Two weeks down in this NFL season, and these are the questions I have for myself:
Is Carolina that good?
The Panthers have emerged as an NFC favorite behind strong 4th quarter play from Jake Delhomme and Jonathan Stewart running over and through defenders when he's not carrying them for 5 yards at a time.
Week 1 was what seemed like an impressive comeback win over my preseason Super Bowl pick in San Diego. The Chargers might not be the team I thought they'd be, though(more on that in the AFC version later). The second win was another comeback win where they dismantled my beloved Chicago Bears who had, for the two quarters before that, dominated the line of scrimmage in a whole and total fashion. Then again, the Bears weren't expected to make much noise this year.
Still, the Panthers ended up destroying the Bears in the field position game(even when Hester wasn't injured yet) and shut down Chicago's run game in the second half. This was also where they found out who needed to be the star of their running game. Oh, and they have Steve Smith coming back next week.
I'd guess that, yes, the Panthers are that good. Apologies to Delhomme for that whole "overrated" tag in the preseason. Anyone that takes that hit from Lance Briggs and then becomes a better quarterback has earned my respect. The only thing I see stopping Carolina is if, even after proving the other kids on the team can catch the ball, Delhomme becomes too locked in on trying to get Smith the ball. They just look really good right now.
So what about the Bears?
Hester is out, but that hardly seems to matter if 1) other teams can duplicate Carolina's kick coverage or 2) The Bears take a bad "block in the back" penalty on every kick return. That's going to make it tough for the offense. Kyle Orton isn't going to give you any bad turnovers, but he also made zero good deep passes against the Panthers (including missing an easy touchdown pass to a wide open Booker). The one deep pass that was caught was under-thrown and Brandon Lloyd made a tremendous adjustment to get to it.
If the Panthers are as good as I think they are, then there's no shame in the loss. It was a bad half for a majority of the team and one bad game for Orton and the special teams(minus, of course, that touchdown they generated). Orton and the receivers can work on the timing for deep throws, so the Bears may well be able to win this division. It's a two-team race between them and the Packers at this point. Why?
Did I overrate the Vikings?
Yes. I did. You're not going to get 160 yards out of Adrian Peterson every game. And, while they're as good as ever at stopping the run, they haven't been able to take the pass away from anyone. They're 0-2 and about to play Carolina.
A lot of the blame here has been placed squarely upon Tarvaris Jackson's quarterback performance. So he's out and Gus Frerotte is in. When you bench your guy for a 37-year-old best known for injuring himself by head-butting a wall (if there's a video of this on the web...someone tell me) and your secondary has been nothing but torched with Steve Smith coming to town...that's 0-3, and that's hard to come back from no matter how amazing your running back is.
Have I changed my mind about the Giants missing the playoffs?
No. The Giants have looked better than I thought they would, but they still only look like the third-best team in a division with Philly and Dallas. The Monday Night game was epic. While I no longer feel like St. Louis is going to sneak into the playoffs(I went out on a limb, so sue me) to keep a third NFC East team out of the playoffs, the emergence of the Panthers as a serious threat combined with my stubborn insistence that the Saints will also make the playoffs still leave the Giants out of the playoffs while being a better team than what the NFC North and West will end up sending in as their winners. Tough break, but I don't want to hear a word about expanding the playoffs.