A game I remember from when I was a kid was “Snakes & Ladders” or “Shutes & Ladders”. The concept of the game is simple enough. Get from the start to the finish the fastest. Land on the bottom end of a ladder and climb to the top. Land on the head of a snake and slide down. In the NFL it seems as though sometimes teams are primed to do well, just about to take the next step and then hit the head of the snake, only to be stunted back to the bottom to begin all over. Other times a team shouldn’t be doing well at all, gets lucky by landing on a ladder and all of a sudden they are out in front. Let’s break down a few teams from each division that are not where we’d expect them to be and look at what their snake or ladder has been this season.
Snake – New York Jets (2-9)
Ladder – Buffalo Bills (6-5)
It’s not that anyone expected the Jets to be good this year, it’s more that we didn’t expect them to be this bad. Geno Smith has hit the pine and Michael Vick is up and down more often than an elevator. On the flip side Buffalo wasn’t supposed to be in the playoff hunt at this point. Buffalo really wasn’t supposed to be in the hunt when EJ Manuel got benched and the Bills grabbed Kyle Orton off the scrap heap. The Bills are a good roll of the dice away from making it to that next level, and the Jets are starting from scratch when Rex Ryan is fired.
Snake – Oakland Raiders (1-10)
Ladder – San Diego Chargers (7–4)
Much like the Jets no one had high hopes for the Raiders this year. I had the Raiders finishing about 4–12. Statistically even that very low bar seems too high for the Faiders (not a spelling mistake). In contrast the Chargers had a ton of question marks coming into the season. They also get to play the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs twice, which didn’t bode well for a winning record. They’ve found a way to win and are in the thick of the playoff battle. The healthier this team gets the more ladder squares will come their way.
Snake – Tennessee Titans (2-9)
Ladder – Houston Texans (5-6)
The Jacksonville Jaguars are 1-9, so why aren’t they the snake? Well it’s sort of like that team said “I have something else to do right now, just skip my turn until I get back”. I expect the team back sometime around 2020. The Titans had a game plan this year, they had expectations, and they had goals. The new coaches were supposed to improve things, not make them worse. The Titans should resign themselves to a good draft pick and to looking to next year at this point. The Houston Texans were the worst team in the league last year. They still have some questions at quarterback, and a few key guys did have injuries this year, and even with all that, the team is not that bad. Next year could be a big leap forward, to the point where I expect them to compete with the Indianapolis Colts for the division title. They have to find the things to build on from this year and forget the rest.
Snake – No one
Ladder – Cleveland Browns (7-4)
Every team in the AFC North has seven wins. The Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens were supposed to have this sort of success. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a bit of a shock, but if you find me someone that legitimately thought that behind Brian Hoyer the Browns were going to be where they are now, I’ll call you a liar to your face. This isn’t so much skill as it is luck, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. You don’t always have to be good to win, and the Browns are proving that this season.
Snake – New York Giants (3-8)
Ladder – Dallas Cowboys (8-3)
The Washington Redskins have two wins so far, but they suck. The New York Giants had some hopes of challenging the Philadelphia Eagles for the division this season. Instead they are challenging the Raiders and Jaguars for the first overall draft pick. A lot of people thought the Dallas Cowboys would be in that boat, as they were expected to have the worst defense in NFL history. The Cowboys hit a ladder that is built on an amazing run game and an underappreciated defense. Two wins against the division leading Eagles would all but seal up a playoff spot.
Snake – Seattle Seahawks (7-4)
Ladder – Arizona Cardinals (9-2)
The Seahawks were the only snake with a winning record. It’s really because people expected this division to be wrapped up at this point. The returning Super Bowl champs were supposed to run roughshod over many of the teams that beat them (especially after beating the Broncos again). Instead they are mired in a battle for a wildcard spot. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Taking up the rarefied air are the Cardinals. It doesn’t seem to matter who is playing quarterback the Cardinals keep winning because of their defense. Amazingly that was the Seahawks formula from last year.
Snake – Carolina Panthers (3-7-1)
Ladder – No one
Everyone in the NFC South has loosing records. No one has more than four wins. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were supposed to be bad, the Atlanta Falcons were coming off a poor season, and even the New Orleans Saints had some question marks. The Panthers were supposed to easily take this division. They were the defending champion and they had a great defense. Then it all fell apart. To put this into perspective, if the Pathers were even 6-5 they would have a two-game lead over everyone else in the NFC South. It’s just sad really.
Snake – Chicago Bears (5-6)
Ladder – Detroit Lions (7-4)
The Minnesota Vikings presented a revolving door at quarterback. The sad fact is an actual revolving door may have done better than the guys that have been in and out of the lineup. A lot of that had to do with the loss of Adrian Peterson to a legal battle that he’s now fighting with the league. The Bears started the preseason looking red hot. The offense was scary good and the defense seemed as though it could hold teams well enough to win games. A 5-6 record isn’t all the way back to the start, but given the state of the playoffs as they stand it may as well have been. Barring the team running the table the Bears are going to be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their homes this January. The Lions did not look as good, but have had a great passing attack since Megatron (Calvin Johnson) came on the scene. Now the team has a great defense to go along with that offense, and they are firmly in the playoff picture.