Each week, Falcons Vice President of Football Communications Reggie Roberts will sit down with an expert and talk about the Falcons, as well as what's going on in the rest of the league. This week's expert guest is NFL Network insider Albert Breer.
Reggie Roberts: There are five teams in the AFC that have five wins. In order, give us your take on who you think the top five AFC teams are, and give us a sentence or two on each team.
Albert Breer:** I think those five — the Jets, Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Titans — are different from their AFC brethren, for now, because the variety of ways in which they can win games. Could the Colts, Texans, and Dolphins join them? Sure, but those five (again, for now) have distinguished themselves from the other 11 AFC teams. Here's how:
Steelers: You have to think they'll continue to improve as Ben Roethlisberger gets more comfortable and, in the meantime, they've found their replacement for Santonio Holmes in Mike Wallace. Losing Aaron Smith is tough, but if you trust their draft record — and you should, based on history — Ziggy Hood should emerge to mitigate the loss.
Ravens: I know they've lost twice, and the Patriots and Jets haven't, but this team's defense figures to ascend with Ed Reed back in there, and they've made it this far without a lot of big plays on that side of the ball. And the passing game will get a boost with Donte' Stallworth back after the bye.
Jets: These teams are tight with one another, and New York's standing in third is proof positive. If Darrelle Revis and Holmes can get to playing like they did in 2009, look out. Mark Sanchez remains the wild card in this equation.
Patriots: Because of the youth on the defense, there figures to be a lot of ups-and-downs the rest of the way, but the schedule looks less daunting than it did at the beginning of the year, and for the first time in a while, the roster looks like it's filled with ascending players. Plus, even in those tough spots, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady serve as equalizers.
Titans: Tennessee is now 13-4 since last year's 0-6 start, and this group is taking on a vintage Jeff Fisher look. The most overlooked team in this group, by far, and one that can be dangerous in the playoffs because of a grinding running game and big-play defense.
RR: Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris on Sunday said his team is the best team in the NFC, following Tampa Bay's 18-17 win over St. Louis. Do you think he's right?
AB: No, I don't. The Buccaneers have most certainly benefited from a bit of a soft schedule. But that said, Morris and GM Mark Dominik certainly appear to have that program pointed in the right direction, and that goes far beyond the team's win-loss record. Those two guys committed to tearing down an aging, past-its-prime roster, and rebuilding it completely, and the patient, calculated approach — which forced some early lumps to be taken — has given birth to a talented, young foundation.
Twenty-somethings like Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Mike Williams, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib are the cornerstones, and this team already looks like one that's solid with players emerging on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. I'd think inconsistency as a result of that youth will wind up wearing the 2010 team down, but Tampa Bay figures to a force to be reckoned with going forward.
RR: Record-wise, the NFC South-leading Falcons are the one of two NFC teams with five wins (New York Giants). Can the Falcons get hot and run away with the division?
AB: I don't think the Saints are going away, but yes, the Falcons have the experience now to battle through what lies ahead. A lot is on that group of third-year guys to lead, when adversity strikes as it usually does, but I think the way those players handled the end of the 2009 season, after being eliminated, is an example of how they'll deal with that. I think Sunday's win says something to that, too — blowing a lead and being able to take the opponent's best shot, and still coming out with a win.
RR: The Pittsburgh Steelers are arguably one of the top teams in the NFL because of their ability to play offense and defense. Are the Steelers the most balanced team in the NFL?
AB: I'd say yes, with their rivals in the AFC North from Baltimore the one team that could buck that thought. And the primary reason why is that I can look at the 2008 Pittsburgh team and say that this team is actually better than that one in a couple areas. First, with Rashard Mendenhall on board, the running game has improved. Secondly, with Maurkice Pouncey added to the mix, and even with Willie Colon out for the year, the offensive line might be up a little, too. That's not to say they're as good as the 2008 club was. The defense isn't as dominant, not yet, and we still have to see more from Roethlisberger. But this edition might actually have fewer holes.
RR: Let's go back to the Falcons. WR Roddy White had a terrific game with 201 yards receiving and two scores on Sunday against the Bengals. How good is White and can he contend for league MVP honors?
AB: Very good, and no. I think White is really starting to develop with Matt Ryan what Marvin Harrison had with Peyton Manning earlier in his career, and he's becoming the kind of complete receiver that's very difficult to game plan for. He's a top 10 guy now at his position, and is creeping into the top 5. But a receiver needs to be beyond dominant to even enter the discussion for league MVP honors, and credit for the production of the Falcons' offense is going to be spread around. No receiver has won AP NFL MVP in the 53-year history of the award and, with a balanced attack that also features Michael Jenkins, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, along with Ryan himself, don't count on White being the first.
RR: There is a serious revival in Kansas City with Coach Todd Haley's Chiefs. Are you at all surprised at how well the Chiefs are playing?
AB: I expected them to be disciplined and opportunistic, and I thought because of that, they would be this year's surprise team in the AFC — so maybe I got one right here. What I didn't expect was the signature win over San Diego to open the season, or the containing of Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, so I think this club is now a lot like Tampa Bay in that they seem to be ahead of schedule. Similar to the Bucs, the future looks bright, and they have a bushel of young players like Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, Tyson Jackson, Glenn Dorsey, Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry to be excited over. I think perhaps the best thing, though, for the Chiefs has been how Matt Cassel seems to have come around the last couple weeks. I'm starting to think they outlast San Diego — who I expect to come on late again — in the AFC West.
RR: Which teams are struggling right now, but have the players and the coaching staff to right the ship in time to make the playoffs?
AB: As I said above, give me the Chargers in the AFC. I believe that offense is going to be dynamic if it can ever get healthy, and if Vincent Jackson gets back on the field, and the reason why is because: a) Philip Rivers is a bona fide elite quarterback; and b) Ryan Mathews should mature. The defense there has been surprisingly stout under Ron Rivera, and the special teams just have to get better, plus San Diego's been here before.
In the NFC, I'll take the Saints over the Vikings and Cowboys. One reason why is that they're relatively healthy. And another is that the offense has been the problem, and you have to think that'll get fixed, particularly with Reggie Bush coming back soon.