— We know what teams to watch for now. We know what teams don’t matter.
The first six weeks of the NFL season have set the table for what should be a predictably unpredictable playoff push. Before that starts let’s take a quick look at some of the big storylines to emerge so far:
Insane offensive numbers
400 yards is the new 300 yards, if that makes any sense. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tony Romo are all on pace to break Dan Marino’s single season passing yardage mark of 5,084. A rookie — Cam Newton — is barely off the pace.
Total passing yard numbers are up roughly 10 percent, a huge jump for one season. Expectations for what’s a great passing effort should be reset.
Conventional wisdom said defenses would be ahead of offenses after the lockout. But conventional wisdom is conventionally unwise.
It’s hard to pin down one reason why it’s so much easier to throw the ball now, other than the slow accumulation of passer-friendly rules. The offensive coaches are ahead of the defensive guys. With more specialization and spread passing attacks than ever before, the offensive coaches are ahead of the defenses.
The year of the tight end
No position has evolved more in this pass-happy era than tight end. Defensive coordinators used to welcome having a cornerback or safety on tight ends. The new crop of players can beat any defender, anytime.
Jimmy Graham of the Saints leads the young tight end revolution. He’s a former basketball player who coach Sean Payton can use in a variety of ways to create mismatches. Defenses have no answer for his mix of athleticism and size. It’s early, but Graham on pace for more than 1,000 yards and one of the best seasons of all time. Thirteen tight ends are on pace for more than 700 yards, which is ridiculous.
Bill Belichick’s Patriots offense is built around their young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They can be used in a power formation or line up as receivers. Versatility is the key in a gameplan league. The defense never knows what the tight end will do, and where he’ll be.
Regressing young quarterbacks
The quarterback elite is firmly established — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are playing like immortals.
But another wave of young quarterbacks has quietly been struggling this year despite the crazy offensive numbers.
The Bucs’ Josh Freeman has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. The Jets have put the training wheels back on Mark Sanchez. (To extend the analogy, the Jets are also running alongside Sanchez’s bike telling him to go straight.)
The Rams’ Sam Bradford looks more like a rookie under coordinator Josh McDaniels than he did last year as a rookie. Kevin Kolb hasn’t lived up to his contract in Arizona. Only Kerry Collins has been more inefficient per-pass this year than Colt McCoy of the Browns.
Matt Ryan may be the biggest head-scratcher. His accuracy and decision-making have faltered without great pass protection.
There has been a lot of great quarterback play this year, but many “next generation” signal callers have taken a step back.
Searching for the six
Each year, six playoff teams on average don’t make it back to the postseason. So who will it be this time?
The Colts don’t have a prayer. The Seahawks, Chiefs, and Bears all look mediocre and destined to fall short. That’s four.
Will the Eagles, Falcons, or Jets get in? The Jets don’t do anything well on offense and have a tough schedule coming up. Everything about the Falcons this year is ordinary. I’d bet against all three, but the Eagles may have the best chance of this group because 10 wins could be enough in the NFC East.
Perhaps seven teams won’t make it back this year.
In this era of offensive insanity, a quality defense may be worth more than ever. Getting stops is a scarce commodity in 2011, and one defense in each conference stands out.
The Ravens have their best defense in at least five years. They are giving up 14.2 points-per-game, which is two points better than the rest of the league. Credit the talent and scheme.
New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano brought the blitz-happy approach that Rex Ryan used to run in Baltimore. They can afford to pull that off because the foundation of the defense is so solid.
No team can match the combination of Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody up front. Those two create havoc and keep Ray Lewis clean; Lewis is enjoying yet another renaissance. A truly healthy Ed Reed has solidified the secondary and the young cornerbacks — especially Lardarius Webb — have played better than expected.
In the NFC, no defense has dominated like the 49ers. They are second in points allowed-per-game, largely because of the best linebacker group in football. Rookie Aldon Smith is already a dangerous pass rusher. Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are both playing at a Pro Bowl level inside.
The Ravens and 49ers are both 5-1 without racking up big passing numbers. It’s good to be a little different in this copycat league.
The Bay Area revival
Northern California fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about for the last decade. Suddenly they have two legitimate playoff-caliber teams.
It would be stunning if the 49ers don’t make the playoffs. At 5-1 with a soft NFC West schedule, San Francisco has a realistic chance to get a playoff bye. Jim Harbaugh’s decision to bring back Alex Smith and re-engineer the career of the former No. 1 overall pick stands out as one of the year's best stories. (Even if the defense is carrying the team.)
Recent Raiders teams had the talent to beat quality competition, but the immaturity to lose to anyone. Under Hue Jackson, Oakland has been among the league's most consistent teams.
You know what you are going to get with Oakland: A smashmouth running game and a defensive line that creates havoc. Trading for Carson Palmer was the ultimate all-in move. I have doubts Palmer will be much better than Jason Campbell, but Palmer doesn’t have to be for the Raiders to make the playoffs. The AFC West race with San Diego should be a lot of fun.
First-year head coaches just fine
The lockout was supposed to crush teams that made big coaching staff changes. Harbaugh is 5-1 in San Francisco, while Mike Munchak is coaching the first-place Titans.
New Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden installed a brand new system for a rookie quarterback (Andy Dalton) and the Bengals are humming along at 4-2.
Other new coaches like John Fox and Ron Rivera are struggling, but they can’t use the lockout as an excuse.
NFC East is wide open
The NFC West has the clearest frontrunner for a division title in San Francisco. The NFC East is the most muddled picture in the league. The Giants, Cowboys, Redskins, and Eagles all look like flawed, but intriguing teams. I don’t count any of them out yet, although my preseason prediction of the Giants is starting to look better.
I suspect the Giants will have to win the division to make the playoffs because the wild cards look more likely to come from the North and South.
Mini-camps are overrated
Here’s something no NFL fan has thought this season: “Wow, the lack of an offseason has really hurt my enjoyment of the game.”
Coaches love minicamps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs). Players don’t. Fans shouldn’t really care about them. Teams have adjusted to the lack of practice time during the summer. It hasn’t noticeably hurt the quality of play.
Rookies were supposed to be especially damaged by the lockout. Instead, Newton is on pace to break all of Peyton Manning’s rookie records.
Cincinnati’s A.J. Green is better as a rookie than Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Green’s teammate Andy Dalton is a year ahead of expectations. Two of the better young pass rushers in the league are rookies: Denver’s Von Miller and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith.
Ryan Kerrigan, Nate Solder, Mike Pouncey, and J.J. Watt are some other first-round picks beating expectations early.
If anything, this rookie class seems to be having a bigger impact than usual.
It’s just another reminder that we don’t really know anything about what’s going to happen in the NFL until it actually happens. That should make the next 11 weeks plenty of fun.