Reggie Roberts: Let's start with the Chicago Bears, who might be the most complete team in the National Football League after their 51-20 win over the Tennessee Titans. Are the Bears at 7-1 the best team in football?
Jeff Duncan: The Bears have been undoubtedly been impressive so far. Twenty-eight takeaways in eight games is ridiculous. They are beating teams handily, which is what a good team does. And the additions of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Michael Bush have drastically improved the offense. But their schedule has been rather cushy. The only real top team they played, the Packers, beat them soundly. So, I'm still in wait-and-see mode with Chicago.
RR: Another team that's playing pretty well this season is the Saints' opponent on Sunday – the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are a steady team that's won games in numerous ways this season. How good are the Falcons? JD:The Falcons finally seem to have put it all together. They've won a lot of close games but I see that as a good sign. They are finding ways to win, even when they haven't played their best or seen the breaks go their way. That's the sign of maturity. I like what Dirk Koetter has done with this offense. He's taken the handcuffs off Matt Ryan and putting more decisions on his shoulders. The results speak for themselves. Ryan is having his most efficient season by far. The Falcons are utilizing their big-play perimeter threats and realizing the vision Thomas Dimitroff had when he made the bold trade to draft Julio Jones two years ago. The defense remains something of a question mark, but it reminds me of the Saints' unit of 2009. They weren't dominant in any way but they were opportunistic and played well in critical situations – red-zone, goal line, etc. – were good enough to win a title.
RR: Give us your take on Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh's Steelers, who flew up to the Meadowland on the day of the game and came away with a 24-20 win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Are the Steelers a team that will have to be reckoned with as the second half of the NFL season unfolds? JD:The Steelers have re-made themselves offensively. They are now a passing team. They ride Ben Roethlisberger's big arm first and use the ground game to complement the passing attack. It's quite a diversion from the run-heavy teams we've come to know in Pittsburgh. I like the job Todd Haley has done with the offense. And the defense remains as strong as ever. That win in New York against the Giants was impressive. Like the Broncos, their second-half schedule is relatively easy so I expect them to be in the hunt the rest of the way.
RR: Let's switch back to the Falcons and Saints. What kind of game do you expect on Sunday between these two bitter NFC South rivals?
JD: The Saints' win on Monday injected some much needed confidence in the team. They played with swagger for the first time this season. And the defense found the perfect tonic in the reeling, mistake-prone Eagles. However, Atlanta is much sounder in all phases of the game and the Saints defense will have to play its best game this season to give New Orleans a chance. Make no mistake, the Superdome will be amped for this one. Atlanta will be tested. If the Falcons can handle the noise and atmosphere and avoid mistakes, they should be able to move the ball at will against the Saints defense and get a win. But it won't be easy.
RR: Are you at all surprised that Tampa Bay – under new head coach Greg Schiano – now sits at 4-4 at the halfway mark of the season?
JD: I'm a big Schiano fan. The coaching job he did at Rutgers was impressive. He turned around the culture and perception of a perennially irrelevant program. That's very difficult to do in this day and age. And he's made an immediate impact on a Buccaneers team that was in dire need of leadership, discipline and direction. The Bucs still have some major questions on defense, especially in the secondary, but they have shown they can move the ball and score on anyone. Doug Martin is difference-maker in the backfield and gives them the perfect complement to Josh Freeman and the passing attack. There's a lot of good, young talent in Tampa. I like the direction they're headed in.
RR: The class of the AFC seems to be the Houston Texans, who are 7-1 at the halfway point. How good are the Texans?
JD: The Texans might be the most balanced team in football. They really have no major weaknesses. They're ranked in the top half of the league in run defense, pass defense, pass offense and run offense. That's hard to deny. They run the ball as well as anyone in the league behind their excellent offensive line. And defensively, they have done an excellent job in the past few drafts of adding playmakers. I also think they're hungry. They've had some bad luck with injuries in the past and appear to be a team on a mission. If they can secure home-field advantage in the playoffs, they'll be tough to beat because their fans are understandably yearning for a deep postseason run.
RR: And finally, are the Saints good enough to turn around their slow start and contend for an NFC playoff spot?
JD: They are talented enough, for sure. But they've dug themselves a huge hole when they started 0-4. The second half schedule is formidable. The defense simply has too many issues for the club to string together enough wins to nail down a wild-card spot. The NFC is a bear. The Falcons, Bears, 49ers, Packers and Giants look like shoo-ins for playoff spots. That leaves one remaining wild-card spot. The Saints could conceivably get back in the picture but I just don't think they can expect to go better than 6-2 down the stretch and that puts them at 9-7. Not sure that's going to be good enough to get in.