We all remember the 2015 Atlanta Falcons don’t we? They jumped out of the gates last season to start with a 5-0 record. They looked to be the class of the NFC South and of the conference overall. Hopes were high in Atlanta and it had people talking about them winning the division before the season had even hit its half way mark. They had a new head coach in former Seahawks defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn. And had as electrifying a quarterback/receiver combo as anyone in the league with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. On the surface, they seemed to have everything it takes to win the conference and play for the Lombardi Trophy.
Then it all came crashing down.
After being undefeated through the first five weeks of the 2015 season, the Falcons would go on to finish 8-8 and 2nd in the NFC South to the Carolina Panthers, who would eventually go to the Super Bowl. They got exposed as being too one-dimensional on offense by relying solely on the talents of Ryan and Jones to carry the team. The defense was sub-par, despite it being the specialty of the head coach, and there just weren’t enough pieces to keep winning consistently.
In 2016, there are multiple teams that are sitting pretty at the half way point. The New England Patriots (7-1) are in a league of their own, as usual. In Dallas, the Cowboys (6-1) are riding a potent offensive attack led by two rookie of the year candidates. The reigning Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (6-2) are in good position thanks to their defense and running game (sound familiar?), despite having an untested QB at the helm. These teams are, for the most part, balanced and capable of winning on any given day. They are headed to the playoffs.
There are two other teams that have only two losses that aren’t doing things quite as convincingly though. The Oakland Raiders (6-2) and the Minnesota Vikings (5-2) are both deeply flawed teams that seem to be on the verge of getting exposed. Let’s take a look at both squads and see which of them is destined to be this year’s 2015 Atlanta Falcons by falling flat on their faces in the second half of the season.
The Oakland Raiders sit at 6-2 almost completely on the back of their offense and their risk-taking head coach. They’ve had the good fortune of playing mostly middle of the pack teams (Saints, Titans, Ravens, Chargers, Buccaneers) and one bad team (Jaguars). They’ve beaten all of those squads. The surefire sign of a good football team is that they beat the teams they are supposed to beat. The two teams they’ve lost to are this year’s Falcons (5-3 and much improved over last year with one of the most prolific offenses in football) and the Kansas City Chiefs (5-2). Both of these teams pretty good so you can’t really fault them for dropping a couple to top competition.
In short, the Raiders are getting the job done, if not always in convincing fashion. It took a ballsy as hell 2-point conversion to win the game with 47 seconds on the clock instead of heading to overtime in New Orleans in week 1. Let us also not forget the 513 yard effort from QB Derek Carr and the equally ballsy touchdown pass on 4th down with 1:45 left to play in overtime. This likely helped the NFL avoid yet another tie game. The Raiders also committed an NFL-record 23 penalties for 200 yards. When you figure those two very unconvincing wins against two of the NFL’s worse teams and the rest of their wins came by an average of 7 points, it’s easy to see that this team has some issues.
The most glaring issues are penalties, which reared its head in a big way in week 8, and the play of the defense. The Oakland Raiders are at the bottom, or near the bottom, in all categories that relate to both of those things. Coach Jack Del Rio has the offense all figured out. The Raiders can put up points with most teams in the league, but if they don’t get these other issues figured out then this team could very well end up like the 2015 Atlanta Falcons, on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Luckily for fans of the team, both of these things can be corrected, especially the penalties. That’s simply coaching and practice. This team HAS to get more disciplined if they want this run to continue and it’s totally within the realm of possibility. A bit more tricky will be improving a defense which ranks at or near the bottom of the league in points allowed per game and yards allowed per game. But there is hope. The star of the defense, Khalil Mack, is finally starting to put it together. He posted a 2 sack, 7 tackle, 4 qb pressure, 1 forced fumble stat line in the week 8 win over the Bucs. The defense also allowed a season-low 270 yards. If this is the beginning of a trend then there is a good chance that the 2016 Oakland Raiders will not be the second-coming of the 2015 Atlanta Falcons.
The Minnesota Vikings were everyone’s favorite pick to win the NFC before the season began. Then the injuries started, most notably with Teddy Bridgewater’s dislocated knee in the preseason. An injury that has the future of the young QB’s career hanging in jeopardy. This injury forced them to trade for perennial NFL whipping boy, Sam Bradford, and at first the move seemed to have worked out pretty well. Through 6 games Bradford has, for the most part, played as good or better than at any point in his 6 year career. In combination with a defense that is first in the league in points allowed per game, it’s easy to see why this team had such high hopes before the season.
But the injuries just kept coming.
In September, the team was forced to place all-time great running back (and noted child abuser) Adrian Peterson on injured reserved. Losing the other cornerstone of the offense was a big hit, but it didn’t stop there. The offensive line has seen an endless amount of injuries including season-ending ones for tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith. With the rest of the offensive line battling their own injuries or underperforming in their roles, the running game has taken a serious hit. As a result the team is averaging an abysmal 2.7 yards per attempt on the ground and offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, was given his walking papers following week 8. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
A month ago, the Vikings were owning every team they played and people were talking about them as a shoe-in to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. In the last two weeks, they have been exposed by a solid Eagles defense and a poor Bears team. The team scored just 10 points in both of those matchups and Sam Bradford has been sacked a total of 11 times over both games. And we all know that if any quarterback in the league thrives under defensive pressure, it is definitely NOT Bradford.
With the problems that this team faces on offense, there is a good chance that they are in real trouble. And dangerously close to repeating what the Falcons did last year. The issues with the offensive line and running game aren’t going anywhere. Anytime a contender is forced to fire their offensive coordinator mid-season, there is ample reason to be worried. The team signed former pro bowl tackle-turned-revolving door, Jake Long, to try and stop the bleeding at the left tackle position and it has been a resounding failure. The defense is AMAZING but that might not be enough to win the division, let alone the conference.
Both of these teams have their issues, but for one of them those issues will not be resolved this year. That’s right, it is the 2016 Minnesota Vikings who will be this year’s Atlanta Falcons. The offensive line is paper thin and it is going to get Sam Bradford exposed for the fraud that he was during his first 4 weeks of play. He is not equipped to carry the offense by himself and because of that there’s a chance that these Minnesota Vikings will finish right around .500 and miss the playoffs. Just like the Falcons did last year.