By Mark Paulette
I awoke Tuesday morning to pictures of Seattle Seahawks’ punter, Jon Ryan, squeezing the pigskin like it was a nerf ball in Monday Night’s game against the Bills. Originally I was enraged and planned on channeling that animosity into a fiery, hate fueled rant towards the corrupt establishment known as the National Football League.
Before I could unleash this fury on social media, I took a breather, channeled my inner Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. and decided to take the high road. Why you may ask? Because none of that matters. Through nine weeks of the 2016 NFL season, it’s pretty clear that in the NFL, it’s the New England Patriots………………………………………… and then everyone else. (Scale not to size).
Yes, the NFL as a whole, not just the AFC. The Patriots are head and shoulders above the league’s watered down competition, so much so that we need not worry about petty distractions like just winning the division. It’s the classic Tiger vs. The Field bet we had in every golf major during Woods’ prime. New England’s chances this year are as good (or better) than the other 31 teams combined.
Though 2007 taught us we shouldn’t look beyond any team and last year showed how injuries can derail a vengeful date with destiny but barring the unspeakable the Patriots look like the Bull of the NFL’s woods. But just for fun, let’s take a look at the few teams who may dare stand in the Pats’ way.
- (5-2-1) Seattle Seahawks – 1st NFC West, #2 seed in NFC
After a sluggish start to the season, the ‘Hawks’ offense turned a corner Monday night against the Bills. Much like the Patriots, Seattle has proved to be a second half team over the last several years; just look at a year ago when the team finished the season winning six of their last 7 after starting 4-5. Russell Wilson’s injury report this season has looked more like the living embodiment of The Operation board game, though the QB had a spring in his step in Monday’s game, throwing his first two touchdowns since week four while scrambling for his first rushing touchdown of the season. When Seattle caught fire a year ago they were driven by Wilson who threw 24 TD to just one interception over the final seven games. With weapons like “Angry” Doug Baldwin, a healthy and rejuvenated Jimmy Graham and an option minded running game spearheaded by Christine Michael and the potential return of Thomas Rawls, Seattle’s offense has the capability to keep pace with anyone. On defense, the “Legion of Boom” isn’t as feared as it once was, though Seattle still ranks 8th in overall defense and third with 16.8 points allowed per game, trailing only Minnesota and New England. After this week’s trip to Foxborough, Seattle’s remaining opponents have a combined record of 21-34-1. This team has been to the Promised land and before, they know what it takes to compete and the talent to potentially do so. This is why the Seahawks are the biggest external threat to the Pats in 2016.
- (7-1) Dallas Cowboys – 1st NFC East, #1 seed in NFC
It’s become clear that the Cowboys are not just riding a high, rather they’re a team that needs to be taken seriously. While the ‘Boys best win this season is a two touchdown victory at Lambeau Field over a disappointing Packers squad, Dallas has nevertheless won seven consecutive games while their defense has limited opponents to less than 20 points in five of the last six contests. Ezekiel Elliot is a possible MVP candidate and within striking distance of Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record. While fellow-rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is playing at the level of a seasoned veteran, rather than a first-year QB who has been thrust into the fire. On the surface, Prescott has been near-perfect having recently become the first rookie QB to win 7-of-8 starts to begin a career, as well as setting the Cowboys’ record for passing touchdowns by a rookie QB. Add in the NFL record for attempts without an interception to begin a career, to date Prescott has only been picked twice though the halfway mark. However, the rookie QB ranks 18/32 in passing yards per game at 253 and the opposition of this young team has mustered an underwhelming combined record of 23-40-2, showing this Dallas side has yet to be pushed to their limits. With trips to Pittsburgh, Minnesota, New York and Philadelphia still to come, there are likely bumps in the road ahead for this Cowboys team, not to mention the biggest threat; the inevitable interference of their unstable billionaire owner, Jerry Jones. Despite the negatives, Dallas has still shown enough to present a threat and rightfully be placed near the top of the field.
- (7-2) Oakland Raiders – 1st NFC West, #2 seed in AFC
After a dismantling of the reigning champion Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football, the Raiders appear to pose the biggest threat within the conference and have moved within half a game of the Pats. Derek Carr has changed the perception of this team and is being viewed as a possible MVP candidate; passing for over 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions through nine games. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree lead all NFL receiver duos in targets, receptions and receiving yards, while Latavius Murray has scampered for eight touchdowns behind arguably the best offensive line in football. The “Blackhole” swallowed up Denver’s attack in primetime, though keep in mind that’s a Broncos’ squad with a quarterback on pace to pass for less than 2800 yards and whose most efficient player in the game was their third string running back who touched the ball three times. Oakland’s biggest negative is their defense, which despite having one of the biggest game-changers in Khalil Mack, has ranked 30/32 in total defense through nine games, allowing nearly 400 yards and 25 points per game. It’s only fair that the first year Oakland is truly competitive in recent memory, the AFC West has emerged as arguably the most competitive division in football, meaning the Raiders are in for a grueling second half to their prize fight. Something not to sleep on too, is the potential for the Raiders to move to Las Vegas. We saw it happen to the Bill Belichick and the Browns when it was announced they were leaving and we saw it happen to this very Raiders franchise when Al Davis announced that he was moving the team from Los Angeles back to Oakland. The home field advantage of the Coliseum could turn ugly on it’s own if the Silver & Black head for the desert.
The yellow brick road to Super Bowl 51 should lead through the back woods of Foxborough, Massachusetts come this January. While for arguments sake I’ve presented three teams who can potentially knock the Pats from their perch, if I had to bet: when the confetti falls from the rafters of NRG Stadium and he who shall not be named has to begrudgingly march to the podium with the Lombardi Trophy in hand, he will do so to hand it to the man he tried so desperately to discredit and the team he attempted to burry in the depths of his beloved parity.
Mark Paulette is the PVC of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.