Last week, I started this column talking about how the Patriots, 49ers, and Texans were the class of the NFL. Naturally, one week later, the Patriots fell into a four-way tie at 3-3, the 49ers got blown out at home, and the previously unbeaten Texans were embarrassed by a 2012 Packers squad that finally looked like the 2011 version. It was such an abrupt turnaround it almost felt personal. "You think you know the NFL, kid? We'll show you."
The puzzles hardly end there. Who's the best team in the NFC? Is anyone good in the AFC? Why can't the Patriots distance themselves from three seemingly inferior teams in their own division? Who's going to make the playoffs in the AFC? Will the AFC see an 8-8 Wild Card team? Who's the league MVP?
All of these questions have a theme... parity. Just look at the crazy rate at which underdogs are covering against the spread - 10-3 through Sunday's games in Week 6, with seven wins straight up. There's been no such thing as a favorite ATS in 2012, particularly on the road. If you're not the gambling type, then look at the standings. Just two AFC teams are over .500. Two! Meanwhile, everyone in the NFC East, NFC West, and NFC North is playoff-worthy. Yes, the Falcons are 6-0, but they're such a fraud - squeaking by leargue doormats every week - I can't wait to fade them in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The weirdest thing about all of this parity is that it exists at a time when the NFC is clearly superior to the AFC. Just look at this week. The Packers went into Houston and crushed the previously unbeaten Texans in their building. Seattle - an also-ran by NFC standards - handled the Patriots, the AFC's best team on paper, with a rookie quarterback. Even the lower-level NFC teams are far better than the AFC doormats, as we saw again with the Bucs spanking the Chiefs.
Since everyone in the AFC seems to stink, who do you like to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? And will it matter? You like the Ravens? Pffft. They just lost Ladarius Webb and Ray Lewis to season-ending injuries, and Haloti Ngata is headed to the MRI machine as well. There's no way that defense, which was already struggling, is Super Bowl worthy. But hey, at least Joe Flacco will get a chance to back his claims that he's elite. The Patriots? Heh. They can't separate themselves from a Jets team with a popgun, CFL offense, a Dolphins squad with a rookie quarterback that gave up on the year before it started, or a Bills team with a -55 point differential. Plus, the Patriots lost both matchups with NFC foes. The Texans? Ummm, did you see that beatdown? They're a run-oriented team that can no longer run-block. The Chargers? No soul. The Broncos? No defense. The Steelers? No chance - not when you lose to Tennessee and Oakland.
You want an even uglier analysis? Try to decide who's going to make the playoffs in the AFC. The Texans will win the weak AFC South, and despite their injuries on defense, the Ravens will hold on as well. The Patriots superior talent will emerge eventually, one would think. San Diego or Denver will likely win the West, with the other probably getting a wild card (four games against Oakland and KC sure helps, as does getting to play the NFC South). But what about the other wild card? You like the 2-3 Steelers, with losses to Oakland and Tennessee? The popgun offense of the Jets? The Dolphins and their rookie quarterback and no-name defense? I'm not sure anyone is out of it in the AFC. Heck, I even found myself checking the Browns remaining schedule. Yes, the Browns. But I'll concede they're a year away. Probably. Perhaps the craziest thing is that whoever that 6th seed in the AFC winds up being, you could argue everyone in the NFC is better except the Panthers and maybe the Bucs. Heck, the top 10-12 NFC teams might all be better than all but the top three in the AFC.
There are a ton of fleas on the NFC contenders, too. The 49ers are totally incapable of playing from behind. The Giants play down to their opponents. The Eagles can't stop turning it over. Seattle and Minnesota aren't ready, especially at quarterback, and Seattle can't win on the road. Dallas has no heart, and Jay Cutler has no soul. The Packers can't run, and they're an outdoor team built to play in a dome.
So there, I've settled it. No team is capable of winning this year's Super Bowl.
Seriously, until we see some favorites emerge, keep betting those underdogs ATS.
The Dolphins remind me of a keeper-league team in fantasy baseball that planned on rebuilding (trading Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis for future draft picks before the season began) but suddenly realized they can compete this year. Bill Belichick gets lots of praise, but it's pretty disappointing that his Patriots are tied with three teams who are so obviously inferior in talent. At some point, isn't that a function of coaching? Or Brady? Or both?
