Texans, Falcons go from top to basement
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Manny Lawson (91) during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, in Toronto. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Houston Texans' DeAndre Hopkins (10) sits on the bench during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
New England Patriots' LeGarrette Blount (29) celebrates with teammates James Develin (46) and Brandon Bolden (38) after scoring a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Three-quarters of the way to the NFL playoffs, the Texans and Falcons have taken charge — of the chase for the top overall draft pick.
A year ago, they both were 11-1 and thinking Super Bowl.
For anyone who believes pro football is predictable, citing the presence of the Patriots and the absence of the Bills in the postseason each year, a look at the 2012 standings through 12 games is enlightening.
So let’s look.
The Patriots (9-3) have the same record as in ’12, and just as much command of the division. They’re aiming higher: home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they win out and Denver slips, they’ll get it, even with a banged-up team and more weaknesses than usual.
Just as in last December, Miami, the Jets and Buffalo don’t have winning records. The Bills will miss the playoffs for a 14th straight season, almost unimaginable in league where year-to-year turnover in the standings is the norm.
The Ravens (6-6) were 9-3 and two games up, but about to hit a slump they obviously overcame to win the division and, eventually, the Super Bowl. Cincinnati was tied with Pittsburgh, two games in arrears, but now the Bengals are 8-4 and with a shot at a first-round bye if they can sweep their final four games. The Steelers are 5-7 and struggling to stay relevant, something they couldn’t do down the stretch in 2012.
Cleveland is 4-8 again. With QB issues again.
Here’s where things get a bit absurd. The Texans were 11-1, had clinched a playoff berth and were headed for the AFC’s best record. Then they got routed at New England, won only once more and wound up in the wild-card round.
They can only wish for a similar position now. Instead, the Texans (2-10) have dropped a franchise-record 10 straight games, saw their coach suffer a mini-stroke at halftime of a loss and lost star running back Arian Foster to a back injury.
Indianapolis, 8-4 again, has a three-game lead over Tennessee (5-7), which has actually improved by one win from last year. The Colts can clinch the division this weekend.
Jacksonville (3-9) lost its first eight games this year. It was 2-10 last year in Mike Mularkey’s lone season as coach.
Denver owned the division at 9-3 and was in the midst of an 11-game winning streak to close the season. The offense wasn’t nearly as prolific, 464 points to 349 a year ago, but the defense was far better.
Speaking of far better, the Chiefs have gone from 2-10 to 9-3. Yes, they’ve lost three in a row, but can anyone in Kansas City really complain after the distressing, even tragic 2012 campaign?
Just like last year, San Diego and Oakland are also-rans.
Washington, already eliminated from playoff contention this year, was 6-6, headed to 10 wins and the division crown. The Giants had the lead at 7-5, opposite of their current record, and were in the middle of a fade out of the postseason picture.
Dallas and Philadelphia are tied for the lead at 7-5, a Texas showdown looming on the final day of the schedule. That’s pretty heady for the Eagles, who were 3-9 on the way to 4-12 and seeing coach Andy Reid’s 14-season tenure end.
Detroit (7-5) has a one-game lead on Chicago in what has been a mediocre division. Every team except the Lions, who were 4-8 at this point in 2012, has gotten worse this season.
Injuries have taken a huge toll on the Bears (6-6) and Packers (5-6-1), who were tied atop the North at 8-4 last year. Both lost their starting quarterbacks, with Aaron Rodgers’ absence in Green Bay perhaps the most devastating loss in the entire league.
Minnesota (3-8-1) is playing out the string instead of surging to the playoffs behind Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yards rushing in an MVP season.
No division has seen more flux. Atlanta, ravaged by injuries, with a lack of blocking on offense and little pass rush on defense, already had won this group in 2012. The first team eliminated from contention in the NFC, the Falcons made star tight end Tony Gonzalez’s decision to play one more season a waste.
The Saints were 5-7 with coach Sean Payton suspended for the bounty scandal, and now are in the division lead. Carolina, which was 3-9 at the beginning of last December, is 9-3, has won eight in a row, and looks formidable for the stretch run.
Tampa (3-9) had twice as many wins a year ago, and a lot less turmoil.
All Seattle, which has become even stingier on defense and has a solid lead on San Francisco. The Niners controlled the division at 8-3-1 last year, but already have four losses in 2013 and must play the Seahawks on Sunday.
Arizona, under new coach Bruce Arians — the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year in an interim role in Indianapolis — has gone from 4-8 to 7-5 and in the playoff mix. St. Louis (5-7 after 5-6-1 last year) has been a tough out even minus starting QB Sam Bradford.