October 10, 2010 in Sports

NFL season offers powerhouse shortage

Barry Wilner Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

The Chiefs have had plenty to celebrate in their 3-0 start, but they are a one-touchdown underdog today against the Colts, who are looking to bounce back from last week’s loss.
(Full-size photo)

 Pretty soon the 1972 Miami Dolphins can relax, a whole lot earlier than last year. One month into the season, there are no threats to their perfect season.

The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints made those Dolphins sweat until late December in 2009. No such worries this time around. Right now, only Kansas City has no losses, and the Chiefs easily could drop today’s game at Indianapolis.

In fact, there are no power teams.

What the NFL can brag about is a record pace of close games, tight divisional races – although some might call the parity mediocrity – soaring passing stats, and big plays by special teams.

Plus there’s lots of fan interest, with TV viewership setting records through four weeks.

But the strangest development has been the lack of a dominant team, particularly with the way the Colts and Saints blew through the league in ’09. So far, the Saints aren’t blowing out anybody – they’ve scored 79 points and allowed 72 – and easily could be 0-4 instead of 3-1. Their offense has been anything but unstoppable, and in their biggest matchup, they lost at home to the Atlanta Falcons in overtime after NFC championship game hero Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal.

“We’ve kind of put our B, B-minus performance out there, unfortunately, for the most part these first four weeks, and yet, we still are sitting in a good position at 3-1,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “So what happens if we start putting forth our A, A-plus performance? I think that’s obviously what we’re striving for and we’ve set the bar high here.”

The Colts couldn’t match Houston’s emotion in the first game, then seemed to straighten themselves as Peyton Manning got off to the best start of his career. Their last-second loss at Jacksonville is troubling, though, because the defense was ripped by an offense nobody would confuse with, well, the Colts.

“We always say the division games count as two, so starting 0-2 in the division, that’s tough,” Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll get better.”

Perhaps, but with a bunch of injuries on offense and defense, maybe they won’t.

Other projected powerhouses have struggled. Dallas and Minnesota both are 1-2, San Diego is 2-2, and no division winner from 2009 has sole possession of first place this year. Only the Saints, New England and Arizona among last season’s division champions have a share of the top spot, and the Cardinals might be the worst first-place team in history, having been outscored 118-58 while going 2-2.

A record 23 teams are on top or within one game of the division lead, a number that figures to thin out as the pretenders fall off. Still, such a stat bodes well for the playoff races even at this early juncture: Since 1990, 87 teams have made the postseason after starting 2-2 or worse. Just last season, four teams – Arizona, Dallas, Green Bay and San Diego – fell into that category; three of them won divisions.

Not only are the standings close, but the final scores are tight. More than half the games, 33 of 62, have been decided by seven points or less. That’s the most in the two decades and second only to 1988 overall.

Already, there have been seven games decided by two points or fewer.

Much of the drop-off in scoring comes from fewer rushing TDs, down 13 and fewer scoop-and-score fumbles, down seven.Oddly, touchdowns passing are up from 171 to 174, representing the most through four weeks since 2002.

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