The fact that Ronnie Brown is the Chargers third-down back, and was in the game for the Chargers most important drive of the season (down 28-24 to the Broncos) is a pretty damning indictment of Ryan Mathews. Go practice, son.
I'm not ready to live in a world where Matt Ryan is the NFL MVP. I totally agree with what @ChrisLiss is saying on Twitter - how can Ryan be MVP when he's not even one of the best five players at his own position? Arguably, Ryan shouldn't even make the Pro Bowl. Only three quarterbacks can go from the NFC, and how can you put Ryan before Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, or even Robert Griffin III?
I never saw the Titanic sink (and the Leonardo DiCaprio version doesn't count, since it's fake and I'm, well, a guy), but I'd imagine it looked something like we saw on Thursday night, as two iconic sports figures officially reached the beginning of the end. I'm talking, of course, about Alex Rodriguez and the Steelers defense. You've read enough about ARod by now, but how about that Pittsburgh defense? You could try to rationalize the Steelers bad loss to the Raiders a couple of weeks ago - the game where Mike Tomlin went for it on fourth down from his own 30 with the score tied because he knew his defense couldn't stop a bloody nose. But there's no way to spin another loss to a doormat or making Matt Hasselbeck look frisky in the process. Let's put it this way... the Steelers defense is "dead to me," and if the AFC weren't so watered-down, I'd be confidently saying the Steelers will miss the playoffs. Spare me the "Troy Polamalu was out" excuses - Polamalu can't save that defense.
Speaking of overrated defenses, can anyone play defense in the AFC North? The Ravens, like the Steelers, are just a name now. They can't stop the run, and with their best players getting hurt left and right, they'll be a sieve all year. The Bengals were already a fantasy carnival, but now the Browns seem ready to join them. There might not be a softer division in football, but there's also not a division where the quarterbacks will return more of a fantasy profit. Think about it - by the end of the year, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and Brandon Weeden will all have surpassed preseason expectations significantly. Not only are their own defenses disappointing, but they each get to play six games against the other three teams. This is a theme we all need to remember for fantasy football 2013 - the quarterbacks to get aren't just the top-tier guys, they're the ones who play on defenses that will disappoint. (But good luck predicting which defenses those will be.) Anyway, I particularly like all of the Ravens and Steelers skill players going forward. Go get Big Ben, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta, and both kickers - and cut both defenses.
I have no ownership shares of C.J. Spiller or Fred Jackson in fantasy. As a Bills fan, though, and an NFL fan in general, I'm terribly frustrated at Chan Gailey's use of the two backs. With 12 carries for 88 yards (7.3 YPC) compared to just 53 yards on 16 carries (3.3 YPC) for Jackson, Spiller keeps proving he's the better back, yet he keeps getting relegated to a timeshare. Heck, Spiller might be the best running back in the NFL - that's real life, not fantasy. That's particularly a shame this week, with a juicy matchup against the Titans on tap. Frankly, it reminds me of our years-long frustration with the usage patterns of Pierre Thomas in New Orleans. Bear in mind, our job as fantasy owners isn't just to handicap the players; we have to assess the coaches as well.
Speaking of Gailey, he looks lost as a head coach. It's not just the overuse of Jackson, either - his game management is Andy Reid-esque. Punting from the opponent's 35 on the first drive of overtime is bad enough, as the ensuing punt that netted 15 yards proved. What compounds the error is how Gailey called three consecutive pass plays, all incomplete, before that punt. If you know you're not going to kick a FG from the 35, why not try at least one run play to get 3-4 more yards so you're in position to at least allow yourself a FG attempt? Sadly, I suspect Gailey didn't even contemplate whether to attempt a field goal until fourth down stared him in the face.
Now I remember why I paid $53 for Aaron Rodgers in the Stopa Law Firm League. Jordy Nelson owners are finally smiling, too. Jermichael Finley owners... not so much. Call me stubborn, but there's no way I'd let Finley sit on waivers except in the shallowest of leagues. Look at James Jones - he's hardly elite, but even he has seven touchdowns in six games on that offense. There's always upside when Rodgers is your quarterback.
