We are now closing rapidly upon the beginning of the 2014 NFL season, and as the final preseason games approach, some thoughts on the coming season -
EASTERN DIVISIONS, SAME STORY - In the Eastern Divisions of both conferences the story is the same - New England and Philadelphia are head and shoulders atop, the other six teams are playing for 8-8. The 42-35 preseason game between the Patriots and Eagles got a lot of flack for the enormity of penalties - and also got some pub because one of referee John Parry's line judges is one of the first ladies to officiate and NFL game, Maia Chaka - but the enormity of scoring by all three strings of both teams plus the need for a Patriots goalline stand to win it was competitively compelling, preseason or not. Both appear to be playoff locks already.
That isn't the case for the other six teams. The Giants and Jets played a good competitive game and it illustrated some decent form for Jets quarterbacks while raising questions about the Giants, who won 35-24 after trailing in the battle of the Ones 17-14. Even with that, the Jets do not look all that strong and neither do the Giants. Meanwhile Miami has shown some improvement but not enough, especially from Ryan Tannehill, to feel they've turned a corner. The Cowboys meanwhile look the same - some flashy high-end talent but overrated quarterbacking and the spectacle of Dez Bryant's contract now hanging over Valley Ranch's head.
The Redskins and Bills face the biggest questions as Robert Griffin III has clearly regressed and Kirk Cousins is outplaying him, while the Bills have brawled repeatedly and have ignored Doug Marrone about it, a very bad sign that they've quit on him. E.J, Manual meanwhile has looked scared when playing with no evidence of any advancement as a quarterback, an even worse sign that 2014 will not be the beginning of a turnaround, but instead a further collapse of an organization already traumatized by the continuing ownership search.
AFC NORTH LOOKS GOOD, NFC NORTH MEDIOCRE - The Bengals remain the team to beat in the AFC North, but the Baltimore Ravens look noticeably better than the squad that fell to 8-8 after blowing itself up to pay Joe Flacco. Ex-Panther Steve Smith has put up some eye-popping numbers and looks like a good fit with the Ravens. The Steelers in contrast look lost still, unable to build an offensive line that's any good yet again.
The trainwreck here is the Browns, who've lost Josh Gordon for the year and perhaps 2015 and are stuck with Johnny Manziel after a tellingly subpar effort against the Redskins and an uneven one against the Rams. Manziel looks more and more like Ryan Leaf the more we see him play.
In the NFC the North exudes little confidence. The Detroit Lions look okay but remain needing to prove they can win more than they have with a roster as talented as any. The Packers haven't shown they're any better than last year and the Bears were abysmal against the Seahawks, sign Jay Cutler will once again put up meaningless volume stats. The Vikings have an intriguing quarterback issue in Teddy Bridgewater, who looks like he will become starter in a year or two.
WILL THE SOUTH RISE AGAIN? - The top three quarterbacks in preseason play have been Tom Brady, Peyton Manning..............and the Titans' Jake Locker at 119.9 rating. Andrew Luck and the Colts overall look solid again despite a subpar effort against the Saints, but the Titans with a new coaching staff in Ken Whisenhunt still show promise of a breakout. The teams also to keep an eye on are the Houston Texans - who rebounded from a horrid first preseason game to show some legitimate form and have Bill O'Brien as head coach after his amazing job at the trainwreck that was Penn State - and the Jacksonville Jaguars as they have a potential quarterback of the future in Blake Bortles.
In the NFC the New Orleans Saints are yet again ready to explode. The Carolina Panthers have been somewhat shaky in preseason, especially in a godawful performance against the Patriots, but still look stout enough to contend for the title. There have been signs of improvement in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, though I have questions about Logan Mankins in Tampa given he was overrated despite being Pro Bowl caliber anyway, and there was the sharp decline of his play in Foxboro after giving up eleven sacks in 2013.
GO WEST - The obvious starting point is the Seahawks - the one thing right now that stands in their way is the Superbowl winner's jinx, where no defending champ has won a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots beat the Jaguars. Even getting fined $300,000 (a third of it from Pete Carroll) by the league over off-season practices that were too physical isn't going to affect the Seahawks.
The team they beat in the Superbowl also looks ready, but not as good as last year's squad. Peyton Manning's play has come under some fire over leaving Wes Welker in effect out to dry on the Texans hit and the fact is he remains the worst playoff quarterback since Dan Marino. That the Texans put up a legitimate fight in their game against Denver should be an encouraging sign for Broncos opponents.
The baffling team is the Chargers, who looked abysmal against Seattle and San Francisco after embarrassing the Cowboys. One wonders how hard the Chargers were even trying there.
Kansas City is the puzzle, for the Chiefs have looked weaker now than last year, and their schedule is much harder than 2013. Alex Smith is not the answer and it's puzzling Andy Reid isn't trying to develop a successor.
Back on the NFC side the 49ers suddenly look in trouble, even with a win over the Chargers. Their quarterbacks have not shown competent play and one has to wonder if Colin Kaepernick is as good as people thought he was. In even worse shape with quarterbacking is the Rams, minus Sam Bradford amid rumors of a possible effort to get Mark Sanchez or Ryan Mallett (and yes the Tim Tebow lobbying has been detected - ugh).
The team that may upset everyone is the Cardinals - they've become legitimately good and can get better, though Carson Palmer cannot be the long-term answer.
So it goes as we claw toward Week One of the season.
Oh, I forgot - the Raiders are a lost cause.