The NFL rolls onto its 7th week of the season, Toby Webb gives his opinion on the race to next year’s Super Bowl
The 2016 NFL season is well under way, with only 16 regular games and 3 or 4 play-off games (‘the postseason’ as they call it across the pond) played each year. Short you might think, especially compared to the 38 game English Premier League. Yet, this brevity only heightens the importance of each game, leading to often thrilling matches. Qualification to the play-offs is usually achieved with a 10-6 record of wins to losses, secured either through winning your division or being one of 2 best runners’ up within your conference; the NFL is comprised of 2 conferences (the AFC and NFC) each containing 4 divisions (North, South, East and West). You can qualify for the play-offs with a losing record, as long as it’s the best record in your division, thus every win is vitally important. It is rare to win back-to-back Super Bowls, it’s only happened 7 times. This competitiveness results in an exciting and unpredictable competition.
Last year’s Super Bowl was contested by the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, Denver securing a 24-10 victory. Denver’s defence was able to nullify the potent Carolina attack, headed by Cam Newton. Carolina’s form of last year, they lost only 2 games (including the Super Bowl), has not continued. They have lost 4 games already, sitting bottom of their division. As well as suffering key injuries in offence and defence, Newton appears more focussed on his post-match interview attire than football: consult Google and you’ll see what I mean. Only a miracle will result in Carolina reaching the play-offs.
Conversely, the Broncos are looking very promising. The retirement of Quarter-back Peyton Manning, one of greatest ever, hasn’t dented their stride; they have a 4-1 record after 5 matches. Coach Gary Kubiak has built a formidable defence, containing star men Von Miller and Aqib Talib: they will certainly contest the play-offs.
For me, this year’s contenders are Pittsburgh, the New England Patriots and the Minnesota Vikings (as well as Denver). Pittsburgh are a fantastic team to watch. They have Ben Roethlisberger (2x Super Bowl winner) at Quarter-back, complemented by wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. They hold a potent offence, comparable to Barcelona’s strike force of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, scoring 15 touchdowns in 4 games. Having beefed up their defence in the offseason, they’re my bet for the Super Bowl.
However, with coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady, as well as juggernaut Tight End Rob Gronkowski, New England are always a safe bet for play-off success. Belichick and Brady have won 4 Super Bowls together: a legendary partnership. Brady was banned for the opening 4 games following the Deflategate scandal. He returned in blistering form against the Cleveland Browns, passing for 406 yards and 3 Touchdowns. Deflategate has left Brady angry.
Minnesota are this year’s unexpected package. A missed kick denied them a victory in the wild-card play-off round last season. The offseason signing of QB Sam Bradford was a gamble that is paying off thus far: they hold the only unbeaten record after 5 games. Coach Mike Zimmer has built a mean defence; their opponents are averaging merely 4.4 yards a play. They’re on a role and could be on the verge of something special.
Subsequent to these 3, the Green Bay Packers, the Seattle Seahawks, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles look good for the play-offs. Green Bay have Jordy Nelson back in their armoury, missing the whole of last season through injury, he’s scored 5 touchdowns already this campaign. Dallas and Philadelphia look rejuvenated following poor seasons last year (Philadelphia finished 7-9 and Dallas finished 4-12), the Eagles benefitting from the electric start of rookie QB Carson Wentz to his NFL career. Seattle continue to be an imposing team following their Super Bowl success in 2014. ‘Legion of Boom’ members Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas III still dominate their defence, and wide receiver Doug Baldwin and QB Russel Wilson head the offence. Inspirational coach Pete Carroll will undoubtedly lead them to the play-offs again this season.
After 5 games, both the Atlanta Falcons and the Oakland Raiders have 4-1 records. This is a marked improvement, given that last year the teams finished with 7-9 and 8-8 records respectively. They, along with Minnesota, have surprised me with their form so far. Oakland have been reinvigorated by coach Jack Del Rio, who joined in January. The team hasn’t finished with a winning record since the 2002 season, however, Del Rio’s young team looks set to overhaul this record. Similar to Pittsburgh, Oakland have a powerful offence headed by the trio of QB Derek Carr and wide receivers’ Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
Atlanta deserve to be taken very seriously as well. They currently lead the NFL in passing yards, total yards and total points scored, with QB Matt Ryan on fire. Furthermore, they have already beaten last year’s Super Bowl contenders Denver and Carolina, a sign they are not flustered by any opposition. Last year they began the season 5-0, but crumbled to 8-8; if they can maintain their current form, they could be dark horses for the Super Bowl come February.