When, one month ago, we last checked in with our teams—the Chicago Bears, the New England Patriots, and the New York Giants—all seemed headed in different directions. Today, they still are—although we can say this for our three teams: and then there were two.
Earlier in the year, the Bears had impressed by combining their typically stout defense and stellar special teams with a dynamic season from running back Matt Forte and a potentially career-making one from mercurial, moody, occasionally brilliant quarterback Jay Cutler. But Cutler had a season-ending injury after Chicago’s victory over the San Diego Chargers; Forte followed a week later. (Rookie Jewish tackle Gabe Carimi’s season ended even earlier than theirs.) The Bears’ record with Cutler? 7-3. Without him? 1-5. That 8-8 final record was good only for third in the competitive National Football Conference North—the Green Bay Packers finished 15-1 and as the presumptive favorites to repeat their championship, while the Detroit Lions made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 as the second wild card. No playoffs for Chicago.
Next year, Cutler should be back, and there’s no reason to suspect he won’t be as strong as ever. Forte, however, may start to approach the end of running backs’ notorious shelf life, and ace return man Devin Hester isn’t getting any younger, either. The offense will also be without coordinator Mike Martz, who was fired this week. And this is not even to mention the defense that brought this franchise to a Super Bowl only a few years ago: its anchor, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, will be 34 next season. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect the Packers and the Lions won’t be at least as good again. Things may only be going downhill for Chicago.
One month ago, meanwhile, the Pats were in the midst of a 9-3 record and four-game win streak. Well, the streak is now eight games long, and their final record of 13-3 was good for the American Football Conference East crown and top AFC playoff seed (which means their second round game and, if they win that, conference championship game are guaranteed to be at home).
Tom Brady has been his typical brilliant self: 5,235 yards (second-most all-time, trailing only the tally put up this year by the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees), and 39 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski has been the real revelation: 90 catches, which averaged nearly 15 yards apiece, and 17 touchdowns—a record for tight ends. But the defense remains extremely problematic. It’s not quite the worst in the league, which is where it ranks in yards given up (in the more relevant points given up category, it’s somewhere toward the middle). But their secondary is Swiss cheese, and teams with good quarterbacks have been able to exploit it. The good news for the Pats is that most teams this year are built either just like them—the high-scoring, shoot-out-loving Packers and Saints—or have strong defenses coupled with fairly mediocre offenses (each conference’s two-seed, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens). If I’m the Pats, I’m most afraid of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who probably most completely combine a stingy defense (albeit one that has been poor at generating turnovers) with a speedy, potentially explosive offense. Come to think of it, the Steelers were one of only three teams that beat the Pats this year. And—come to think of it again—if on Sunday the Houston Texans win their first ever playoff game, as expected, and the Steelers defeat Tim Tebow’s woefully outmatched Denver Broncos, then the following Sunday the Pats will host … Pittsburgh.
And finally, the New York Giants. Last time, they were coming off a heart-breaking and quite impressive 38-35 home loss against the then-undefeated Packers. Since then, they have gone 3-1, including two wins over their division rival, the Dallas Cowboys, the second of which, last Sunday night, was a win-or-go-home game for both teams. The Cowboys are home; the Giants are in the playoffs. (The Giants’ only loss in that stretch was a strange dominance in New Jersey at the hands of the Washington Redskins; yours truly was in attendance and duly giddy.)
So the Giants enter the playoffs the NFC East winner, with a 9-7 record and a hugely unpredictable streak. You can predict this: they will be able to dominate other teams on passing downs with simply a four-man rush and allow them to drop plenty of defensive backs into coverage, and that this will be necessary because their defensive backs are terrible; and that they will be able to generate big plays on offense with Eli Manning throwing to Hakeem Nicks and rookie stand-out Victor Cruz, and that this will be necessary because they are nearly dead-last in the league at running the ball. Comparisons to the 2007 Giants, which snuck into the playoffs as a wild card on a losing streak and went on to beat the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl, feel a bit off: this team’s stellar pass rush does not match up to that team’s historic one. But they are favored to get by their first-round opponents, the Atlanta Falcons, whom they play on Sunday. So that’s something.
Final record: 30-18