Anyone who invested a lot of FAAB on Alex Green last week had to be a bit disappointed in Sunday's box score. Don't fret, though - better times are ahead. I was encouraged at Green's playing time, James Starks' lack thereof, and how Green routinely handled blitz pickups. Take a look, for example, at Aaron Rodgers touchdown toss to Tom Crabtree - Green was there, stuffing the blitzing linebacker. As Andre Brown will tell you, plays like that are necessary to ensure steady playing time. With the Packers facing a subpar Rams run defense in Week 7, this might be your last chance to acquire Green cheaply. I see him as an RB2 going forward. As I told Kevin Payne on the radio last week, if I knew Green would be the feature back, and Starks would be firmly planted on the bench except in garbage time, I'd have spent all $70 of my FAAB, not just $33.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to announce Michael Vick as the starting quarterback of the 2013 Buffalo Bills!" Admit it, you can see/hear it.
I don't know who Greg Jennings has as his agent, but if I were an NFL player, I'd hire him immediately. I'm seeing Jennings on TV - those Old Spice commercials - as much as anyone not named Manning. The NFL commercial is even creepier than Manning calling the pizza guy "papa," though. Why does the guy on the plane say he wishes Jennings was sitting on his lap? I've watched that commercial 20 times and it creeps me out every time.
When Peyton Manning is audibling at the line of scrimmage, why doesn't the defense change the play as well? "No, we'll just stay in this same formation even though you're calling a play to exploit this defense."
When the Cardinals beat the Patriots, I thought we'd never see a game with such wild swings in win probability within the final minute again this season. Incredibly, the same thing happened with the Cardinals just a few weeks later. With a little over a minute left, the Bills WP was at 95%, as the Cardinals faced fourth and long in their own end. A fourth-down conversion, 61-yard field goal, Bills three-and-out, and Buffalo shanked punt later, the Cardinals were at 90% when Jay Feely lined up for a 38 yard field goal. So the Cardinals went from 5% likely to win to 90%, then to a loss - all within the final 90 seconds of regulation and overtime. As if that wasn't crazy enough, right as Feely's field goal struck the upright, RG3 was sprinting down the left sideline for the clinching touchdown, just as Russell Wilson was hitting Sidney Rice with the winning touchdown. If you don't have channels 702 and 703, shame on you!
My top 12 fantasy RBs ROS: Ray Rice, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, Stevan Ridley, Darren McFadden, Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller.
Here are my Week 7 waiver suggestions:
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals (owned in 77% of Yahoo! leagues): What more do fantasy owners need to see? Dalton has a handful of appealing options in the passing game, led by fantasy's top wideout, A.J. Green. The Bengals defense can't stop anyone, nor can this week's opponent, the Steelers.
Josh Freeman, QB, Bucs (owned in 40% of Yahoo! leagues): Another shootout is coming in New Orleans this week. Hop aboard.
Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns (owned in 12% of Yahoo! leagues): Remember when I buried the Browns passing game after Week 1? Me, neither. It's pinball in Cleveland, baby! Against the Colts, why not?
Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner, RB, Cowboys (owned in 21% and 0% of Yahoo! leagues): The severity of DeMarco Murray's foot injury isn't clear at the moment I'm drafting this. It doesn't look good, though. Felix Jones is suddenly the top waiver claim in many formats. Jones has always been injury-prone, though - think Ryan Mathews and Darren McFadden, only worse - so Phillip Tanner isn't far from a feature role on a good offense.
Vick Ballard, RB, Colts (owned in 40% of Yahoo! leagues): Donald Brown unexpectedly had knee surgery mid-week last week, leaving many fantasy owners scrambling to claim Ballard as a free agent in FCFS waivers. Ballard largely disappointed, however, along with the rest of the Colts in Week 7. Better times may be ahead with the Browns on tap, but Mewelde Moore and Delone Carter serve to limit Ballard's upside. Think RB3 at best.
Daryl Richardson, RB, Rams: Steven Jackson is healthy and playing pretty well, but Richardson has earned a timeshare as a change-of-pace back. Some of the guys on my "stash" list, below, have more upside, but I'd rather own Richardson right now than any running backs on this list not named Felix Jones.
