have difficult losing streaks in the coming weeks.

In spite of all we’ve seen, it still feels to me like the Packers will win the NFC North and that leaves the Bears, Cowboys, Seahawks and Cardinals fighting for one wild-card spot.

At this point, I don’t know how good the Patriots are, but I do know they’re the best team in the AFC East, and that defense is going to be a lot better in Week 14 than it is today. So even at 2-2, I think you have to like their chances of meeting Houston in the AFC title game.

Why not the Ravens, you ask? Because I still believe they and the Steelers are taking a small step backward this season and in another game I worked the sidelines for Dial Global, I don’t think there’s any way they would have beaten the Pats in Baltimore with real officials on the field. Baltimore is the best in the AFC North again, but this is a slightly off year for that division.

I know the Chargers had a brain fart at home against the Falcons, but they are awfully explosive on offense and seem to have found some of the pass rush they were looking for, so I like them in the AFC West. I think the Broncos have proven they’re not good enough around Peyton Manning and whatever I thought I saw in the Chiefs coming into the season either isn’t there or might have already waited too long to show itself on the field. They’re not done at 1-3, but they have looked very bad.

So if Houston, New England, Baltimore and San Diego grab the first four seeds, which AFC clubs are wild? The Bengals continue to beat up on the clubs they should but still haven’t beaten one they’d have to in order to make noise in January. With San Diego, Denver, Baltimore and two with Pittsburgh still to come, and then the NFC East gauntlet to run, I can’t see the Bengals better than 8-8. I want to believe in the Bills, but after what the Pats did to them Sunday, how can you? It feels like it almost has to be the Steelers again. Other than that, the only clubs I’d rule out of the chase for the sixth seed in the AFC are Oakland, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Cleveland and the Jets.

Will it all feel better and more certain when December rolls around? I’m sure it will. It already has improved by light years with the real officials back. Sure, there were still calls missed and questioned in Week Four, but not on every play. Players and benches were back under control, pass interference wasn’t called every time the ball went in the air and games are back closer to three hours than four. “Bountygate” has really always been about one team anyway, and I’m not sure how much most of us really cared about it in the first place.

As for all the uncertainty about which clubs are for real and which aren’t, some would argue that’s what makes the NFL so much fun in the first place, and I’m happy to wait another couple months to find out. But would anyone bet right now that the 49ers won’t be meeting the Texans or Patriots in New Orleans in February?

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