(1) Why have the last several years seen so many teams make a strong run at 16–0? Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only seven teams have won the first 13 games of a season: the 1972 Dolphins, the 1998 Broncos, the 2005 Colts, the 2007 Patriots, the 2009 Colts, the 2009 Saints, and the 2011 Packers. In other words, just two teams reached 13–0 between 1972 and 2004, but more than twice as many have done it since then. What explains that? I believe it is closely related to the NFL’s transformation into a quarterback-driven league. In 2004, referees began enforcing the illegal-contact rules more aggressively, which made it significantly harder to defend against the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Subsequent rule changes or adjustments have had the same effect. As a result, superstar quarterbacks are even more valuable today than they were in the era of Montana, Marino, and Elway. The four teams that started 13–0 after 2004 each had (or have) a dominant passing attack led by a record-setting QB. That’s not a coincidence.
(2) Should anyone besides Aaron Rodgers receive serious MVP consideration? The short answer is no. The longer answer is still no, but with a few caveats. ESPN blogger James Walker recently made the case that Tom Brady is more valuable to New England than Rodgers is to Green Bay. The Packers would be a playoff team without Rodgers, he argued, but the Patriots would have a losing record without Brady. That may be true. However, by the same rationale, Peyton Manning should have received the 2010 MVP award rather than Brady, since it’s now abundantly clear that the Colts are simply dreadful without him. For that matter, we might ask where the Saints would be without Drew Brees, or where the Giants would be without Eli Manning and his fourth-quarter touchdowns. Bottom line: Green Bay is the best team in football primarily because it has the best player in football. Rodgers is on pace to finish 2011 with the highest single-season NFL passer rating of all time. He is the MVP.
(3) Apart from Philadelphia, which team has been the biggest disappointment of 2011? I’m tempted to say San Diego, a team that virtually all experts picked to win the AFC West and some even picked to reach the Super Bowl. Philip Rivers has tossed a career-high 17 interceptions, and the Chargers are tied with Kansas City for having the second-most giveaways in the AFC. But Rivers has not thrown a single interception in his last three contests, and, incredibly, the 6–7 Chargers could still make the playoffs, despite enduring a brutal six-game losing streak that included three defeats to division rivals. The bad news is that San Diego must wind up the regular season by hosting 10–3 Baltimore (which has the NFL’s third-ranked defense), visiting 8–5 Detroit (which is battling for an NFC wild-card berth), and visiting 7–6 Oakland (which has suffered two consecutive embarrassing losses but still has one of the league’s most intimidating home stadiums). Unlike San Diego, the 4–9 Buccaneers have precisely zero chance of qualifying for the postseason, which makes Tampa Bay another major disappointment. After posting a solid 10–6 mark in 2010, the Bucs and their young QB (Josh Freeman) have stumbled through a dismal 2011. Granted, they had a relatively easy schedule last year and a relatively hard one this year, but the Bucs have lost seven straight. Along with Philly, they are leading the NFL in giveaways. The only team that has conceded more points than Tampa is winless Indianapolis.
(4) Does Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller deserve to garner one or more postseason awards? Amid the hoopla over Tim Tebow’s seemingly magical stretch of comeback victories, Miller’s remarkable defensive play has gotten short shrift. The rookie star has compiled 11.5 sacks (seventh-most in the NFL), placing him within striking distance of the rookie sack record (14.5). He has also forced a pair of fumbles. In mid-November, after the Broncos pulled out a last-minute win over the New York Jets, Gregg Rosenthal of NBC Sports wrote that Miller is “one of the very best pass rushers in football” and “the best player on the Broncos.” Along with QBs Cam Newton of Carolina and Andy Dalton of Cincinnati and cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson of Arizona, he should be a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.
(5) Will Monday’s game tell us more about the Steelers or the 49ers? In a season of mostly forgettable Monday Night Football contests, the Week 15 matchup between two 10–3 teams should be a good one. Unlike Pittsburgh, San Francisco has already clinched a playoff spot, but the 49ers have also lost two of three, and the Steelers are the last elite team they will face before the postseason begins. “This game against the Steelers provides the 49ers with an opportunity to defeat a quality opponent on a national stage, while keeping control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race,” writes ESPN blogger Mike Sando. “My sense is that the 49ers, though still a good team, have plateaued a little bit lately.” They still have the league’s best run defense and best turnover differential, but only three of their ten victories have come against teams that currently have a winning record.