10 Takeaways: NFL lacking a middle class

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7), right, dives to score a touchdown against Jacksonville. (Sang Tan/AP)

So much for parity this year.

The first half of the season has displayed a giant gap between the haves and have-nots around the National Football League. Even at the halfway mark, you can already handpick nine of the 12 playoff teams.

In the AFC, Denver, New England, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Indianapolis have all but locked up playoff spots. And in the NFC the same can be said about Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay.

The NFL is supposed to be built around playoff races and division battles, but right now the gap between good and bad is sizable and there’s an obvious lack of a middle class. A lot has to do with the difference in quarterback play (take Minnesota and Jacksonville, for example), but it’s been startling to see the quality teams separate so quickly into the season.

Legend of Stafford grows

Matt Stafford’s offensive linemen had no idea what was coming with the clock running out for the Detroit Lions. Like everyone at Ford Field, they thought he was going to spike the ball. But Stafford made the gutsiest call of his career and ran the game-winning play on last-second instinct. Dallas had no clue Stafford was going to leap into the end zone. They were completely caught off guard and Stafford may have saved the Lions’ season in the process. The Lions desperately needed a win to keep pace with the Green Bay Packers, and Stafford’s heroics in driving down the field with no timeouts put the Lions back in the playoff race once again. It’s the kind of game Lions fans will remember for years.

Vikings’ problems go beyond the quarterback

It’s easy to blame the quarterback, whether it’s been Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel or Josh Freeman, for Minnesota’s disastrous start to the season, but the team’s issues go much deeper than that. The defence has become a problem as the personnel has drastically declined at all three levels. It was apparent Sunday when the Packers were running all over them. A few seasons ago, the Vikings used to be an impossible group to run against, thanks to a dominant group of defensive tackles. But the Williams Wall is gone and they’ve struggled to find adequate replacements at defensive tackle, cornerback and safety. The Vikes have too many holes on the roster and it’s showing every week. Leslie Frazier won’t be back next season.

What’s happened to Chip Kelly’s offence?

Maybe Andy Reid wasn’t the problem after all. When Chip Kelly’s offence was taking the NFL by storm earlier in the year, Philadelphia was an unstoppable force with DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy lighting up the scoreboards. But times have quickly changed as the quarterback play has faltered. The Eagles have become so putrid that they were unable to muster a single offensive touchdown at home — even against the lowly Giants. It’s hard to fathom this is the same team that lit up the Redskins in the season opener. But right now, Michael Vick is lost, which is a good way to describe the Eagles’ quarterback situation. Rookie Matt Barkley isn’t ready yet and the Eagles will continue to fade if they don’t fix this mess at quarterback.

Patriots need to give Ridley more touches

Bill Belichick has made a career of being a master motivator so it’s hard to question him when it comes to managing his players. But it’s becoming more difficult to understand why the Patriots aren’t riding Stevan Ridley at running back. Plodder LeGarrette Blount (11 carries Sunday) brings little to the table and Ridley is a far more decisive and explosive runner. Against Miami, Ridley averaged 5.6 yards per carry and completely sparked New England’s resurgence in the second half (they scored only three points in the first). It’s simply unacceptable to give only 14 carries to Ridley, especially on an offence that’s in desperate need of a boost, considering Tom Brady’s wildly inconsistent play of late.

Josh Gordon trade rumours make no sense

I’ll never understand the Cleveland Browns. There’s no reason to even consider trading receiver Josh Gordon. It could be all speculation but his name continues to pop up in the rumours for a reason. The Browns have no other playmakers at wide receiver and won’t be able to replace Gordon’s production with the compensation they would receive. It’s time to end the madness. The Browns need to keep Gordon and add pieces around him and tight end Jordan Cameron. Yes, Gordon certainly has a checkered past but they have enough holes to worry about on offence. Creating another one (a huge one) would do little (not Greg) to help this flawed group.

Is Steven Jackson washed up?

Running backs generally take steep declines around the age of 30 and that’s exactly what is happening to Steven Jackson in Atlanta. They saw the same thing happen to Michael Turner and it’s been no surprise to see the small impact Jackson has made since joining the team as a free agent. Whether it was a result of his hamstring injury, Jackson couldn’t get anything going with just six yards on 11 carries against Arizona. His speed has completely diminished and he looks far removed from the consistent 1,000-yard rusher from St. Louis. Jackson’s struggles are another reminder why teams should never pay for running backs.

Falcons won’t be back in the playoffs

Speaking of the Atlanta Falcons, their season is over. It’s clear they don’t have enough talent to play through the kind of injuries they’ve suffered this season. Without Julio Jones and Roddy White, there isn’t enough firepower on offence to overcome their 2–5 start. Matt Ryan could barely function against Arizona, with just 4.9 yards per play and a quarterback rating under 50. On defence, the pass rush has been non-existent and Cardinals running back Andre Ellington torched them for 150 yards on the ground. With the ugly loss on Sunday, the Falcons look far removed from the team that was 10 yards away from a Super Bowl appearance last year. Put a fork in the Falcons — they’re done.

Give Thad Lewis some credit

While Drew Brees’ five touchdown passes were the biggest takeaway from Sunday’s win, we couldn’t help but be impressed with the performance of 25-year-old Bills quarterback Thaddeus Lewis. His stat line won’t stand out by any means but the kind of toughness and resilience he displayed was eye opening. Lewis took a beating from the Saints’ pass rushers but he continued to stand in the pocket and compete for his team. The Bills didn’t do enough on either side to overcome a powerhouse such as New Orleans but the loss isn’t on Lewis. He’s proved to be a serviceable player and someone the team can rally around. Hats off to the tough kid.

Dalton proving he’s for real

Andy Dalton was supposed to be the one piece holding back the Cincinnati Bengals from becoming a true AFC contender. All the other pieces were in place. They were a popular pre-season pick but there were many questions about Dalton’s development. But over the past three weeks, Dalton has shown that he belongs amongst the AFC’s elite. Dalton has thrown for over 300 yards and three touchdowns (11 TDs in total) in three consecutive weeks. His dismantling of the Jets defence (325 yards, five TD passes) was the most impressive performance of his career. Dalton sent a message to the rest of the league he can be that big-time playmaker and not just a game manager for the division-leading Bengals.

Appreciating Calvin

Has there ever been a player quite like Calvin Johnson? Reggie Bush called him the greatest receiver ever to play and he may be onto something after he lit up the Cowboys for 329 yards. 329! Whenever someone makes you think twice about Jerry Rice, you know he must be a special kind of player. Johnson is a physical specimen with the best combination of speed, size and athleticism that the league has ever seen. Even more impressive is the humble attitude he brings, especially when compared to hothead Dez Bryant melting down on the opposite sideline. Everyone should appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime player as he continues to make Bush’s claim look pretty damn reasonable.

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