To find the most competitive climate in pro football, look to the north. The AFC North probably is the best sector in the league, followed closely by the NFC North.
Does that mean the Vikings will face the Steelers in the Super Bowl? Or the Packers will take on the Bengals? Hardly.
But for weekly excitement and excellence, the old Black and Blue Divisions are golden.
Consider how the Steelers (5-2) built on their championship not by diving even deeper into their time-tested philosophy of winning with the running game and big-time defense. No, these Steelers can pass with anyone, which has been especially significant because their running game has stagnated.
What’s more electrifying in the NFL than Ben Roethlisberger creating big plays that seem to come straight from the sandlot, not the playbook? He did it on the decisive touchdown in the Super Bowl, and he’s kept right on doing it, altering the style of his team along the way.
“I think some of it comes from that being what the Steelers always did in the past. I always say you have to keep up with the times,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s kind of evolving into a passing offense league-wide. People talk about the Steelers and the run game because we want to be physical. When you want to be physical, people assume that’s the run game. But that can mean a lot of different things.
“I guess you can go all the way back to the ’70s and we were a grind-it-out team. We’re not that ’70s team. We’re our own identity and that includes a lot of no-huddle stuff. It’s been good.”
And consider what the Ravens have become, ranking seventh on offense and only 13th on defense. Sure, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed still are in Baltimore and still are difference makers. But the Ravens are defined just as much by what quarterback Joe Flacco and the three-pronged running attack does.
“Defense wins championships, but you need the offense to score points. To be saying we’re an offensive team doesn’t fit us,” running back Ray Rice said. “When they talk about this Ravens team, they’re going to say, ’That team is a physical, good football team.’ That’s what we aspire to be.”
Lest we forget, the Bengals’ stunning run of down-to-the-wire games has marked them not only as a far more resilient bunch than we can remember representing Cincinnati, but also as a contender. The Bengals of the past would have floundered after that fluky last-second loss to Denver in the opener. This team has flourished.
“Bringing together a group of guys that understand what a team is all about makes it enjoyable,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “Every time we enter this building, we leave better than we are. And if we keep doing that, then things will be good.”
The rise of the AFC North has overshadowed the collapse of the AFC East through eight weeks. At 5-2, the Patriots are about where everyone expected, even if they were anything but dominant until the last two games. Then again those routs, by a combined 84-7, came against Tennessee and Tampa Bay, both winless when they were crushed by New England.
What has happened to the rest of the division? Remember, Miami won the AFC East a year ago, going 11-5 and unveiling the wildcat, which has spread like, well, wildfire through the league. The Dolphins are 3-4, with two of those victories over the Jets, and if they lose at Foxborough on Sunday, the division race pretty much becomes a Patriots jog to the playoffs.
For all the bluster coming out of Jets camp, they have had breakdowns in every facet of football, negating a 3-0 start. While the Jets are a thousand times more entertaining under Rex Ryan than the dour Eric Mangini, they’re still headed for a .500 season that would be worse than their record under Mangini in 2008.
Buffalo? That Terrell Owens-Lee Evans combo has a total of 46 catches and four TDs. Not much improvement or excitement there.
Over in the NFC, the North has one dominant squad and two wild-card contenders. It also has an elan somewhat lacking in the other divisions.
Even some Cheeseheads would now have to admit watching that graybeard guy at quarterback for the Vikings is enthralling — especially after what Brett Favre has done to the Packers twice already. No game had more intriguing elements than Favre’s return to Lambeau Field, and he certainly delivered.
The Vikings as a whole are delivering, too, thanks to a superb pass rush led by Jared Allen, and the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson. But that doesn’t make Green Bay or Chicago an also-ran.
Consider that the Packers have lost only to Minnesota (6-1) and Cincinnati (5-2). The Bears have fallen to Green Bay, Atlanta and Cincinnati, all winners. In Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, they have QBs as capable as Favre. They trail behind mainly because each has a major weakness on the offensive line that plays directly into Minnesota’s hands.
While the NFC East has three teams all capable of making the postseason, those teams’ dominance has gone missing.
New York started 5-0, then was routed by New Orleans and Philadelphia and outmuscled by Arizona. The Giants’ secondary is a sieve and teams are bulking up to thwart the pass rush that has become their only real line of defense.
Philadelphia and Dallas are an enigmatic 5-2. When at full strength, which has been very rare through seven games, the Eagles are dynamic on offense, efficient on defense. Then they throw in the biggest stinker of the year by any favorite, losing at Oakland.
The Cowboys are on a three-game roll and they’re finally pressuring quarterbacks. But the pass defense is mediocre and they have just nine takeaways; winless Tampa Bay has 11.
So, for now, let’s shift the spotlight from East to North.