William Powell, RB, Cardinals (owned in 31% of Yahoo! leagues): The Cardinals offensive line sucks - I get it. I also realize Powell's upside is limited against a tough Minnesota defense. But Powell is a starting NFL running back, which is more than several big name backs can say in Week 7. If you're stuck with Michael Turner, Willis McGahee, Jamaal Charles, Reggie Bush, LeSean McCoy, or Ryan Mathews on a bye, and you need a body, don't forget about Powell.
Monterrio Hardesty, RB, Browns (owned in 3% of Yahoo! leagues): The extent of Trent Richardson's rib injury is unclear at the moment. If he's out, Hardesty makes a solid play against a Colts run defense that just got torched by Shonn Greene.
Upside running backs: I've talked about these guys every week, so further elaboration seems unnecessary. Keep stashing Jackie Battle, Kendall Hunter, Mike Goodson, Robert Turbin, David Wilson, Rashad Jennings
Josh Gordon, WR, Browns: One game with big-play touchdowns could arguably be deemed a fluke. A second straight game with a long TD is harder to dismiss. The Browns are getting their own version of pinball going, and Gordon has been at the center of it.
Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, WR, Titans (owned in 67% and 38% of Yahoo! leagues, respectively): The Bills have allowed an NFL-high 10 passing touchdowns to opposing receivers. Even with Matt Hasselbeck under center, that's unlikely to change this week. With the Titans offensive line struggling to open rushing lanes, but a Bills defense that's there for the taking, I can see Britt and Wright both scoring a touchdown this week.
Lance Moore and Devery Henderson, WR, Saints (owned in 75% and 8% of Yahoo! leagues): Moore has scored at least 8 TDs three of the past four years. But he missed Week 5 with a hamstring injury, and the Saints just had their bye, so he's available in a lot of leagues. Henderson filled in admirably in Moore's absence. If Moore plays this week, he should be rostered in most formats. If not, then Henderson is worth a flyer for deeper leagues.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jaguars (owned in 31% of Yahoo! leagues): The Raiders corners are a giveaway, and Blackmon is the best the Jaguars have at receiver. Let's call it a career-best game for the rookie wideout - 5-72-1.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Packers (owned in 90% of Yahoo! leagues): I get the hate, and I'm not going to apologize for Finley. But when a mediocre talent like James Jones has seven touchdowns, I can't help but wonder what Finley can do if he gets his head on straight. Heck, even if he remains an enigma, I can't see Finley on waivers. Too much upside here. Even if you don't want to start him, this is the rare case where I'd stash a backup tight end and see what happens.
Scott Chandler, TE, Bills (owned in 52% of Yahoo! leagues): The Titans are an escort service for opposing tight ends - everyone scores. I'd put Chandler's chances at a touchdown around 65% this week, which isn't bad for a tight end who's unowned in half of fantasy leagues.
Vikings D/ST: I expect a big bounceback from Minnesota at home, and the Cardinals offensive line is there to facilitate it. Jared Allen is licking his chops.
Dead to me:
Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (owned in 93% of Yahoo! leagues): If you want to cut Rivers in shallow leagues with the Chargers going into their bye, I won't argue. Among the QBs I'd rather own: Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, and Andy Dalton. If you keep Rivers, at least he won't throw any interceptions this week.
Bilal Powell, RB, Jets (owned in 10% of Yahoo! leagues): I'm not ready to go upgrading Shonn Greene, but Greene's Week 6 performance undoubtedly gave him a longer leash with the starting job. Powell's injury certainly didn't help Powell's chances of unseating Greene, either. It's safe to cut Powell in most formats.
Robert Meachem, WR, Chargers (owned in 51% of Yahoo! leagues): Sadly, Meachem can't play the Saints every week. Cut bait.
Greg Little, WR, Browns (owned in 34% of Yahoo! leagues): I kind of like the Browns offense, for reasons I've beaten to death through this column. But you can't claim players without cutting someone, and Little's constant drops, coupled with Josh Gordon's emergence, puts Little in the scrap heap.
Ravens and Steelers defenses: I killed these guys in the intro, but let's be fair. There are no dominant defenses nowadays, and the only fantasy defenses I'd hold through a bye week are the Bears and the 49ers. Everyone else is safe to cut for a better matchup.
Facing foreclosure? Visit www.stayinmyhome.com and www.stayinmyhome.com/blog.
Follow me on Twitter, @MarkStopa